First Bite: Ristobar Brings Real Italian Flavors to the Marina
Perbacco, SPQR, A16, Delfina, Cotogna—no corner of San Francisco is without its take on the California-Italian restaurant with expertly sourced local ingredients. Show me a street corner and I can show you a perfectly al dente noodle with a shaving of fresh seasonal asparagus. But the true unadulterated flavors of Italy are hard to come by.
The promise of just this—real, fresh-off-the boat Piemontese flavors—was what wooed me to Ristobar in the Marina over the weekend. About three months ago, owner Gary Rulli brought 25-year-old "rising star" Michele Belotti over from the Michelin-starred Da Guido in Piemonte, and the young chef's housemade Piemontese agnolotti is already garnering itself a reputation.
It was fear of missing out that propelled me into the restaurant, but before even lifting a fork, I felt transported. Renaissance-style murals on the ceiling and upper walls, and an expansive light marble bar conjure the grandiose all-day cafes that stud Italy's major piazzas. It's done in a way that feels right—not hokey. Fresh-baked foccacia, a grassy, peppery Italian olive oil and a wine list chock full of obscure Italian grapes continued to prime our palates for the highly anticipated agnolotti.
We tasted through nearly every pasta on the menu, and for me, Belotti's housemade cavatelli was the winner. Little ridged inch-long noodles wrapped in a pure and simple sauce of tomato, burrata and fragrant basil tasted like the purest form of Italy—without any California twist.
Don't get me wrong. You should not miss the agnolotti. Belotti says the stuffing is his mother's recipe. Her combination of veal, pork, escarole, and grana cheese is wrapped in a delicate, lightly elastic, egg noodle packet the likes of which you'll also find at Italophile Michael Tusk's Quince. There's also a rich fettucine with hen of the woods mushrooms—a new California ingredient for Belotti. Interestingly, the chef shared the fact that many of the Italian ingredients he gets here—cheeses, meats, and dry pastas—are better than what he can get at home because the best is shipped out immediately to high-paying American distributors. Whatever he's serving is taken to the next level when matched with an Italian grape varietal by the head bartender, Celina. (Look for the energetic red-lipped blonde laughing behind the bar.)
Maybe it's her fault the entrees that came after our barrage of noodles are a foggy memory. Save for one appetizer of a perfectly cooked egg over a thin polenta cake ("polenta e uovo"), the pasta courses are where it's at here.
Go sit at the bar, order a few to share, and finish your meal with one of Rulli's famously beautiful desserts. The panna cotta—set just so that it kept jiggling for at least a minute after placed in front of the couple next to us—is probably a great choice. We wrapped things up with Rulli's "viaggo nel ciocolatto," or chocolate voyage, little bonbons filled alternately with amaretto, nocciola and other Italian-style fillings the likes of which you won't find anywhere else in town.