Reinvigorating Italian tradition in SoMa (by way of Tuscany and Piemonte) with dishes old and new
DINE Seven years ago — I long to say, "four score and seven years ago" but that would be stretching a point — I considered an Italian restaurant, Vino e Cucina, on a SoMa stretch of Third Street notable for its grit. After dark, in the shadows of the crumbling viaduct carrying traffic to and from the Bay Bridge, you could easily imagine yourself being inside one of Tim Burton's Batman movies, and to step into Vino e Cucina was to find refuge.
These days the neighborhood's aspect is quite different. The viaduct has been rebuilt, tony-looking housing has popped up all over, and Vino e Cucina is now La Briciola. The refuge angle is less sharp now, but La Briciola is still welcoming in that distinctive Italian way that manages to be informal and formal at the same time. The interior is done in shades of brown and cream; if it were a cup of coffee, it would be a macchiato, an espresso marked with some foamed milk. And the service staff practices a well-mannered demonstrativeness that will probably seem familiar to anyone who's ever eaten at a trattoria in Rome.
The food, rooted mostly in the cuisines of Tuscany and Piemonte, tells us a nuanced tale about Italian cuisine's complex relationship with innovation. If a dish has been made the same way for generations — has, in effect, been perfected — then why tamper or fiddle around with it? Yet this is America, where newness is celebrated with an almost religious fervor. So which will it be, perfection or newness?
Executive chef Gian Luca Toschi's best dishes are the traditional ones, though these aren't necessarily old warhorses. For instance, I've never seen fagottini ($14) or Italian crepes on a menu before; these turned out to resemble a pair of giant dim sum pouches, wrapped up like gunny sacks and filled with chopped mushrooms and carrots. The earthiness of the filling was enhanced (and that's putting it mildly) by a cream sauce of mushroom and truffle oil.
Veal, on the other hand, tends to be ubiquitous in north Italian cooking, and La Briciola offers a lovely version "alla valdostana" ($22), the name referring to an alpine region known for its fontina cheese. The veal was cutlets, pounded thin and rolled around a core of fontina cheese and speck (smoked prosciutto) into stubby cigars. If you like chicken kiev, you'd like this.
At the side of the plate lay a berm of vegetables, lightly steamed but still bright with color — broccoli, carrots, quartered new potatoes. If food were a game of chess, they would be pawns, worthy but not of enormous interest. These pawns did attract my interest, though, because they were exactly the same as those on a plate of food across the table, seared tuna with sesame sauce ($22).
The fish was fine. The sauce, like liquid amber dotted with black sesame seeds, was beautiful rather than flavorful despite the presence of shallots and vin santo. Sesame belongs mainly to the cuisines along the rim of the Indian Ocean; it's not a natural part of the Italian kitchen, so it wasn't shocking that the kitchen didn't do much with it. But it was the sameness of the vegetables that captured my attention. It was as if they'd been slung onto passing plates in some kind of hash line. Of course restaurant kitchens are assembly lines, and of course economies of scale are important — but so too is the illusion that each plate has been carefully and lovingly assembled by hand, like a Louis Vuitton bag. And the illusion is so easy to create; a single variation — green beans instead of broccoli — would do it.
And speaking of green: green is a color, and a little color would have been welcome in the octopus salad ($12), which consisted of pale white octopus flesh, (white) cannellini beans, and whitish barley kernels. Some color was provided by pickled carrot shavings, but these were ungainly and awkward to eat. Still, the salad, as amended with squeezes of fresh lemon, satisfied, and it did reflect the Italian ethic of simplicity.
Chocolate volcano cake ($8) has been widely done, but it seemed strangely appropriate to find it in an Italian restaurant since Italy is among the more volcanic of lands, and Italians do love their chocolate. An issue with these cakes is that the chocolate magma can sometimes be molten enough to burn your tongue, but here it was pleasantly very warm, not hot. This was a welcome variation.
Dinner: Sun.–Thurs., 5:30–10 p.m.; Fri.–Sat., 5–10:30 p.m.
Lunch: Mon.–Fri., 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m.
489 Third St., SF
Beer and wine