July 17, 2002

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The sharper image

By Paul Reidinger

INCANTO, THE Italian restaurant that opened recently in outer Noe Valley, is so gorgeously designed and appointed that you can't help but be suspicious. The look is very much that of a two-page ad in a ritzy magazine, and you find yourself wondering what, exactly, is the item being marketed. Is it the flagstone, arranged in a circle at the entryway, as if to catch the beam of sunlight from the oculus in the imaginary dome overhead? Is it the splendid wine cellar, which sits behind wood-and-glass doors at the rear of the dining room like some kind of chapel? Is it the selection of taverna chairs, or the limestone trimmings here and there that lend the room a distinctly Roman air?

The only flaw I could find in the entire spectacle was the nakedness of the sand-colored walls, which desperately need some art. Otherwise, Incanto could easily be downtown somewhere, competing for tourist and convention business. But it isn't; it's a neighborhood place, though clearly the neighborhood's design aesthetic has sharpened in recent years. It's an odd feeling to be wary of a design that's so thoroughly enchanting – and yet it's not that odd, since ours is a civilization in which image has spent the better part of a generation crowding out substance. For more than a few restaurants (some of them in Noe Valley), being sharp to look at, casting a visual spell, is clearly the main point.

It's certainly one of the main points at Incanto, but it's far from the only one. There's also able, friendly service, an attractively mixed clientele (families with kids, well-to-do older – and younger – people, queers, none-of-the-aboves), and best of all, serious attention to the serious matters of food and wine, without snobbery.

Wine without snobbery? Yes. You could go for one of the fancy bottles laid in behind the wine cellar's lovely glass door, but you might be just as happy with a half-liter carafe (five or six goblets' worth) of any of the wines available by the glass, such as the very zin-like Nero d'Avola ($15 a carafe), from Sicily, or the very similar Aglianico Fidelis ($16), from Campania, the volcanic region around Naples. They are unpretentious, vivid red wines that taste powerfully of grapes, cherries, and berries rather than the oaky tannic acid of so many California cabs.

They're also the sorts of red wine that go well with food – a desirable trait when the food is as good as Incanto's is. The kitchen shows considerable dynamic range, moving between Italian classics and more innovative dishes, between simple pastas and more elaborate preparations, with real aplomb. You might open, say, with fresh porcini mushrooms ($12), cut into chunks and sautéed with shreds of arugula (tasty but almost too salty), or you might try the bruschetta ($9.50), topped with ahi tuna instead of the usual tomato and eggplant and showered with a salad of chopped celery, green onions, and tomatoes.

In true Italian fashion, Incanto's pastas are straightforward and seasonal. Penne ($13), for instance, gets a very simple sauce of beefy house-made sausage, English peas, and scallions, while spaghetti ($12) is tossed with cherry tomatoes, wild arugula, and toasted bread crumbs, with a squeeze of lemon for some zip. These dishes do not sound very interesting as described on a menu (or in a restaurant review), but they are quite memorable when eaten.

The bigger dishes might remind you, in their unfussy intensity, of food you ate one evening at a little trattoria near the Spanish Steps you just blundered into because you were starving and a table was available. (Serendipity: the traveler's best friend.) Perfectly tender braised lamb shoulder ($17) oozes its rich jus all over the accompanying broccoli rabe and mashed potato-like polenta. And roast chicken ($16) – really more of a game hen, judging from the dainty thighs – offered juicy meat in a crisp golden crust despite not being cooked under a brick. The mound of cannellini beans on the side, amended with pancetta and sage, struck a hearty but gracious Tuscan note.

Dessert, in Italy, tends to be perfunctory, perhaps because Italians spend much of the day eating gelato. I would have settled for a nice hit of Incanto's best grappa, but alas, there was none. So, olive-oil cake ($5), tender and moist like angel food, with just the faintest peppery whiff from the oil, and on the side, a pool of dense, sweet honey cream and a scattering of halved figs. Not bad.

Equally not bad, though nothing to write home about, were an Italian rice tart ($5) – imagine a currant risotto, poured into a crust and baked – and a cookie plate ($5), with almond macaroons, florentines, and chocolate wafers ranged round a demitasse of strong, smooth espresso. The latter is probably the least interesting and most useful choice on the dessert menu, allowing as it does for easy sharing and leaving a bit of room for that grappa, when that enchanting libation finally does become available. Incanto. 1550 Church (at Duncan), S.F. (415) 641-4500. Wed.-Mon., 5-10 p.m. MasterCard, Visa. Beer and wine. Moderately noisy. Wheelchair accessible.