The purity and simplicity of a caprese salad, or insalata caprese as it is known in Campania, Italy, where it originated, is hard to outdo. Silky buffalo mozzarella, red tomatoes and fresh basil are drizzled with olive oil and salt. When I eat a quality caprese, I am immediately transported to Italia, eating lunch alongside glimmering water, maybe the canals of Venice or the expanse of Lake Como, the juice of the tomatoes dripping down my chin and a glass of Sangiovese in hand. That this experience could be improved upon is doubtful, but what of variations in a caprese's perfection? A few local San Francisco restaurants have taken its key elements of tomatoes and mozzarella and created something unexpected...
ROCKETFISH'S FARMERS TOMATO SALAD --- Rocketfish, Potrero Hill's newest sushi lounge, also deals in Japanese small plates. In this izakaya spirit, the kitchen serves what seems to be a simple farmers tomato salad ($7). Caprese elements create the base: heirloom tomatoes and buffalo mozzarella. But it takes on a whole new dimension sprinkled with honey balsamic and ume salt, then given a bit of crisp with caramelized fennel crumbled over the top. It works so well, it almost outshines the sushi.
JARDINIERE'S HEIRLOOM TOMATO SALAD -- Pop into Jardiniere's bar or sit down for a meal and start with its heirloom tomato salad ($16). You've seen all this before: plump, gorgeous heirloom tomatoes over arugula with croutons for crunch. But wait: interspersed in the arugula are Padron peppers and Castelvetrano olives. Sweet tomatoes, salty olives, and piquant peppers hint of a marriage between Italy and Spain, one officiated by California. The combo feels so natural, you'll wonder why you don't see it more often.
BAR CRUDO'S LOBSTER SALAD -- A recent visit to the ever brilliant crudo haven of Bar Crudo yielded salad loaded with chunks of lobster and creamy burrata (the pinnacle of mozzarella... with cream) topped with mache leaves. While some nights they make it with gold and chiogga beets ($17), my last visit entailed a load of plump tomatoes with the lobster and burrata ($18), again elevating the basics of a caprese to luxury salad level.