Poesia

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Photo by Rory McNamara

paulr@sfbg.com

Since my Italian is limited to a few cuss words plus "prego," I was not able to follow the ins and outs of the Italian film being shown, Foreign Cinema–style, on the rear wall of Poesia, a lovely restaurant opened by Francesco D'Ippolito in March in one of the Castro's most haunted locales. The movie looked like a close relation of The Dick Van Dyke Show, to judge by the costuming and black-and-white cinematography, and it lacked both sound and subtitles — not necessarily a huge loss for Anglophone diners who prefer to keep their attention trained on their dinners and on one another, instead of on the movie's progress and whether or not the actors are swearing in Italian.

The movies at Foreign Cinema generally include subtitles and are not limited to Italian provenance. In these respects, Poesia is a not-quite-direct descendant of that highly successful, highly atmospheric Mission District restaurant. Nonetheless, the new place's ancestry is plain. It's also welcome, and I speak as someone who resists the multimedia antics that make too many restaurants too stimuutf8g to be pleasant these days. Poesia's second-story digs, across the street from the venerable Midnight Sun, have recently been home to Ararat and La Mooné, a pair of worthy ventures that seemed to get lost in the Castro shuffle. This can happen when people can't easily find you. A staircase is a slim sidewalk presence for any restaurant. So, sweeten the deal with a movie! Screen it, and they will come.

And if they come hungry, all the better. Poesia's food is rich in friendly elegance and would be worth seeking out even without a cinematic enticement. It also reminds us that classic Italian cooking doesn't (on the one hand) need tinkering with but (on the other) does accept flourishes, even California-style ones, without losing its essential honesty. I particularly liked the glasslike slivers of flash-fried green garlic that served as a bed for a trio of arancini ($6), risotto fritters aromatic with a stuffing of smoked mozzarella cheese. Once the arancini were gone, it was as if we'd been transported to the scene of an auto break-in, with shards of translucent green all over the place. The arancini themselves were sensually, addictively creamy, though short-lived. But we found ourselves nibbling at the green garlic as a satisfying coda.

Fennel root (finocchio) has been a player in Roman Jewish cooking for two millennia, and it clearly matters to Poesia's kitchen too, at least at this time of year, the crest of the season of roots. The bulbs turned up quartered, breaded, and lightly fried ($7) as an appetizer — a kind of frito misto without the misto — and, shredded, in a salad ($7.50) tossed with arugula leaves and mandarin-orange sections and dressed with a blood-orange vinaigrette. Fennel root is often mentioned as an interesting substitution for celery, but these two dishes, whether considered separately or juxtaposed, suggest that it's far more than a stand-in for a simple staple.

If not finocchio, then radicchio — the claret and white chicory leaves with the bitter edge — which turned up as a bed for a sophisticated seafood salad ($14). The seafood consisted of peeled shrimp, sea scallops, squid, clams, and mussels, simmered in a marinara sauce and laid atop the radicchio, whose leaves had been softened and made less sharp by braising. And since finocchio and radicchio need not be mutually exclusive, the plate (a long and narrow rectangle like a sushi platter) was finished with a salad of intertwined carrot and fennel-root ribbons at the far end.

Veal is among the most ethically problematic of meats — the calves it's obtained from are largely a consequence of the none-too-pretty dairy industry (only pregnant cows lactate) — but it's also mild-flavored and sublimely tender and buttery if handled with care.

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