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There could hardly be a more welcoming name for a restaurant than aperto "open" in Italian, and Aperto is an Italian restaurant except, possibly, Welcome. The north face of Potrero Hill is home to lots of restaurants, but Welcome isn't one of them, at least not yet. While we wait, we can wait at Aperto, which offers a handsome wooden bench outside the front door for the convenience of those whose tables aren't yet available and are too weary to stand. Aperto is small, and it is busy, and everyone seems to know about it. This is fitting, because it's been there since 1992 and over its 15 years of life has become the jewellike Italian restaurant every urban neighborhood should have at least one of.
For some or no reason, Aperto is a place I'd never been to until recently. Regular reports, most of them favorable, did reach me from friends who seemed to go all the time, and these debriefings perhaps soothed my curiosity. I had noticed that the restaurant, after reaching a crest of sorts in the mid-1990s as one of the San Francisco Chronicle's top 100 restaurants, seemed to have receded in later years from public awareness. This could be due to fatigue, but it is certainly not due to the focaccia, which flows from the open kitchen to the dining room in a steady stream and is just exemplary: soft (though with a hint of crust), warm, and gently scented with olive oil. It's the bread equivalent of the perfect hotel pillow and is at least as good as the focaccia at Blue Plate. And that means it's awesome.
When you are dishing out complementary focaccia of this quality and keeping water glasses full and prices modest for well-executed, lovable Italian dishes, you are likely to be a successful restaurant. Aperto isn't up to anything radical; its look and food are classical and timeless, and the restaurant, as an experience, presents itself unobtrusively. It's like a favorite coat, well made and warming, you might wrap around yourself on a chilly night.
Few cuisines can match the Italian for inventive frugality. Despite a public image of flamboyance, Italians tend not to waste food. Stale bread finds a home in panzanella or ribollita, while grape pomace (the mush left over from the wine crush) is fermented and distilled into grappa. (Then exported and resold to us at a tidy profit.) Because Aperto's menu is pasta-rich and pasta is among the most flexible of starches, the restaurant's recycling program uses it to impressive effect. One (chilly!) evening I found myself staring into a broad white bowl of papardelle ($13.50) sauced with a sugo of osso buco. Osso buco, also known as braised veal shank, is a tine-intensive production, not ordinarily to be undertaken just to come up with a pasta sauce. But, should there be surplus from the night before, the leftover meat makes a lovely pairing with pasta, rich and just hinting of the beefiness that makes veal so attractive. Throw in some spinach for color, add some grana shavings on top, and you have a dish of elegant simplicity.
Glancing slightly upmarket, we find striped sea bass ($17.75), coated with arugula pesto, roasted, then plopped into a beanbag chair of lemon mashed potatoes, with an encirclement of ratatouille and a hairpiece of microgreens. This was a handsomely composed, colorful plate of food whose lemon mashed potatoes actually carried a distinct whiff of the advertised ingredient and whose seafood star (as I learned ex post facto from Seafood Watch) is in the "best" category. I give Aperto a big gold star for this alone. If a smallish neighborhood restaurant can keep itself within the boundaries of sustainability without making a huge fuss or overcharging, then everybody can.
The restaurant doesn't give short shrift to seasonality either. On one late-winter menu we found crab cakes ($9.75 for a crottin-shaped pair), presented on a bed of shaved fennel and radicchio, with pomegranate seeds scattered around the plate like rubies and squirts of spicy aioli atop the cakes themselves. The same menu yielded strands of fat spaghetti ($11.50) tossed with shelled fava beans, leeks, sun-dried tomatoes, and goat cheese a distinctively NorCal when-seasons-collide moment.
Given the limitless focaccia, which produces a filling effect similar to that of chips and salsa in Mexican restaurants, the first courses are in some danger of superfluousness. Among the best of the lot is the platter of oven-roasted mussels ($9.50), swimming in a buttery shellfish broth perfumed with fennel and garlic. The broth is nicely soppable with the accompanying spears of well-grilled levain (topped with the customary rouille), and when that was gone, we picked up the slack with focaccia.
Only the soups seemed flat: good, but a little slow out of bed in the morning. Lentil ($4.50) did feature shreds of crispy pancetta, but the floating chunks of celery seemed slightly clumsy, like flotsam after some sort of accident. And cream of roasted tomato ($5) was creamy and cheesy! but might have been made more interesting, visually, at least, by an addition as simple as minced parsley.
If the overhead chalkboard listing the day's specials includes the mascarpone brownie ($6), you won't be sorry if you ignore your diet and have it. Brownies sound juvenile, but this one isn't; it's marbled, moist, and just sweet enough, like homemade cake. Whipped cream? Yes, but not too much; same with the hot fudge sauce piped around the edges of the plate. The brownie might not be authentically Italian, but I suspect even a lot of authentic Italians would be open to its charms. *
Lunch: Mon.Fri., 11:30 a.m.2:30 p.m. Dinner: Mon.Sat., 5:3010 p.m.; Sun., 59 p.m.
1434 18th St., SF
Beer and wine