On one late-winter menu we found crab cakes ($9.75 for a crottin-shaped pair), presented on a bed of shaved fennel and radicchio, with pomegranate seeds scattered around the plate like rubies and squirts of spicy aioli atop the cakes themselves. The same menu yielded strands of fat spaghetti ($11.50) tossed with shelled fava beans, leeks, sun-dried tomatoes, and goat cheese a distinctively NorCal when-seasons-collide moment.
Given the limitless focaccia, which produces a filling effect similar to that of chips and salsa in Mexican restaurants, the first courses are in some danger of superfluousness. Among the best of the lot is the platter of oven-roasted mussels ($9.50), swimming in a buttery shellfish broth perfumed with fennel and garlic. The broth is nicely soppable with the accompanying spears of well-grilled levain (topped with the customary rouille), and when that was gone, we picked up the slack with focaccia.
Only the soups seemed flat: good, but a little slow out of bed in the morning. Lentil ($4.50) did feature shreds of crispy pancetta, but the floating chunks of celery seemed slightly clumsy, like flotsam after some sort of accident. And cream of roasted tomato ($5) was creamy and cheesy! but might have been made more interesting, visually, at least, by an addition as simple as minced parsley.
If the overhead chalkboard listing the day's specials includes the mascarpone brownie ($6), you won't be sorry if you ignore your diet and have it. Brownies sound juvenile, but this one isn't; it's marbled, moist, and just sweet enough, like homemade cake. Whipped cream? Yes, but not too much; same with the hot fudge sauce piped around the edges of the plate. The brownie might not be authentically Italian, but I suspect even a lot of authentic Italians would be open to its charms. *
Lunch: Mon.Fri., 11:30 a.m.2:30 p.m. Dinner: Mon.Sat., 5:3010 p.m.; Sun., 59 p.m.
1434 18th St., SF
Beer and wine