When in North Beach ... head for perfectly creamy risotto alla pescatore and sweets like Nonna used to make
Grant Street is so strongly associated with Chinatown that it's easy to forget there's a segment of it north of Columbus. There, running along the west shoulder of Telegraph Hill, it becomes a part of — and maybe the heart of — Little Italy. In its narrowness and festive congestion, the street does come to seem Roman, and, as in Rome, it has better restaurants than the bigger, gaudier boulevard nearby. American tourists in Rome, it is said, will not leave the well-lighted thoroughfares to investigate dimmer side streets, so those thoroughfares are where you're most likely to find rip-off joints with "turistica" menus in English.
Our own Columbus Avenue, while splendid in its way, is a kind of Fisherman's Wharf of Italian cooking, so it's no surprise that a restaurant like Ideale would situate itself on nearby Grant, out of sight of the hoi polloi, who are attracted to neon and other manifestations of brightness the way moths are to porch lamps. Ideale, which opened in late in the 1990s, is the kind of place you would seek out if you were in Rome; it draws the locals, and it is a curious fact of even the most touristy neighborhoods that they're filled with locals. Locals are the fourth dimension in such one-dimensional universes.
The restaurant is bigger than it appears, because its second dining room, in the adjoining storefront, is fully separated from the main one and the entryway. And (huzzah!) its walls are hung with splendid paintings, which we supposed to be oil on stretched canvas, with impasto visible even from distant tables, like the little nubs you see in linen. There are few spectacles more discouraging to me than bare restaurant walls. The sweeps of emptiness make me think of prison, or foreclosure.
Chef Maurizio Bruschi is said to have learned to cook from his grandmother, and his style accordingly emphasizes the Italian classics, at least as those are understood in this country. Your first clue about the cooking can be found in the house-baked bread, which in true Italian fashion we found to be adequately salted. Salt makes an enormous difference in most foods, but particularly in bread, which is almost impossible to season after the fact. And Italian chefs, in my experience, aren't afraid to salt their food. We took Bruschi's bread to be a good omen. (Is he any relation of Tedy Bruschi? Probably not.)
Good bread implies good pizza, and Ideale's pies are intense. (Naples is said to be the birthplace of Italian pizza, but Roman pies are reliably sensational.) We were particularly smitten with the funghi e salsiccia version ($14), which combined a crispy thin crust, a judicious ladling of well-seasoned and garlicky tomato sauce, enough mozzarella to glue things together, and a tossing of mushroom slices and bits of sausage that didn't taste overwhelmingly of fennel — a frequent fault of Italian-style sausage as made in this country, in my view.
We noticed several effusions of fresh arugula. One thatch appeared beside the eggplant parmigiana ($11), which was baked in a crock like a little lasagna — not remarkable, but any halfway decent handling of eggplant gets at least one gold star from me. More arugula turned up with the grilled local calamari ($12), mostly tubes, nicely charred but still tender and lemony.
Risotto alla pescatore has to be, at $17.75, one of the better buys on this or any comparable menu. For one thing, it was just choked with seafood, including black mussels, clams, calamari, and prawns. For another, the rice was cooked in flavorful liquid. The menu card mentioned pinot grigio and garlic, but I suspected the presence, too, of some kind of seafood stock, whether shrimp, clam, or fish. Makers of risotto tend to be obsessed with the complex mechanics, in particular the need to stir the rice constantly for 18 minutes, and to keep the stock at a simmer as you add it cupful by cupful, so you produce the characteristic creaminess. You can make perfectly creamy risotto with plain water, then tart it up Milanese-style with butter, pepper, and parmesan. But there is nothing like cooking rice, whether arborio or some other kind, in flavorful stock or broth, as here.
The flaps of veal in saltimbocca ($23) were generously overlaid with flaps of prosciutto,, whose saltiness helped balance the sauce, a frascati wine reduction infused with rosemary. Frascati is the wonderfully fruity white wine produced in Lazio, the region around Rome — highly drinkable, but if it isn't on the wine list, having it as a sauce isn't a bad fallback position. The plate was finished with coins of roasted potato and asparagus tips, the pinnacle of adequacy.
Dessert: how about profiteroles ($7)? With a twist: the pastry balls were filled with pastry cream, while the vanilla ice cream (as a scoop) had to wait outside. Lots of chocolate sauce. too, just the way Nonna used to do it.
Dinner: Mon.–Thurs., 5:30–10:30 p.m.;
Fri.–Sat., 5:30–11 p.m.; Sun., 5–10 p.m.
1315 Grant, SF
Beer and wine