Beretta

Radio Free Valencia
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Photo by Rory McNamara

paulr@sfbg.com

Restaurant archaeologists might not have much occasion to use carbon dating, but we do have the space at 1199 Valencia Street as a window into the past, and therein hangs a tale of the city. A decade ago, the occupant was Radio Valencia, a cheerful boho cafe that served art displays, live music, and ecologically sensitive sandwiches. It was, in its faintly grubby coolness, the epitome of the 1990s Mission District. But it closed around the turn of the millennium, first giving way to a Thai restaurant (J.J. Thai Bistro) and then to the Last Supper Club — a nice place and cool in its way, but not at all grubby, just as Valencia Street itself lost much of its jagged urban edge on the way to being the flâneur-friendly promenade we know today.

The Last Supper Club changed hands in 2005, when the original owners, Joe Jack and A.J. Gilbert, bowed out to Ruggero Gadaldi, whose other concerns include Antica Trattoria and Pesce. There is some evidence Gadaldi didn't like his new restaurant's name, since earlier this spring he gave the place a makeover and a re-christening. It's now called Beretta — a name perhaps too redolent of weaponry for some tastes, but less overripe than the other one — and its interior has been given a slick minimalist treatment. The Last Supper Club's baroque cherubs and fountain are gone, replaced by SoMa-esque black-topped tables, including a large and rather Chaucerian community table in the middle of the dining room, where you might find yourself sitting next to complete strangers with whom you can build some spontaneous social capital.

The menu, meanwhile, is like the love child of SPQR and Pizzeria Delfina. In other words, it hosts a wealth of exquisite small plates — known here by their traditional name, antipasti, since traditionally they're served before the pasta course — along with salads, risotti, and an impressive list of pizzas. There's also (in an echo of Gialina) a main course that changes nightly. But for many — if not most — of the tables (not to mention the community table), a pizza is the main event, to judge by the pizzas that seem to come sailing out of the kitchen like Frisbees.

The antipasti divide into vegetable, fish, and meat sections, the last consisting of such usual cured-flesh suspects as prosciutto, mortadella, and soppressata. The vegetable choices are more varied and seasonal. We practically inhaled a plate of bruschetta ($6) — the correct pronunciation, by the way, is "bru-SKATE-ah," not "bru-SHETT-ah" — slathered with a spring-green puree of fresh fava beans and sprinkled with salty-sharp pecorino cheese. And while quarters of artichoke heart ($6), roasted alla romana, are commonly filled with seasoned bread crumbs, they are less commonly spiked, as they are here, with that dynamic duo of spicy Italian-style sausage, hot pepper and fennel seed.

And a tip of the locavore cap to the Monterey Bay sardines ($7), a set of luxuriously plump and oily fish, grilled and plated "en saör," a Venetian technique that combines slivers of white onion and red bell pepper, a generous splash of extra-virgin olive oil, and an equally generous blast of white vinegar.

If white rice strikes you as a little boring, you'll probably approve of the squid-ink risotto with calamari rings ($13). The briny-sweet flavor is direct, in the best Italian tradition, and the rice grains themselves are cooked nicely al dente — as are the tentacles, for that matter. But it's the color that commands attention: a purplish-black with a sheen of green, like summer thunderheads billowing over the Mississippi. The color is so profound and unusual as to become tastable.

While the pizzas aren't precious, they do reflect a thoughtfulness about ingredients. Even more, they remind us that pizza-baking has its subtleties.

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