Restaurant review: This Italian delight balances tony with taste in the Marina
DINE It does fall to me occasionally to check up on our town's tonier heterosexuals, who can be found cavorting in their infamous and restaurant-dotted playland beyond the magic mountains of Pacific Heights. (As for the homos: I have a pretty clear picture of that splendid circus.) Now that the rich, aided by their loyal apparatchiks in Congress, have secured another round of tax relief for themselves the question naturally arises regarding how they will spend their fresh loot, which we the taxpayers are so wisely borrowing from our BFFs, the Chinese.
Judging by the evidence on display at Capannina, a wonderful Italian restaurant on Union Street, they're spending it prudently — even wisely! — although the sample size is small. It's small because the restaurant itself is on the small side: a mid-block storefront beautifully done up with pistachio-colored walls, banquettes upholstered in a timelessly elegant fabric of gold and claret stripes, a tall bar of burnished wood at the rear of the dining room, and, hanging over that bar, a contrivance of wrought iron that resembles a bit of belle epoque signage from a Paris Métro station, or the undercarriage of a bistro table that somehow found itself hanging upside down from the ceiling, like a bat.
Capannina's look reminds us that restaurant design, like clothing fashion, is a little like calculating a reëntry angle for a space capsule: too steep an angle and the craft burns up, too shallow and it bounces off into space for eternity. The window, the sweet spot, is actually rather tight and involves some clever blend of old and new, unexpected and familiar, soothing and stimulating. Capannina has worked these tensions into a nice balance; the design does enough to attract your attention briefly without making intrusive demands. It is handsome without becoming narcissistic — no small feat in a culture like ours — and in this important respect it looks and feels just as a restaurant should. When it fills up, though, it does get loud to the point of making conversation difficult.
Several of Capannina's blood relations, including Café Tiramisu and Brindisi are to be found on Belden Lane, whose European atmospherics and restaurant population density keep the standards pretty sharp. Capannina is an outlier or outpost, but it seems to enjoy an indirect benefit from its siblings' competitions; the kitchen's Italian cooking is, like the design of the restaurant itself, a tight weave of tradition and controlled innovation.
One little flourish I particularly like in Italian cooking is a nuzzle of chili heat. The gamberi picante con polenta ($14), or spicy prawns, did indeed leave a naughty tingle on our lips, soothed by the balm of basil aioli. Even better was the polenta, which appeared as a small, crisp, well-formed cake, hardly larger than the shrimp themselves, instead of the more usual engulfing blob.
Nothing says early winter around here quite like crab, and Capannina's kitchen turns out estimable crab cakes, or polpettina di granchio ($14). These were served in threes, with tomato-basil aioli, and were quite small ("mini," in menu-speak). The downsizing might have contributed to their sublime, almost fritter-like crispness. I love big, fat crab cakes, at least when I start eating them, but crab is rich, and what is wonderful for the first few bites isn't necessarily as wonderful by the last one.
We found the carpaccio di manzo ($13) to be a corrective, with its purifying, slightly astringent presences of fresh arugula leaves and mustard dill sauce, along with a generous sprinkling of cracked black peppercorns on the tissue of beef. Parmesan cheese, well-represented here in leaf-like shavings, can go either way, like the fabled independent voter, or many a man in this zero-gravity city. In this dish it flexed both of its biceps, one rich, the other pungent.