It was so hard to get reservations at Che Fico when it first opened that I didn’t even try. “They’re booking like a month in advance,” one friend told me. “I tried walking in and there was a three hour wait,” said another.
So I waited. And waited. But Che Fico was a gastronomic juggernaut that, even as the restaurant approached the end of its second year, could only be slowed by some kind of earth-shattering, global disaster. I think we all know what happened next.
Now, after being shuttered for two years, the Italian restaurant darling has finally re-emerged from its chrysalis, a more mature, more confident version of its pre-pandemic self.
With costs rising fast, “right now, a lot of people are making a beeline for the bottom,” says David Nayfeld, Che Fico’s executive chef and co-owner. "At Che Fico, we’ve decided to lean into abundance.”
And how abundant the 2022 Che Fico is, with its red mosaic tiles, walls papered in ripened fruit, and botanicals that drape from the rafters. The skylit second floor restaurant is an industrial farmhouse of earthly delights with a menu that is almost overwhelming in its ample riches—appetizing antipasti, housemade pasta, pizzas, and secondi like lamb loin and whole roasted chicken wood-fired to perfection, and so much wine.
Che Fico's focaccia with whipped mascarpone and Sicilian olive oil.(Audrey Kuhn)
The last time I spoke to David Nayfeld six months into Che Fico’s pandemic-induced closure, he was spending his days helping to prepare meals for vulnerable San Franciscans and lobbying congress to provide more funding for the troubled restaurant industry. But food —his food, Che Fico’s food—was always at the back of his mind.
“It’s hard not to be derivative of other chefs and restaurants. A lot of my food was what I thought food should look like or what I thought food should be,” he explains. “I started to think about what meant something to me.”
By the time they reopened, Nayfeld’s culinary identity had crystallized. He wanted the menu at Che Fico not just to use the best produce and meat in the world, but to treat them with the utmost respect. Keep things simple, intervene as little as possible, and let the ingredients speak for themselves.
Over the course of dinner, they have more than enough to say. I begin at the beginning, with the light-as-air, crispy-on-the-outside focaccia with rich whipped mascarpone and peppery Sicilian olive oil before joyfully bouncing around a menu which highlights dishes from the Jewish-Italian tradition, a nod to Nayfeld’s heritage as the son of Jewish Belarusian refugees.
Carciofi brasati, made with artichoke hearts, breadcrumbs, mint, and whipped ricotta.(Audrey Kuhn)
The carciofi brasati, tender hearts of artichoke from Half Moon Bay’s Iacopi Farms, braised in buttery breadcrumbs and mint, floating on clouds of whipped ricotta, melt in my mouth. The Ora king salmon drizzled with olio verde, a Sicilian oil made from single-varietal Nocellara del Belice olives, and sprinkled in fresh grated horseradish, is oleaginous and robust. The ribbon-like mafaldine is bathed in beautifully balanced GG Farms basil, walnut and pecorino romano pesto and it takes just one bite of the cappelletti, tiny pasta “tarts” filled with ricotta and topped with impossibly meaty morels and nutty fava beans, to declare it my favorite dish of the meal. The whole branzino, stuffed with greens and smoky with wood fire, is wholly memorable.
Opened on a “hope and a prayer” in 2018, the other silver lining the pandemic brought the deliriously successful restaurant was the chance to reinvest in itself and its people. From the moment you walk through the doors, they want everything you see and touch to feel memorable.
Famiglia table(Audrey Kuhn)
There are now comfortable, leather-bottomed chairs worth almost 10 times the originals. There’s new silverware and dishware, new hand-stitched Italian napkins, and new eye-catching water pitchers. Four vintage Murano glass chandeliers now float above the long wood-and-tile famiglia table. The changes are subtle but luxurious, the difference between elegance and camp.
Along with these changes came the decision to charge what the food, and the people preparing and serving it, are worth (hint: a lot more than they were getting pre-pandemic). They’ve raised prices and added a mandatory 10 percent dine-in charge to each table to better support the restaurant’s staff. But they’ve also decreased the number of nightly reservations so that each table can get the better, more consistent service befitting a restaurant of its cost and caliber.
“I hope people feel the spirit of generosity when they are here,” Nayfeld concludes.
// Open 5pm to 10pm Tuesday to Thursday and 5pm to 11pm Friday and Saturday; 838 Divisadero (NoPa), chefico.com.