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The world traveler might arrive in some strange foreign city eager to find enlightenment at the table to suss out the city's most interesting and revealing restaurants and ponder the cultural clues they offer but first there is the matter of jet lag. The world traveler has an urgent need for a good night's sleep and perhaps a meal that's somehow authentically local but not too difficult: not too expensive or far away or served at a place that's difficult to get into. Tourist cities of which ours is one must have plenty of restaurants to provide this service, just as they must have plenty of other places to provide dazzle and memories while charging prices that keep the local tourist economy well watered and in bloom.
We don't lack for the second, lofty sort of restaurant, of course, but you might be surprised that we have examples of the former too. While stepping into Caffé Bella Venezia one recent mild evening, I noticed a huge youth hostel on the other side of Post Street, and I was glad. For a city that so self-consciously links itself to youth culture, ours is a fearfully I might even say prohibitively expensive place for youth to visit. Youth tends to be impecunious, and that won't get you very far at the Ritz-Carlton or even the Phoenix, no matter how charming and chic your pennilessness. If the concierge is nice, you might be sent down to the hostel on Post Street, not far from Union Square and the theater district, and welcomed there. And if you're hungry, you might next be sent across the street to Bella Venezia, which isn't exactly Venetian except for all the wall art, with its many depictions of gondoliers and canals but is appealingly pan-Italian, with a rich selection of pastas. If money is one language everybody speaks, pasta is another.
Venice has long been the most eastward-looking of Italian cities. For centuries it was the western terminus of the Silk Road to China, and after the horrendous Fourth Crusade in 1204 in which Venetian forces sacked the Byzantine capital, Constantinople, instead of carrying on to the Holy Land it was handsomely decorated with Byzantine gewgaws looted from that ancient city. One associates certain oriental perfumes, of cinnamon and nutmeg, among others, with the cooking of Venice, and while you're not likely to catch a whiff of these at Bella Venezia, you might catch a latter-day Silk Road echo: the chef is Italian, and his Filipina wife runs the front of the house with the help of their son.
Meanwhile, much of the clientele speaks little or no English. While we did note several solitary, possibly Anglophone, diners roosting forlornly at tables on various evenings, we were more struck by the parade of high-spirited young people moving in packs and speaking, say, French. Of course the French like and serve pasta, even if they're French Canadian. And just about everyone would like Bella Venezia's fettuccine arlecchino ($9.95), a lively and colorful mélange of zucchini coins, black olives, and sun-dried tomatoes in a sauce of garlic and goat cheese and a heaping tangle of pasta. Even better is gnocchi ($5 for a small plate that's not that small), which isn't really a pasta but is often grouped with the pasta family. Bella Venezia's house-made lobes are achingly tender, stuffed with gorgonzola, and bathed with a mushroom cream in which we detected, we thought, a hint of brandy breath.
I was surprised to find that I did not quite care for the lasagna ($9.95). So seldom am I disaffected in this way that I can't recall the last time it happened, if it ever did. But BV's lasagna, though served in an immense portion, had an unbecoming sweetness; too much minced onion mixed in with the ground beef? We noted a similar problem with the minestrone ($4.50), a run-of-the-mill vegetable soup heavy with carrots, onions, celery, zucchini, potatoes, and shreds of spinach but no tomatoes, white beans, or pasta. Both lasagna and minestrone responded to salting, the latter more smartly than the former.
A nice feature of the menu is that you can get little versions of pizzas, pastas, and salads for $3 to $6 each. A pair of these makes a nice two-course dinner for someone who isn't starving or is watching carb intake or feels a little jet-lagged. Pizza regina ($4.75) is a daughter of the full-figured pizza margherita, topped with the same combination of tomatoes, oregano, basil, and mozzarella plenty of mozzarella. Pizza salsiccia ($8.95) is (to extend our familial imagery) an uncle, a brawny pie of meaty mushrooms and lots of fennel-charged Italian sauces. If the current vogue of thin-crust pizza has left you fatigued, you will appreciate BV's slightly thicker, breadier crusts.
Two of the restaurant's best dishes turn up as appetizers. Caprese salad ($6.95) is often routine, a tried-and-true medley of sliced tomatoes and mozzarella cheese, but here it is lightly doused with a pesto vinaigrette that enlivens each constituent while bringing them together. (All salad dressings are supposed to do this, but few do it this well.) And sautéed mussels ($9.95) arrive in a pool of garlicky tomatowhite wine sauce that will have you motioning for more of the house-made focaccia to sop it up with, since it is impolite to do so with your fingers, even if you've just flown in from Venice and have jet lag. *
CAFFÉ BELLA VENEZIA
Dinner: nightly, 5 p.m.midnight
720 Post, SF
Beer and wine