If there is any cuisine that this town identifies itself with right now, it’s Italian. From Flour + Water to Delfina to A16, we love and praise our Italian restaurants like nothing else. As does the media (7x7 also being guilty as charged). These restaurants continually get picked up in the national press such as Washington Post and Travel + Leisure.
But! And I say this with a very bad Italian accent. I think the truth is, we just might just might favor our SF versions of Italian restaurants (of which the above examples definitely are) over the city's restaurants I'm going to venture to say are more Italian-Italian.
I say “Italian-Italian” as in run by Italians, looks Italian. Restaurants not quite hip to SF's modern restaurant sensibility.
In this category, I would place the new Ristobar, owned by Gary Rulli and headed by chef Angelo Auriana from Bergamo Italy who has cooked extensively in his home country and more recently at Valentino Ristorante in LA. When I dined at Ristobar a while back, I had a very nice dinner, but couldn’t help thinking how odd it was to be sitting there in the middle of the Marina in a restaurant with a fresco. Thinking, If only the very nice, very formal Italian sommelier didn’t have a crest on her jacket. Because my food was actually very good, including a puntarelle salad with anchovy dressing that couldn't have been more perfect.
Another example of Italian-Italian is the beloved La Ciccia, the Noe Valley Sardinian restaurant that, despite it’s amazing food and loyal patronage, hasn’t broken the neighborhood restaurant barrier. On Friday of last week, I had one of the best dinners I've had in a while, including their signature, tender braised octopus napped in a robust tomato sauce; a luxurious bowl of pitch-perfect, housemade spaghetti showered with bottarga; seared tuna with olives; and a bowl of long-cooked fresh peas with bacon. It was a dinner worthy of the attention A16 gets. But, although the restaurant is now much more handsome since it's been repainted and touched up a couple years back, La Ciccia is always going to be about the food and the convivial service first.
Point being: We might think that we're a city that's all about the authentic, but the truth is, we're often just as drawn to the scene. Remind yourself of this next time you're booking a table weeks in advance at one of the city's ever-popular Italian restaurants and instead, try out some of the not-so-cool-kids—especially if you're in it for the food first.