The watch zone
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Imagine a restaurant situated inside a bottle of sparkling water, and you will have a working sense of Farina Focaccia and Cucina Italiana, the latest entry along 18th Street's burgeoning food row in the Mistro. The Italians, in their inimitable way, refer to sparkling water as con gas, and Farina is an Italian restaurant a Ligurian-influenced restaurant, to be precise, which means it's not quite a head-on rival to Delfina, a few steps away. Delfina's food tends toward the Tuscan, and the heart of Tuscany is Florence, a storied city well away from the sea. Tuscan cuisine makes ample use of grilled beef and also maiale (wild boar) and porcini mushrooms the latter a pair of delicacies taken from nearby forests in the Apennines.
Liguria, by contrast, is a maritime region, a slender boomerang of littoral country whose center is the ancient port city of Genoa and whose long shoreline on the Tyrrhenian Sea runs from the French Riviera in the west nearly to Livorno in the east. We would expect then that Ligurian cuisine would emphasize seafood (other staples include lemons, olive oil, and pesto), and that is indeed what we find at Farina. (Farina, incidentally, means "wheat meal" in Italian; it was also the name of a creamy hot cereal I preferred as a child to oatmeal, which tended to be lumpy. And ... it sounds vaguely like Delfina coincidence?)
The sparkling-water effect has largely to do with a half wall of wine goblets that separate the bar from the main dining room. There are also expansive plate-glass windows along both 18th and Dearborn streets, and these blur the boundary between outdoors and indoors. Passersby are constantly peering into the restaurant, while the people inside peer right back, at least when not peering at one other. Although Farina is just a few months old, the see-and-be-seen, watch-zone factor has already reached Los Angeles<\d>like levels. All this represents a radical change from the space's previous life as the home of Anna's Danish Cookies. Noise, interestingly, is under control, despite plenty of hard surfaces, including a slate gray concrete floor and a passage of gleaming white tiles high above the food bar near the back of the dining room. The high ceilings, with joists painted hospital white, must help.
The early word on Farina was that it was overpriced, and while the serving-size-to-price ratio is indeed rather stringent, the food itself is superior. Excellence at a high price is the Wolfgang Puck formula for success. The first promising hints are given by the house-baked breads: squares of plain and cheesy focaccia, along with slices of whole wheat and white country breads and a walnut bread, some of them still warm from the oven. The goodness of the breads prefigures that of the pizzata di Recco ($16), a large rectangle of pizza-like crust topped with garlicky tomato sauce, oregano, capers, anchovies, and gooey white melted cheese. The pie's name refers to the Ligurian town of Recco, renowned for its cheese focaccias.
Another classic Ligurian-style dish is house-made tortellini ($17), stuffed with sea bass and served in an earthenware crock. The crock holds a shallow pond of white-wine-and-parsley sauce dotted with heirloom tomato quarters, mussels, clams, and rose-colored bits of calamari. The sauce was underseasoned the only such example we came across. Salted up a bit, it made a nice match with a Ligurian white wine from the Cinque Terre ($9 for a glass), a seaside district famous for its five villages perched on cliffs. The wine had a grassiness I associate with American sauvignon blanc and tasted a little odd on is own, but it merged comfortably with the mollusk-heavy sauce.
The Catalana salad ($13) captured the magic of so much Italian cooking, regardless of region. It was so simple tuna confit on a bed of onion and fennel slivers, with a light showering of pitted black olives, minced anchovies, and heirloom tomato chunks as to sound boring, but it turned out to be a beautiful concertina of sweet, salty, sour, and rich effects.
We did feel, over a noontime visit, that portions were almost too small and starkly plated. The insalata di giorno ($9) turned out to be quite similar to the Catalana, and while it cost less, it was worryingly slight, although cannellini beans provided some ballast. We ended up ordering a panino ($9) of prosciutto and fontina cheese, and this soon arrived as an appealing golden square of pressed bread, tastily filled though presented with nothing more than a heaplet of mixed greens. Only the torta verdure ($9), a slice of spinach pie made with flaky pastry, seemed to carry real weight.
As for the dessert menu: the roving eye of the sweet tooth quite quickly found the panna cotta ($8). If Farina means to unseat Delfina as the king of Italian cooking on 18th Street, then panna cotta will be central to the strategy. Delfina's buttermilk version has been on the menu from the beginning and is now legendary. Farina's pastry chef has wisely chosen not to copy it. Instead of a geutf8ous cylinder, Farina's panna cotta takes the form of a martini-glass parfait, a layering of cooked cream softer than Delfina's atop a blackberry compote itself topped with a dollop of blackberry whipped cream.
But perhaps an unseating is neither necessary nor possible. Perhaps Farina and Delfina will turn out to be complements to each other, not watchful rivals. It's not every two-block segment of street in town, after all, that can offer us a pair of Italian restaurants like these, alike and dissimilar but both sparkling.<\!s>*
FARINA FOCACCIA AND CUCINA ITALIANA
Lunch: Mon.<\d>Fri., 11 a.m.<\d>2:30 p.m. Dinner: nightly, 6<\d>10 p.m.
3560 18th St., SF
Beer and wine