Adversity is a curious thing. It comes and goes at whim, driven by forces into which we have little insight and over which we have little to no control. But as much as we might feel otherwise, there is a degree of choice in the matter of how we respond to adversity. And it is in that choice that all the difference lies.
The thought crossed my mind on a recent Thursday evening while I was at Delfina, sipping a deliciously bittersweet cocktail called the Sette Fiori and taking in a scene that felt at once excitingly new and wonderfully familiar. The restaurant had opened just a week earlier, emerging from a long, pandemic slumber capped by a 10-month, down-to-the-studs renovation and re-design by the architect Sarah Fucinaro and design firm Roy Hospitality.
The Stolls took the pandemic as an opportunity to revamp their 22-year-old restaurant.(Albert Law)
Among the gifts of the renovation—during which Delfina expanded into the space formerly occupied by its sister pizzeria—is a handsome, tamboured bar where I found myself perched between a young couple making short work of Craig Stoll's beloved grilled calamari, and a gentleman in a cardigan communing quietly with a traditional Ligurian pasta dish of fazzoletti ("little handkerchiefs") tossed with pesto, potatoes and green beans.
There was a vibrant hum in the dining room, which, in spite of its larger footprint, felt as cozy and intimate as ever, partitioned as it is into three discrete but interconnected spaces, one facing the bar; another facing the back wall that now accommodates two spacious booths; and running perpendicular, a long, linear space topped with a graceful, gilded arch that imparts a serene, cloister-like atmosphere. In a nod to the past, and objects of affection, the dining room still sports the original, zinc-topped tables whose deep patina attests to their years of service.
Given the energy of the evening, it was hard to conceive that in the depths of the pandemic, Delfina's future was very much an open question.
"When Covid hit," said owner Annie Stoll, "and we closed Locanda and the downtown pizzeria, we were seriously considering what to do here. We'd been here 22 years. Are we ready to walk away from Delfina, or do we reopen it? And if we reopen, we're going to go all-in." She paused for a moment. "We decided to go all-in. We just felt that the food deserved this space."
Another jewel of the re-design is a handsome, tamboured bar whose cocktails feature an array of artisanal Italian and American amari.(Albert Law)
"Restaurants take a beating and styles change," added chef and co-owner Craig Stoll. "And we didn't want two restaurants in one any more. It just wasn't working out." They kept the pizza ovens, however, moving them to the fore of Delfina's kitchen, allowing them to add a selection of pizzas to the menu while preserving the takeout business that had gotten them and their kitchen crew through the pandemic.
Incidentally, Delfina is doing a brisk trade in frozen food as well. During lockdown, the Stolls rented a U-Haul, trucking Igloo coolers full of frozen pizzas, meatballs, and sauces to a roadside spot in Mill Valley for their loyal guests from Marin. One of those guests suggested they try getting into Woodlands Market, a small grocery chain with stores in Kentfield, Tiburon, and San Francisco. Annie reached out, and by April of last year their pizzas were on the shelves. Investing in a blast freezer, a reefer truck and a full-time driver, they quickly scaled up, broadening their reach to Bi-Rite, Gus's, and several other Bay Area markets, and nationwide via the online food delivery website, Goldbelly.
At the bar, meanwhile, I'd just segued from the Sette Fiori to a Negroni Nostrano—bar director Colin Gallagher's refreshingly light and slightly less booze-forward take on the classic—when my ex-wife materialized, spot on time for our reservation. Drink in tow, we headed to a corner banquette from which we peered into the nearby booths, hung with the Native American artist Cheyenne Randall's ingeniously inked photographs of Julia Child and James Beard. Our server gave us a walkthrough of the dishes so deliciously detailed, one could almost see little holograms of the baked ricotta and assaggi misti, the oxtails stracotto, and a dozen other delicacies.
One notable absence is the roast chicken, a mainstay from Delfina's earliest days. Might it have something to do with the fact that, in 2018, the Stolls bought a place on two-and-a-quarter acres in Sonoma, where in addition to growing a multitude of vegetables, fruits and herbs for the restaurant, they've taken up chicken husbandry, tending a flock that at last count numbered 19? Their eggs appear in the menu's spuntini section, deviled—their yolks whipped with smoked fish, fresh horseradish, garlic and olive oil—and garnished with crisp fried capers, chervil, and a dusting of Aleppo pepper.
In between the lovely, delicately smoky eggs, we munched a classic Roman appetizer—crisp-chewy, bite-sized toasts crowned with pretty whorls of sweet butter and salty-succulent anchovy fillets—and marveled at our first splashes of timorasso, an intriguing white wine from Piedmont which, as it unfurled, revealed notes of beeswax, citrus, and alpine herbs, and a whisper of petrol reminiscent of vintage riesling. It paired nicely with the sformato, a savory Tuscan custard, made in this case with two kinds of winter squash (red kuri and zucca lunga di Napoli), and served with a Parmigiano Reggiano Vacche Rosse fonduta, fresh chestnuts warmed in brown butter, purslane, and a serious dash of Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena, or as Craig puts it, "the real deal consorzio stuff."
After a long pandemic-related closure, Delfina owners Annie and Craig Stoll have revived their beloved Delfina restaurant in San Francisco's Mission District.(Albert Law)
As always, Craig is a constant presence, scrutinizing every dish at the pass and annotating each night's menu in an endless effort to get ever closer to something approaching perfection. In the kitchen, he has an estimable partner in chef de cuisine John Arcudi, a San Mateo native who started nine years ago as a pantry cook at Pizzeria Delfina and who, on this particular evening, already 11 hours into his shift, was somehow looking no worse for the wear.
As intrigued as I was by a pizza called la Venezia (salt cod, potato, panna, tomato, oregano), I went for the gnocchi with Périgord truffles. Salt cod is always in season; truffles are not. The gnocchi themselves, in a yummy Taleggio fonduta, were so petite and wonderfully light they might have floated off the plate were they not pinned down by so many shavings of a most seductively fragrant fungus.
My ex-wife is a creature of habit with a habit for Delfina's spaghetti pomodoro, a dish whose name makes it sound much simpler than it is, and which, when prepared by someone with the requisite understanding, can be truly sublime. Part of the technique involves cooking the spaghetti only partway before introducing them to the sauce, where they finish cooking, thereby becoming infused with flavor. I gave her a forkful of gnocchi and a sliver of truffle, and cadged some spaghetti from her plate, and as we ate, we traded the kind of looks I remember from our days in Venice and Rome and Florence and far less touristic parts of a country where the taste of the most elemental dishes had taken our breath away time after time after time.
// Delfina, 3621 18th Street, San Francisco, delfinasf.com
A next-level affogato corretto.(Albert Law)