An eclectic Italian menu, seasoned with playfulness, that rewards nibblers and grazers
Heresy is the true spice of life, and it was with this thought in mind that I sat one evening in Bar Bambino, a two-year-old wine bar in a most unlikely location a heretical location? and had a beer. The beer was a Moretti but also dark, a La Rossa. I'd never before seen Italian dark beer, either here or in Italy, and, truth be told, I didn't know the Italians even brewed dark beer. The party of the second part, a beer skeptic, reached across the table to take a sip from the large, shapely goblet.
"Mmmm! That's good!" was the verdict. "Chocolately."
The verdict, really, was unanimous and extended to Bar Bambino in its entirety. The restaurant sits on one of the bleaker stretches of 16th Street as it passes through the Mission District, and its narrow poker face is easy to miss. Once inside, though, you will feel as if you've stepped into an enchanted cave that includes a communal table (in the front window), a bar, a second communal table deeper in that can also be set aside for large parties, and, in the rear, a heated garden for a semi-al fresco experience.
Years ago, in the mid-1990s, we spent the better part of a Florentine afternoon lounging in a place called Cibrèo. Princess Di was said to be a habituée, and we could see why. Like Bar Bambino, it was off the beaten track and discreetly handsome, a place to sit and have a glass or two of wine and order a succession of plates of various sizes. It was my first in-country experience of polpette, the wonderful baby Italian meatballs that are typically served in a spicy tomato sauce.
Although Bar Bambino doesn't look anything like Cibrèo (which sprawled like somebody drunk on a sofa), it does have a similar aura of relaxed but sustained festivity. It also has baby meatballs ($15); they come in a nice stack, with a potent tomato sauce and some shreds of chard, and they are very satisfying. Among other things, the polpette tell us that the kitchen takes its Italian cooking very seriously; the food is a lot like Delfina's in this respect, though perhaps a bit more playful. You can get Italian-style "tater tots" ($5), nicely crisp on the outside and creamy on the inside, just like the ones you used to eat on a stick at the state fair.
The white-bean-and-tuna salad is an Italian classic. Here ($9.50) it's made with slow-cooked spagna beans, which looked a lot like cannellini to me and tasted as if they'd been simmered in broth. The only other players were chunks of tuna, slivers of red onion, and a healthy splash of extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO, to the acronym-involved). The dish was very tasty but drab-looking at best, like uncooked brains. In Bar Bambino's defense, I will say that I've had similarly dreary-looking versions in Italy which is odd, since Italian culture manages to bring small flourishes of visual style to practically everything.
A plate of bruschetta ($11.50) topped Sicilian-style with stewed lamb leg, crumbled egg, parsley, and poor-man's cheese, gets my vote as best bruschetta in the world. I've never had bad bruschetta, and I've had plenty of good ones, but this one, with its shards of profoundly tender meat, was unforgettable.
Among the pastas, the trofie ($13.50), sauced with cream and crumblings of mild sausage, attracted our attention. The pasta itself turned out to resemble hand-rolled cigarettes, vaguely tubular and tapered at the ends. It's a Ligurian pasta and is notable for consisting only of flour and water no egg. Its little rills and ridges caught the sauce nicely. This is the kind of simple Italian dish that leaves you wondering, How do they manage to do so much with so little? A dash of this, a touch of that, and a miracle.
Italian culinary miracle-working does not always extend to the dessert cart, but at Bar Bambino the charm lasts all the way to the end of the menu card (although there is no dessert cart). On the traditional side, we have the old Sicilian favorite, cannoli ($7), a trio of delicate pistachio pastry flutes filled with goat-milk cheese, ricotta, honey the pistachio flavor dominates and on the more playful end we find zepote di banana ($8), beignet-like banana fritters topped with melted Nutella sauce, which you pour out yourself from a little pitcher.
Will those around you be watching to see if you spill? Possibly. Bar Bambino's snugness invites a certain degree of social espionage. On the other hand, the sophisticated look, including a long wall consisting of narrow wood planks and the wonderful chandelier made of wine bottles hanging over the front communal table, might help insulate you from over-overt scrutiny, which can help you enjoy your heresy, whatever it might be. *
Tues.Thurs., 11 a.m.11 p.m.;
Fri.Sat., 11 a.m.midnight; Sun., 510 p.m.
2931 16th St., SF
Wine and beer