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Umbria is the center of Italy, pretty much, and that isn't an easy thing to be. The country has an unconcentric shape, for one thing: a long, booted shank poised to kick a lumpy ball called Sicily, with aloof Sardinia looking on and a curious glanslike flaring in the north, where the peninsula's long-ago collision with the rest of Europe raised the Alps. Italy is, like California, hot, snowy, mountainous, and flat; it is a land of butter, rice, pancetta, tomatoes, basil, and olive oil. It is close to Switzerland and Africa. It has islands, including Elba, the knob of rock where Napoleon was sent so he couldn't make any more trouble. (Would today's Elbans accept another failed warmonger, do you think? Guess who!) It is a lot to be the center of.
There is, then, something elementally Italian about Umbria, a hilly province quite near a pair of famous neighbors, Tuscany and Rome, and like and unlike them. It differs from them in the sense that, apart from the hill towns of Assisi (home of St. Francis) and Deruta (famous for hand-painted ceramics), it is less well-known, especially to tourists. But it resembles its neighbors not least in cuisine, at least if we are judging by the menu at Ristorante Umbria, opened nearly 11 years ago by the fabulously named Giulio Tempesta. Umbria brought regional Italian cooking to San Francisco well ahead of the current vogue.
If you like Italian food, and everybody seems to, you'll love Umbrian food, at least as the kitchen at Umbria turns it out. And you will like it in a setting that feels as Italian as many places in Italy, a pastiche of exposed wood, terra-cotta tiles, trompe l'oeil, an old armoire, and good-looking service staff speaking spitfire Italian as they do their skillful dance among the tables. Those tables are crowded, especially at lunchtime, when the hungry include a microcosmic mix of today's SoMa populations: people who work in the area; others who are staying at one or the other of the neighborhood's many hotels, conventioneering at Moscone, or visiting the nearby museums; and city folk who have ventured downtown because Umbria is, frankly, worth the venture.
Just as Zuni is renowned for its roast chicken with bread salad a dish halfway competent home cooks can make a run at so Umbria is notable for its exquisite pastas, which are another staple of most of the good home cooks I know. My interest is particularly piqued when I find a menu with pasta sauces I've been making for years, and Umbria has three of them, right in a row: puttanesca (spicy Neapolitan tomato sauce with anchovies, capers, and black olives), amatriciana (classic Roman sauce of pancetta, onion, and tomato), and arabbiata ("enraged" tomato sauce with plenty of garlic and chili flakes). Of the three, the amatriciana sauce is the one I make least often, in large part because I don't keep the requisite pasta bucatini (fat, hollow strands) in regular stock, and so I lean toward it in restaurants, when I lean toward pasta at all.
Umbria's version ($11.75) steps around the bucatini issue by using rigatoni, the stubby, hollow cylinders that look like miniatures of underground pipes. Rigatoni are too short to be easily manipulable by a fork; they have to be speared instead. But the sauce, thickly adhesive and deeply flavored, more than made up for the slight loss of convenience, and I was particularly pleased to find the shreds of pancetta had been precrisped, so that they retained some crunch even when simmered with the tomato and onion.
Lasagne al forno ($16.25) was as satisfying as it gets and served at just the right temperature somewhere between tepid and warm which reminds us that, until fairly recently, home ovens were rare in Italy, and dishes destined to be baked had to be taken to the village fornaio, then hurried home while still warm. Mezze maniche ($15.75) a tubular pasta similar to penne also got the baking treatment; the tubes were jumbled with rounds of spicy sausage and slices of wild mushroom in a tomato-cream sauce before being sealed under a broad cap of melted mozzarella. And oreccheti ($15.75) dodged a cliché bullet by being given an ensemble of diced chicken, strips of red and yellow bell pepper, and a heavy shower of chopped arugula instead of the usual sausage and broccoli rabe.
You are not required to eat pasta at Umbria, of course. You can have pizza; the margherita ($11) is quite good, though it is more a cheese pizza, with basil and tomato (the former a sprig, the latter a lone cherry tomato, halved) serving in an advisory capacity. For meat people: beef carpaccio is an appealing port of entry, the shavings of flesh heavily festooned with grated Parmesan and basil chiffonade. Polpette ($6.50 for five) meatballs slightly smaller than golf balls were marvelously moist and mild (because of veal?) in their bright tomato-cheese sauce, and the lamb burger ($13.75) was sensational, a tasty juice bomb served on a focaccia bun and in the company of the crusty roasted potato rounds that have been one of the restaurant's specialties from the beginning.
Last, there is the matter of tiramisù ($6.50). As a rule I can do without, but I found myself in the company of an expert, a man who has spent some time looking into the matter. He poked and prodded at Umbria's offering like a scientist trying to pry a DNA sample from some ancient specimen; finally, he lifted a chunk, watched some goo drip lasciviously to the plate below, and pronounced himself pleased.
"It's not dripping wet," he said. "A good sign."
Elementary, my good sir! *
Dinner: Mon.Sat., 5:3010:30 p.m. Lunch: Mon.Fri., 11:30 a.m.2:30 p.m.
198 Second St., SF
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