A buzzing yet intimate Italian spot whose dishes spark lively conversation
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As a charter member of the Globe fan club, I tend to be favorably disposed toward any of that restaurant's descendants, cousins, siblings, or other relations. From the beginning, Globe has shared an ethos with Zuni and Chez Panisse, serving food that's both sophisticated and hearty and can trace its origins to the peasant traditions of Italy and Mediterranean France.
Joseph Manzare, a pupil of Wolfgang Puck's and an alumnus of both Spago and Postrio, opened Globe in 1996 and has marched onward since if not quite at a pace of Puckish, imperial intensity, at a respectable clip nonetheless. His other major ventures in the city include Joey and Eddie's, a seafood house that recently moved from Noe Valley to the old Moose's space in North Beach, and Zuppa, which opened about three and a half years ago in dramatic SoMa location that had been home to Café Monk, a member of the Fourth-and-Brannan streets trifecta whose other principals were Fringale and CoCo500 (né Bizou).
Café Monk wasn't a very good name for a restaurant. It made me think of monks, and who would want to eat at any place run by such abstemious, virtue-ridden persons? The space, moreover a lofty cathedral of exposed brick and concrete, trimmed with stainless steel, wood, and spot lighting resisted capture by the word "café." "Zuppa" is certainly an improvement, though far from perfect; the word means "soup" in Italian, and Italian soup means ... minestrone. I like minestrone, but it's humble and familiar in a way Zuppa is not.
Zuppa is, in fact, a rather marvelous Italian restaurant of the sort you'd think the city of St. Francis would be full of. It's earthy and glossy, medieval and modern, intimate and buzzing, all at the same time. You never forget that you are inside an old, industrial building in a once-gritty part of town, but you are soothed by the votive candles flickering on each table a kind of hushed chorus of light. There are many variations on these basic design elements around town, but Zuppa is among the most appealing; its physical reality is quietly assertive without crossing into stridency. You notice the look and appreciate it, then go back to your conversation.
The food, orchestrated by chef de cuisine Liam Bonner, makes for lively conversation. Zuppa's kitchen, like the others in the Manzare consortium, tilts in favor of organic ingredients and humanely produced meats both worthy goals, but we have heard plenty about the former and, possibly, not quite enough about the latter. Meat and poultry tend to dominate the main courses a small reminder that Italians eat plenty of meat, particularly in the north. Even the front end of the menu is meaty, with a selection of cured flesh, including prosciutto, coppa, and soppressata ($8) a kind of pepper salami in delicate slices, laid out like cards at a blackjack table available as a light first course or nibble.
The heart of Italian culinary identity in this country nonetheless remains the battle-tested duo of pasta and pizza, and here (as elsewhere) Zuppa doesn't disappoint. The pizzas begin with wonderful, thin, crunchy-chewy crusts and are laid out with high-quality toppings, among them a velvety housemade mozzarella, along with tomatoes and basil, on the margherita ($14), and caramelized onions, coppa, and slivers of green-bell pepper on the bianca ($15). I like the idea of pizza bianca bianca means white, and that means no tomato sauce, which is daring but without the temperate effect of oregano-inflected tomato sauce here (which softens and modulates the other flavors on the pie, as our fog does with heat), the sharp grassiness of the green peppers was a little too obvious for me.
Much as I love pasta in its illimitable variety, I don't have it often in restaurants since I make it so often at home, for far less money. But I would speak up on behalf of Zuppa's rigatoni ($17) al ragu di Campania: long tubes tossed with long-simmered minced pork, shreds of spigarello kale, and clumps of cacciocavallo cheese, a onetime Sicilian specialty now produced throughout the south of Italy. (Campania is the region around the southern city of Naples, including Mount Vesuvius.) The ensemble sauce is very hearty and warming on a cold winter's night, and simmering a ragu is the sort of time-intensive operation a restaurant kitchen is going to be in a better position to undertake than most home cooks, even ambitious ones.
Just as tasty was a plate of linguini ($17) in a seafood marinara sauce. The seafood was supposed to be local squid, but we were told the kitchen was substituting rock shrimp instead. This struck me as a favorable switch, since shrimp of any kind are reliably sweet, whereas squid can bring an unwanted bitterness if not handled properly. Tomato and oregano with a counterpoint of briny sweetness is a potent melody.
The menu follows Italian practice in designating pasta dishes as primi and the heavier flesh courses as secondi. (You can also get contorni, or side dishes, such as verdure [$6], perhaps a medley of kale varieties braised with garlic and pancetta.) But if you make do with pasta as a main dish, you might find that you have room left for dessert, such as a block of chocolate-pumpkin brownie ($8), fabulously moist, piped with chocolate sauce and topped with a helmet no, a globe! of cinnamon gelato.
Dinner: Mon.Thurs., 5:3010 p.m.; Fri.Sat., 5:3011 p.m.; Sun., 59 p.m.
Lunch: Mon.Fri., 11:30 a.m.2:30 p.m.
564 Fourth St., SF