Six weeks ago, a slice of North Beach slid quietly into a Union Street storefront, bringing a crowd-pleasing menu studded with simple, hearty Italian food and wine along with it.
Casaro Osteria, the fourth eatery from Calabrian restaurateur Francesco Covucci, combines elements from his three Little Italy establishments: from Barbara Pinseria comes house-made Roman-inspired pastas; from Il Casaro Pizzeria (which also has a Castro location) comes Neapolitan pizza authentic down to its imported Caputo flour and San Marzano tomatoes; and from California Fish Market, what else but seafood, in crudo form.
Like those restaurants, Casaro Osteria is a warm and welcoming place, more oversized family dinner table than high-stakes chef showcase. It’s a chameleon of a spot that will work just as well for couples out for a laid-back date night as it will for parents with picky kids or boisterous groups out for a good time.
Arriving earlier than expected in Cow Hollow on a Saturday afternoon, I get to see Casaro Osteria in the quiet window between lunch and dinner service. The bar, though, is open for business and in minutes I’ve got an adorable moon-eyed ceramic chalice filled to the brim with a White Lotus, an opulent combo of basil, limoncello, vodka, sparkling rose, and raspberry.
The dishware, chalice included, is a sweet bespoke detail that brings a bit of hand-painted color and whimsy to the restaurant’s classic style. A forest green banquet runs the length of the restaurant under cascades of vines in the front lounge and a collage of vintage Italian spirit and food advertisements in the back. The half-moon bar at the entrance, with its polished wood shelving and red-and-white tile, lend the space a mid-century European vibe.
When the clock strikes five, I’m off to the races with the menu, ordering an edible ambassador from each of its four primary sections: antipasti, crudo, pasta, and pizza (they also have a handful of wood-grilled secondi piatti and focaccia paninis).
The crudo di tonno, delicate slices of hamachi tuna drizzled in olive oil, arrives first, the fish fresh as can be. A sucker for fried calamari, I’m thrilled when a massive bowl of the frittura mista is delivered. Lightly battered and perfectly crispy, it could easily be my favorite dish of the night. In the end, it doesn’t even come close.
Casaro Osteria's Neapolitan pizzas are authentic down to their imported caputo flour and San Marzano tomatoes. (Carly Hackbarth)
The pizza and pasta are the real stars at Casaro Osteria. From nine styles of the former—medleys like the diavola made with spicy salami and Calabrian 'nduja and chiles, and the burrata and coppa made with yellow tomato sauce, arugula, and walnut—I choose the boscaiola with mushrooms, shaved truffle, hazelnut, and parmesan wafers. I add an organic egg on top just because I can.
Despite the decadence of the toppings, the pizza, which they fire in a traditional beehive-shaped wood oven, is surprisingly light with a killer crust that is slightly charred and exquisitely chewy. A few days later, eating a far inferior pie from a pizzeria that shall not be named, I remember it wistfully.
Unlike the pizzas which all share the same delicious crust, the kitchen goes above and beyond in the pasta department. In this one little restaurant—a restaurant, I should point out, at which a hearty portion is never more than $24—they hand-make nine, yes, nine different styles of pasta from curlicued fusilli to thick strands of bigoli. I go with the gnocchi quattro formaggi gratinati, an ultra-cheesy mix of gorgonzola, Pecorino Romano, Grana Padano, and fontina bubbling away in a cast iron skillet. I think you can guess how that went (hint, extremely well).
It may be one of the richest meals I’ve had in a while but I’ve heard the cannolis are not to be missed. I heard right. The three finger–sized pastries piped with ricotta, dusted with pistachios, and finished with chocolate chips are excellent: crispy and just the right amount of sweet.
Casaro Osteria isn’t in the business of remaking the Italian menu, they’re just trying to craft really tasty, really legit Italian food that most everyone can afford. What more could you possibly want?
// Open seven days a week from 11:30am to 10pm; 2136 Union St. (Cow Hollow), casaroosteria.com