Perbacco - 230 California - San Francisco
In February 2007, when it was still the new darling in town, at 10pm on a Saturday evening, Perbacco was jammed in every direction. Three months later, after the trend-hungry diners have moved on to see and be seen at the next latest hot spot, Perbacco's front of house bar looks rejected almost to the point of closure. Emptiness now echoes as you are led through the bar to the dining room at the back, dampening the expectation of excitement that you remember from the time you first wove your way through jostling crowds to your dinner.
One constant on a visit to Perbacco, the modern Italian that opened late last year to much aclaim is the higgeldy-piggeldy way the loft-like space has been filled with differently styled dining areas. But where chance happens to place you in this maze might colour your experience of the evening. The cosy area underneath the low roof of the mezzanine where conversation is more hushed, lighting is low and mirrors reflect the convivial atmosphere will feel more special than if you are slapped up against a cumbersome pillar in the airier space between the bar and the kitchen with no respite from any raucous Birthday bunch who might be sitting at the nearby Chef's table and celebrating with increasing decibels.
The hostess might pop over to give you a warm welcome, remember you have visited before and help with a cocktail selection. The Fragolino, a blend of Prosecco, fresh strawberry puree and Aperol is a no-brainer choice right now when California is producing some of the best strawberries you could ever hope to taste. So vivid is the red colour of the drink that arrives and so fragrant is the sweet taste, tempered only slightly by the bitter Aperol, that drinking it (impossible slowly) is akin to being a pink-dressed little girl in a candy shop. If you are looking for sophistication more befitting your age, you might try one of the more grown-up sounding choices, but then maybe you won't have as much unabashed fun drinking it.
When it comes to the wine, a waiter might be able to settle your needs by successfully suggesting a glass of 2005 Fallegro Favorita, a slightly effervescent white to help cut through the richness of salumi-heavy appetizers and a Monferrato Pinot Nero or Barbaresco to match with the meaty pasta dishes, but not all staff are up to helping with pairings. Some of them know their knowledge limits better than others. Whilst one waitress sensibly rushed to fetch the sommelier when our questions were too difficult for her, another insisted on making quite the show of her ignorance after we'd ordered a glass of something she'd recommended. She opened a new bottle in front of us, made quite a little theatre of sniffing it and approving it before passing it to the ever eloquent Fred who on sipping immediately declared "Crap!". I took a sniff and agreed that it was unmistakeably corked which left the waitress understandably red faced after her hollow perfomance. The lesson here - if you begin to suspect that your waitstaff's wine knowledge is lacking, insist on speaking with the wine director. You will most certainly get better wine service if you do. The approachable sommelier thoughtfully listened to my attempts to try and describe the kind of reds I like, before translating my needs into Italian and producing a ripe, soft, barnyardy bottle of Pigi Poggio di Bortolone. He read my instructions perfectly.
The first thing that lands on your table after you have been seated is a pile of bread sticks stacked like you could play a game of Mikado with them. A better usage would be to break them into bite-sized pieces before dipping them in the accompanying salsa verde. These thin, salty, oily sticks are irresistable, literally, and you might think Fred is being overly critical every time he remarks that the salsa needs more salt. Sometimes a rather dry, chewy-crusted, unexceptional roll will be delivered alongside but on other occasions you will need to actually ask if you need bread to pair with your salumi. If only they could be bothered to warm the bread to freshen it, the gesture might have some reason.
Perbacco's menu is wide-ranging. Divided into Crudo, Salumi, Appetizers, Soup/Pasta/Risotto and Main Courses plus Desserts, the temptation is to try something from every section. On one visit we sampled a crudo - tuna with a meyer lemon confit and anchovies - but because it didn't capture our imagination, and because they served it alongside the salumi after we had specifically requested that it should arrive first, and alone, we now gloss over that less compelling portion of the menu and go straight for the better cold cuts instead.
Perhaps because they know it is cruel to expect a diner to choose between their delicious sounding offerings of either salami, salumi or cured meats, Perbacco also offer a mixed plate with samples from each category. I am not the world's biggest fan of mortadella (it reminds me of a childhood filled with luncheon meat) but Perbacco's version is more than acceptable to me and a godsend to Fred who takes quiet pleasure in devouring the lion's share before declaring its greatness. I prefer the cured pork loin or the mild finocchiona with just a subtle hint of fennel so that it isn't overpowered. The rich and succulent ciccioli - Italy's answer to rillettes - was especially satisfying when it was served on one visit with a stunning mustard seed-dotted mostarda di cremona. More recently a less perky, more fruity, marmalade-like mostarda made a subtle change. Either way, it is still very good. Perbacco make a large proportion of their salumi in-house and it is worth a visit just for this if you are into charcuterie.
The appetizer section is more of a mixed bag. Don't let any overly talkative, theatrical waitress interfere in your menu selections else you might get steered away from the fritto misto you might be angling for toward the Italian version of steak tartare - a carne crude of veal - instead. In her infinite wisdom our waitress declared I should go for the lighter choices from the menu. I didn't have the mettle to argue incase my waistline took sides with her. She waxed lyrical about this preparation which actually turned out to be a pale and more bland imitation of its more robust and lively French neighbour. For all its light, fresh and clean tasting qualities, the net effect was just plain and unexciting so skip this menu stalwart if you are need a cold meat fix and delight in the the tastier salumi selections instead.
Radicchio salad dressed with creamy garlic, croutons and grana padano or parmigiano reggiano is a powerful combination of bitter leaves and garlic dressing which would benefit from a few more croutons to balance out the pungency and strength of the salad. An even better choice on the vegetable front, a more recent menu addition, is an arresting, selection of tender poached spring favourites like beans, asparagus, peas, baby courgettes, leeks and radishes glistening in a vicerous coating of olive oil, and then piled high before being crowned with a dill-sprinkled 'zabaglione' that was a close cousin to homemade mayonnaise. This plate was not only a joy, it was an inspiration.
These lighter, more summery dishes may have pushed heavier favourites from earier visits, like Coppa di Testa, off the menu. But if this warm pigs head terrine makes its way back any time, know that the tangy pickled shallots which balance the slivers of soft, fatty pressed meat offer a wonderful, zingy mouth experience on a perfectly grilled slice of filone bread that you shouldn't miss out on.
Missing out on the Main Courses, however, is not so much of a hardship at Perbacco, a lesson I learnt early on when I was turned off by a supposed celeriac puree that tasted, instead, like potato and a shameful celery salad, made from the root, where juliennes of the vegetable were soft instead of crispy, withered, brown around the edges and tasteless. Not even the accompanying Beef Short Rib Stracatto, despite being flavoursome and tender, could save the dish from its shortcomings at the time.
So now I skip that section of the menu and indulge in the pasta instead. Fred was smart from the get go, ordering the exact same pasta dish - the Tajarin - handcut tagliatelli, 5 hour pork sugo and porcini mushrooms, on every visit. He clearly knows something that I don't because at one point I imagined that, surely, the paparadelle with braised short rib ragu and roasted chanterelles must be even better. It wasn't, of course, and so I sent its meaty, extremely rich goodness (it was good, I just couldn't eat it with a Tajarin sitting in forking distance), back to the kitchen and took a plate of what Fred was having instead. I don't know what it is about that dish, but those buttery, thin, wiggly, tender, handcut noodles with the perfect amount of meat sauce on top deliver us both 100% satisfaction. There are two sizes, $10 and $15. The $15 is too much for me and the $10 is too little for Fred. Go figure. Go order!
My jury is still a little partially out on the desserts I've tried so far at Perbacco. The trio of gelati misti is so dominated by the wonderful caramel with black sea salt I can only wish they would offer me a big bowl of just that. The pistachio pot de creme, an ugly dessert if ever there was one, was slimey green, gooey, blobbed with red citrus and even displayed entertainment value when the waiter came over and suggestively wobbled it like a breast for our amusement. Or maybe that was my British imagination running away with itself? He did wobble it, it's true, but I can't actually confirm the intended analogy. It seemed cheeky (in a good way), to me. But how delicious for something so bad-looking. That dessert was the poster child for beauty on the inside. The last thing I ever ate at Perbacco was a torrone semifreddo, apricot and amaretti tuile that abruptly stopped any potential romance I had previously kindled with the pastry chef. The minute you try and pass a dry sponge base by me I lose immediate interest. Thank goodness of the glass of Moscato D'Asti that saved the last few minutes of the day.
I think I've had my fill of experimenting at Perbacco. If I do visit again, I'll have a much easier time deciding - Salumi, a tasty sounding appetizer and a small Tajarin. I can't almost guarantee that's the only combination that will ensure I'm 100% satisfied.
Perbacco was visited three times before this review was written