I was lucky enough to be invited to Locanda's friends and family dinner last Saturday night. It's always exciting and nerve-racking to watch a restaurant get ready to launch (for those of you who can't wait, Locanda opens this Saturday)—especially in this day and age where "soft openings" really aren't possible. Between the Yelpers gunning for “first-to-review” status and the bloggers trying to one-up each other, you’ve got about T-minus no minutes from opening to a barrage of online critiques. There's no landing pad, only hard ground.
Especially if you’re a restaurant as high-profile as Locanda, the new Roman restaurant from Craig and Annie Stoll of Delfina. It’s important to remember that restaurants are one of the few living and breathing things that get critical reviews (a theater production might be the only other thing I can think of). I'm just as guilty as the next person of judging my dining experience on one, or even two, visits. Which is why friends and family dinners come with homework. Locanda asked our table to fill out our thoughts on everything from the service, to the décor, to the flow to, of course, the food.
But I didn’t have much to criticize, barring a lagging cocktail. (They've got a full cocktail program and are open until 1 am—watch out Beretta.) It’s clear that Locanda is being opened by pros. The Stolls are nothing if not seasoned at this point. The space itself, designed by Envelope Architecture + Design is unpretentious, yet easy on the eyes and in style with Delfina’s look. White Heath tile walls echo the pizzerias. The ceiling, which is essentially made up of boxes of different shapes, gives you something to look up at. Dark-wood bistro chairs keep it casual. The front of the restaurant is light-filled, with a communal table and a long bar. The back room—a bit more cloistered and accented with midcentury-style chandeliers made of brown globes of glass—gets a view of the open kitchen and wood-fired grill. I felt for the cooks—particularly chef Anthony Strong who didn't need anything more to sweat about. That fire throws off some serious heat.
The menu, which they were still working out, is for carb lovers. It’s pastacentric with about 10 selections, all traditionally minimalist. As a sick little Easter celebration, we got a bowl of the rabbit sugo with dandelion greens and verjus and wolfed it down with gusto. The carbonara was made with housemade casarecce (a scroll pasta from Southern Italy with perfect little pockets to hold sauce), with guanciale, egg, Pecorino and black pepper. (Check out the video on Locanda's blog that's been tracking their opening; it shows the Locanda pasta extruder in action, pushing out the casarecce.) Dinner started with olive-oil laden pizza Bianca—which I remember fondly from a trip long ago to the famous Forno Campo De' Fiori in Rome. It's kind of like a crisp foccacia. We tried a delicious ode-to-spring version topped with fava bean puree, lardo and a little basil.
In the middle of the menu is a Quinto Quarto section—which celebrates a neighborhood in Rome historically lined with butcher shops. This is where you go if you’re into the bits: nervetti (tendon) with salsa verde and Gaeta olives, tripe with tomato, mint and Pecorino or the cocao-tinged oxtail stew that we enjoyed.
The guys that were standing in front of the fire weren’t sweating without good reason though. The grilled section of the menu included local halibut collar—something I always gravitate towards at Japanese restaurants, but I’ve never seen anywhere else—as well as bavette steak and a duo of lamb chops, which is what we ordered. The chops were literally placed in the fire and come to the table smoky and rare (but not too rare, my pet peeve). I would have eaten them both happily in pure cavewoman-style, but unfortunately I have a husband and I had to share. A side of sweet braised baby carrots with halved grapes and coriander came with the chops—a combination of ingredients that I would never have thought of and are now on my next dinner party menu.
Interestingly, there’s not one farm name-drop on the whole menu. Not even a little fine print that says the usual "all of our ingredients are local, sustainable and organic." Which means that Craig Stoll’s reputation precedes him at this point. He's not the only one though. I remember when Delfina opened, it had a little thing on the little menu that said something to the effect of “Don’t fear your food.” Twelve years later—and a whole section of offal on the menu—it’s clear that the reputation of San Francisco's diners precedes them too.
Locanda, 557 Valencia St. @ 16th St., 415-863-6800. Open until 1 am, Monday–Sunday.