March 12 2003

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Without Reservations
By Paul Reidinger

Noi pops

NOI IS NO more. So says co-owner Stefano Coppola, who opened the Noe Valley trattoria with partner Diego Ragazzo two years ago in the bi-level space long and fragrantly occupied by Little Italy. (When the wind was right, you could smell the garlic caramelizing in Little Italy's sauté pans for blocks.) Ragazzo has apparently left the partnership (on terms Coppola describes, in excellent State Departmentese, as "amicable"), and Coppola is relaunching the place as Lupa ("she-wolf"), with a Roman menu that will change seasonally and include some "classic" dishes from elsewhere in Italy.

There is a handsome logic to the name – Rome's apocryphal founders, Romulus and Remus, were said to have been reared by wolves – and to the choice of cuisine. Little Italy's food, with its rustic tomato sauces, was distinctly the cooking of the so-called mezzogiorno, the south of Italy. Noi, by contrast, gleamed with spare, elegant Milanese style, and there were plenty of north-Italian cream sauces and veal dishes on the menu. So a Roman restaurant strikes, in one sense, a middle ground.

But when we think of Roman food, do we think of anything in particular besides bucatini all'amatriciana (fat, hollow tubes of pasta with a robust sauce of onions, tomato, and smoked pancetta), pecorino cheese, and white Frascati wine from the vineyards of surrounding Lazio? Walk the narrow streets of Rome and you'll see, amid the marble temples of empire and Christianity, countless pizzerias, gelaterias, and some sushi restaurants. Peruse the city's menus and you'll find plenty of grilled eggplant and chicken cacciatore. You'll find, in fact, just about anything and everything, but you probably won't be overwhelmed by a strong Roman sense of food because Rome, like Los Angeles, is a city with a vibrant food culture that's been overshadowed by other preoccupations.

Whether Lupa will capture this bifurcation we cannot yet say. We can say that it is possible to have a long-running success as a classy Italian restaurant in Noe Valley. We know this because of Bacco, which opened a decade ago this fall, just a month or so ahead of (and only a block or so away from) another durable success, Firefly. Bacco hasn't changed much in 10 years; it still glows like a golden lantern in the evenings, prices remain modest, and its cooking continues to reflect a traditional, precise simplicity that is surely one of the main reasons we do not tire of Italian food, even when times turn sour. While these days the (she-?)wolf howls at the door of more than a few once-full restaurants, the crowds continue to drift into Bacco as if all roads lead there.

Contact Paul Reidinger at paulr@sfbg.com.