If you like Beretta - and Beretta is very likable - you'll likely like its younger sibling, Starbelly. I wonder who is thinking up the names in the Beretta folks' briskly expanding universe of restaurants. "Beretta" makes me think of guns, while "Starbelly" sounds like a spoof of Spaceballs, Mel Brooks' epic spoof of the Star Wars franchise.
The restaurant opened in the fall in a space (at 16th and Market streets) that once was Josie's Juice Joint. Subsequent occupants include ZAO Noodle Bar and Asqew Grill, a pair of local chains that pitched affordable, high-quality, quick-turnaround food to younger people. Starbelly certainly attracts younger people and their traveling circus of noise but, as befits its status as a version of the California café, it has all kinds of people, including older ones and heterosexuals. The crowd is, to my eye, less hipstery and tech-moneyed than Beretta's, although the glow of human energy is similar. Starbelly is too stimulating to be relaxing, but once you're seated, your blood pressure does return to something like normal. Because the restaurant doesn't take reservations for small parties, there can be a scrum near the host's podium at the front. If you want a less hubbuby table, angle for one in the rear, past the bar, where the dining area opens out some.
In matters of food, Starbelly and Beretta are like fraternal twins: similar in certain respects but sharply different in others. The most conspicuous similarity is the prominence of pizza on both menus, along with the little wire stands to serve them on. But pizza is less dominant at Starbelly, where chef Adam Timney's cooking rolls away in a number of sophisticated directions. Starbelly is probably the highest gastronomic peak in the Castro District at the moment, much as 2223 was 15 years ago. Of course, we should remember that the Castro has long been the Death Valley of restauranting and temper our enthusiasm accordingly. Still, Starbelly is good.
The dinner menu tilts toward smaller, shareable plates and divides among the categories "snacks" ($5 each), "small," "salads," and "vegetables." Then come the pizzas and bigger plates. "Snacks" often means a dish of warm, spicy nuts, but here you can indulge in such witty treats as mini corn dogs, each riding its little toothpick and ready for dipping in spicy mustard (coarse, country-style) or house-made ketchup (fruity in a way the commercial product can never be and worth the price of the dish just for the experience).
The kitchen handles seafood skillfully. Grilled baby octopus ($9), recommended by our server, turned out to be nicely tender with a faint hint of smoke; the octopus was arranged on an arugula salad. Pan-roasted diver scallops ($14) also had been expertly cooked, but I thought the accompanying gingered yam purée, scattered with pepitas, was a little too sweet. Scallops, like pork, are naturally sweet and seem to invite sweet harmonies, but I (and here I state a personal preference) would rather have counterpoint, something sour, spicy, or salty.
Pizzas do not disappoint. The crusts are on the thin side, with a bit of puff on top and a hint of blister underneath but hooray no charring. Toppings range from the classic (tomato sauce, mozzarella, and basil on a margherita) to New World (Mexican chorizo with eggs and cilantro) but on the whole are fairly simple. A good example is a pie topped with Starbelly bacon ($13) along with market peppers and tomatoes. All that red lends a certain Murder in the Cathedral look, but the tangy, aromatic combination of toppings catches the sense of summer shading into autumn.
Speaking of fall: brussels sprouts have been on just about every menu I've seen since Labor Day, and they're on Starbelly's, too ($6). Here they're halved and pan-roasted with chunks of bacon until nicely caramelized at the edges. Bacon seems to be the consensus remedy for the palatability issue that haunts brussels sprouts, and a good roasting, whether in an oven or pan, has set right many a troublesome vegetable. A shot of lemon juice wouldn't have hurt here, for a final bit of zing.
The big plates are reasonably priced, mostly in the low to mid-teens; only lamb chops breaking the $20 barrier. The kitchen does offer what might be sly homage to Zuni Café: a half-chicken ($15), roasted on a rotisserie until sensuously tender and juicy, then plated with a spinach panzanella basically swirls of braised greens in a warm, savory bread pudding under a roasted-onion vinaigrette. It's not formally offered for two like the Zuni version, but it's ample enough to be quite shareable, especially if you've previously stocked up on some of the smaller plates.
Which undoubtedly you will have done, since at Starbelly, the path to a full belly is a winding one, with many delightful turn-outs and outlooks along the way. *
Mon.-Thurs., 11:30 a.m.11 p.m.; Fri., 11:30 a.m.midnight.
Brunch: Sat.Sun., 10:30 a.m.4 p.m.
Dinner: Sat., 4 p.m.midnight; Sun., 411 p.m.
3583 16th St., SF
Beer and wine