When it comes to sardines, you have to think outside the earthquake shelter. On the flavor-o-meter, the tinned food of last resort (served on tarps with Saltines and stale water) bears no resemblance to its wild, fresh self. Even a humble sardine doesn't deserve to be jammed in like a sardine, oil slicked, and left to age in the farthest reaches of the cupboard.
As several San Francisco eateries are ably proving, sardines, when treated with respect, are a tasty addition to the dining table. And healthy. And sustainable (they're on the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Super Green list!) Everyone from Andrew Weil to the Italian grandmother we all wish we had proclaim the virtues of the pungent silver herring. And with good reason: its tiny, 25-calorie body is packed with essential fatty acids, iron, protein, and calcium.
Let's face it, the good people of Sardinia didn't get their beautiful skin and convivial personalities from eating schweinebraten on spätzle. They're all high on EFAs. Sardine EFAs.
Pesce was one of the first and finest restaurants to introduce San Franciscans to the joys of sardine cuisine. The casual Russian Hill restaurant offers small plates of fish, pasta, and vegetables (and please, can we call it cicchetti, as they do, instead of "Italian tapas"?) patterned on the cooking of Venice. Pesce serves its sardines (all from Monterey Bay) simply — grilled, on a bed of mixed greens and pickled vegetables with a wedge of lemon. The result is tart, briny, and clean. If you're still on the fence about sardines, Pesce is the place that will convert you to a bona fide a-fishyanado.
2227 Polk, SF. (415) 928-8025. www.pescesf.com
In Provence, shmear means aoli. They put it on meat; they put it on vegetables; they put it on fries; they put it on fish. Heck, they probably put it on ice cream. At Ragazza, the new relative of Glen Park's Gialina Pizzeria on Divis, the chefs splat a huge dollop of it on its sardines. Apart from the aoli, Ragazza takes an Italianesque approach, stuffing them with an earthy mixture of breadcrumbs, olive oil, garlic, oregano, and onion and baking them in the restaurant's gas-fired Wood Stone oven. The result is a crispy exterior over sardines that almost melt away on the fork. Add some mixed greens and a robust Italian red and you can practically feel your arteries unclogging. Oh, Ragazza also has pizza.