Chef/Co-Owner David Nayfeld holding Marinara, Anchovy, Arugula Pizze at Che Fico (Wendy Goodfriend)
Four years in the making, a trio of alums from some of Chicago and New York’s most important restaurants arrive on Divisadero with a chic, lofty Italian spot serving rustic pastas, San Francisco-style pizza, and can’t miss cocktails and desserts.
Walking into the second floor dining room of NoPa’s newly-opened Cal-Ital destination, diners can’t help but think to themselves how cool the design is. They’ll tell themselves, “Wow, what a formidable pizza oven.” Or, “My goodness, that is one long, never-ending communal table.” Perhaps, they’ll even ask themselves, “When was the last time I saw a skylight in a San Francisco restaurant?” However, the most likely initial comment will undoubtedly be “What a fig” because of the ever-photogenic fig tree-printed wallpaper that greets everyone entering Che Fico (for the record, it’s pronounced like Kay fee-koh).
Well, there are no figs on any plates during the early spring season at this restaurant (sorry, David Chang) but the fig design motif makes obvious sense because Che Fico does literally translate to “What a fig” in Italian. More appropriately, though, for this chic Italy-via-seasonal California taverna, the phrase also means, “Oh that’s cool” in Italian slang. Indeed, this joint project from a trio of alums who spent significant time working at some of Chicago and New York’s restaurant heavyweights is indeed a really, really cool addition to the Divisadero corridor that just might be SF’s coolest dining neighborhood of the moment. There is a definite “it” factor going on here.
Che Fico comes courtesy of chef David Nayfeld, pastry chef Angela Pinkerton and co-owner and partner Matt Brewer. They are rock stars of the restaurant industry without the Instagram-crazy, TV-watching groupie followings that seem to be the defining mark for celebrity chefs and restaurateurs today. Nayfeld grew up in the East Bay and used to hang out in what is now Che Fico’s neighborhood all the time because his mom is a chiropractor at the Fillmore Health Center just a few blocks away. As he likes to sarcastically say now, at least his mother can walk along Divisadero and show all her friends and colleagues that her son may have been up to trouble in the teenage years but it all worked out just fine. His resume is a story unto itself, beginning by stocking vegetables at Paul’s Produce in Alameda as a teenager and making pizzas at a Greek restaurant, then heading to Los Angeles as an 18-year old with no real agenda. He eventually landed at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY and landed coveted externships at Nobu in Manhattan and now-closed Aqua here in San Francisco.
After graduation, one of Aqua’s chefs Peter Armellino (now the chef of The Plumed Horse and Pasta Armellino in Saratoga and one of the Bay area’s true pasta maestros) brought Nayfeld back to Aqua as a line cook. From there, Nayfeld’s career touched all over New York, Europe and Las Vegas with stints in the kitchens of some of the world’s great restaurants (Mirazur in the south of France, Frenchie in Paris, Tickets in Barcelona, New York’s Eleven Madison Park) and the now-closed Cru in New York where chef Shea Gallante’s pasta tasting menus helped give Nayfeld the pasta bug that is very apparent at Che Fico. Basically, Nayfeld’s chef credentials are the culinary equivalent of a Stanford undergraduate degree combined with a Yale law degree. Yes, there is some serious talent here.
Nayfeld met Pinkerton at Eleven Madison Park (where she won a James Beard award for her exquisite dessert creations) and kept in contact with her when she moved west to help orchestrate the pastries for the Mission’s beloved Craftsman and Wolves. Meanwhile, Brewer comes to the Bay Area via Chicago, where he served as a chef de partie at the much-acclaimed fine dining spot, L2O, and co-founded Hogsalt Hospitality, a restaurant group with a slew of popular, casual-meets-midscale hits (Bavette’s, Au Cheval) in that city à la Hi Neighbor Group (Stones Throw, Trestle) here in San Francisco. Together, it’s a powerful team that mixes fine dining experience with successful trendy, more concepts of the past. The one common trait for the trio is that they all certainly want Che Fico to be unfussy and relaxed. After all, there is fig tree-print wallpaper at the entrance.
Don’t get carried away thinking that Che Fico is following the wave of openings in recent months (Souvla, Namu Stonepot, Horsefeather, Sightglass Coffee). Che Fico has been an anticipated opening not just for a year — but for years. The planned was first hatched four years ago and media coverage started shortly thereafter because anytime that “Eleven Madison Park” is attached to a name, it’s automatically a big deal. Unlike many other long-delayed restaurant openings in this city construction-jammed, expensive city, Che Fico wasn’t really delayed. It just wasn’t ready until now and the media attention incorrectly made it seem destined to open long before any realistic date.
Nowhere does it say “rustic Cal-Ital” on the trio’s resumes but that is exactly the genre they are working with here, partly out of their love for it and partly because of San Francisco diners’ unwavering adoration for what is basically the city’s unofficial official cuisine. Nayfeld counts Zuni Café and Che Fico’s neighbor, Nopa, as his favorite spots in San Francisco. Those two restaurants are beloved by a wide cross-section of San Franciscans for being something for everyone, whether it’s a celebratory blowout dinner or a quick plate of pasta and a cocktail. We’ll have to wait at least a decade to see if he’s found the same recipe for success as those timeless modern legends.
If you are looking for the Cal-Ital background in the kitchen, it comes notably via Nayfeld’s chef de cuisine, Evan Allumbaugh, who most recently was chef de cuisine at Flour + Water. While that Mission favorite is much more pasta-skewed, Che Fico really does look at the broader picture around the boot from Rome’s Jewish ghetto to Bologna’s hearty and meaty pastas.
There are four primary anchors of Nayfeld’s menu — San Franciso-style pizza (more on what THAT means later), pasta, a trio of wood-roasted large platters, and a section devoted to the Judeo-Roman cooking of Italy, cucina ebraica.
All you really need to know about Nayfeld’s pizza-making at Che Fico is that the name of the dough’s precious sourdough starter (“Loretta”) appears on the façade of the highly specified brick oven made in Naples. Yes, those bricks can handle the heat — they can even handle the heat of Vesuvius according to Nayfeld.
This San Francisco-style stems from the whole-wheat, ancient grains crust itself, produced like sourdough bread from natural fermentation and yielding a crispy exterior and bubbly-spongy inner texture with the distinctive “crumb” holes that are so coveted by the likes of Josey Baker and Tartine, but rarely discussed in pizza circles. The style also alludes to the fact that Nayfeld is a certified Neopolitan pizzaiolo but he also loves New York-style slices. Neopolitan pizza can’t be eaten by hand without becoming a taco or a mess. Nayfeld had to take matters into his own hands (literally and figuratively) and adapt the best of Naples, New York and sourdough-made San Francisco for the pies. He also dusts the pizzas with semolina instead of flour, like is sometimes done in this city, to avoid excess charring.
His half-dozen kinds of pizze ($17-21) range from the funky (pineapple, red onion and fermented chili) to classic (margherita or mushroom and sausage) to salad-like with a pile of arugula hiding marinara sauce and anchovy. There is also a nod to the late, great leader of Zuni Café with the Ode to Judy Rodgers pie, topped simply with marinara and ricotta salata, just like one of the Zuni Café lunch pizza standards.
Pastas are made in-house, sometimes extruded by machines or rolled out on tables during the afternoon or made by hand. The latter category includes a goat’s milk ricotta gnudi with pomodoro sauce ($19); cavatelli tossed with broccoli ($16); and the Bologna classic, tagliatelle al ragu ($21), where thin strands of al dente dough are lightly coated with a deeply nuanced ground beef compote. Nayfeld also tosses together razor clams and Dungeness crab with biggoli nero ($24), offers a chile-laced rigatoni amatraciana with guanciale and the rarely-seen mafaldini (a thin, curvy and ribbon-like pasta) with hazelnuts and a pesto made of fava beans and preserved Meyer lemons from Warm Springs Ranch, Brewer’s family farm in Sonoma County ($16). It is worth noting that the pastas at Che Fico are priced substantially lower than the average primi at Cal-Ital peers Cotogna and Flour + Water, and half of the price of those at SPQR.
Outside of fried artichokes as a seasonal appetizer at the Roman-themed Locanda in the Mission, San Franciscans probably only know Italy’s centuries-old Judeo-Roman cuisine from trips to the Eternal City because the guidebooks tell them to try it when in Rome. Che Fico does indeed have those fried artichokes, ready to dip in a lemon aioli ($11), but will also introduce most dinners to the arancini-resembling fried rice and provolone croquettes called suppli ($4 each) and caponata Ebraica a la Rosi ($8), a ratatouille-like concoction of potatoes, peas, olives, peppers, eggplant, golden raisins and walnuts. The cuisine also paid special attention to resurrecting lesser cuts of meat and offal, so diners will find grilled chopped duck liver with onions in various forms ($9); a chicken heart and gizzard salad ($14); and corned veal tongue with salsa verde ($16).
It won’t be easy with a party of less than four to save room for the large portion-only secondi but the massive wood-fired oven in the heart of the kitchen almost demands for tables to comply. A half or whole roast chicken ($27/$48) is another Zuni nod and an early signature dish, accompanied by agrodolce and creamy polenta. The opening secondi roster also features a whole-grilled turbot with collard greens and crispy capers (MP) and a slow-roasted lamb leg with wood-roasted potatoes and watercress salad ($44).
Still hungry? Before all of this, diners can enjoy some light antipasti like a half or whole chopped salad ($8/$15), house-pickled giardiniera ($8) that you can’t miss in the preserving jars around the open kitchen or an almost Provençal albacore tuna conserva with caper berries, artichoke, olives and aïoli ($14). Take note that the coppa “sando” starter is currently the only way to try the excellent housemade focaccia ($8). It’s literally a coppa di testa mini-sandwich wedged into a hunk of olive oil-slicked focaccia.
On that cured meat subject, housemade charcuterie is a huge project that Nayfeld is working on, as seen by the charcuterie locker in the dining room and the out-of-sight charcuterie aging in the kitchen’s walk-in. The sad news is that all of the charcuterie isn’t ready yet. Diners need to have patience, though, because great housemade mortadella, nduja and culatello take a lot of time and love in order to become an antipasti. They will come in the months to come. In the meantime, have another pasta.
All of this food will make you thirsty and that’s where we’re remiss in saying that Nayfeld, Pinkerton and Brewer are the only headliners of this trio. Christopher Longoria is a star in the San Francisco cocktail world thanks to his fantastic drink creations over the years at Polk Street’s 1760, blending elaborate combinations and quirky ingredients with careful balance. At Che Fico, he’s taking dry, often herb-forward Italian libation profiles way, way beyond the Aperol and Negroni sphere. Each cocktail ($14) is named for an herb or simply an elevated classic of the canon, like a Cognac-based milk punch or the chile vodka-forward “Basil” mellowed with eau de vie and Dimmi, a sharp, savory aperitivo. Amaro plays a prominent role in most drinks such as the boozy cold brew-based “Cafe” with Amaro Montenegro, absinthe, sweet vermouth and rum. Meanwhile, Italian pre-dinner classics like limoncello slip into the fold, joining Strega (a liqueur), Cardamaro, lime and black pepper cachaça in the “Pepper.”
On the wine front, Francesca Maniace (Commonwealth) created a strong Italy-centric list with several California favorites involved, as well. About 80% of the 60 or so bottles are below the $100 mark, many of which come from beloved producers of all ages with cult followings like Produttori del Barbaresco or Matthisasson and Massican of California. With such tempting wines and cocktails — and the food to sop up a few rounds of them — it’s great to see that Che Fico will be open until 1am on Fridays and Saturdays, following in the late night footsteps of the NoPa neighborhood’s restaurant namesake.
Che Fico’s design is by the Oakland–based firm of architect Jon de la Cruz, DLC ID, and the gorgeous layout and subtle details go well beyond the figs. The main feature of the 120-seat space is just that — it’s big and spacious with an open, loft-like feel similar to a small cathedral but actually hails from its prior incarnation as an auto body shop. That auto body shop has shifted into an assortment of contemporary elements (raw wood, lots of tile, Italian marble chef’s counter overlooking the kitchen, giant communal table) mingling with old-school red sauce joints (plush red leather booths, dim lighting) and an Instagram-ready glow in the daytime when sunlight streams in through a pair of skylights and the side windows overlooking Divisadero. Heck, everything here is gorgeous, detailed and cheery — already filtered and ready for photo-sharing in the same way SF’s hippest atmospheric restaurants are like Liholiho Yacht Club and Leo’s Oyster Bar. Not surprisingly, the latter is a DLC ID design. James Beard voters might as well already put Che Fico into the semifinalist round for the 2019 Best Design awards.
Roughly a third of the tables and all bar spots at Che Fico’s 15-seat zinc topped bar by the entrance will be set aside for walk-ins. There is also a private dining room for 16 with a table made of a Valley Oak tree from the Brewer’s family farm. The private dining room also has more quirky wallpaper but, this time, it’s a colorful print of Italian pop singer Adriano Celentano’s record albums. Nayfeld’s parents used to play his music all the time as their first taste of uncensored music after leaving communist Russia. The bathrooms have both the same wallpaper in black and white and Celentano’s music playing constantly. It’s a great way to make sure nobody will linger too long there…
With all of this interior talk, it’s impossible to forget the single most striking design feature. Yes, it’s the exterior sign where a local company made Che Fico’s sign and nestled it into the retro arrow sign that the auto body shop had. And, no, the restaurant is not allowed to turn on the lights per neighborhood rules. As far as marquees of San Francisco, this one isn’t quite the Castro Theater but isn’t too far behind.
Don’t think for a moment that we skipped dessert. Nayfeld purposely bypassed yeast for his pizza crust because that’s a key ingredient in making heavy pizza slices sit like bricks in diners’ stomachs — but chances are the table will be slowing down once the dessert menu arrives. Pinkerton is truly one of the country’s most gifted pastry chefs. Using Bay Area seasonal fruit and Italy’s more dense-style of pastries as a template, it’s a thrill for Bay Area diners to see her producing the likes of wood-fired citrus crostata ($16 and serves two) or an olive oil cake with roasted strawberry vinaigrette ($12). The showstopper, without question, is the bittersweet chocolate budino ($13) with a host of textural contrasts ranging from crunchy salt and pepper walnuts to a silky salted caramel gelato to a hefty pour of olive oil as a finishing, assertive touch. For more gelato fun, by the way, diners can finish with scoops of house-churned gelato in flavors like malted yogurt or strawberry rhubarb sorbetto ($4 for one scoop).
With the last spoonful of budino gone, don’t despair, there is still more to come — in the coming year ahead. When a restaurant waited as long as an entire Summer Olympics or presidential election cycle to open, patience is dearly important. There is the aforementioned housemade charcuterie to wait for. There will also be Pinkerton’s ground-level luncheonette-evoking concept called “Theorita,” where pastries, pies and lunch favorites in the daytime will evolve into Nayfeld’s adaptations of Americana classics for dinner.
San Francisco diners are obviously more than excited that Che Fico finally is here and surely the reservations and walk-in seats will be filled from happy hour until late night for the foreseeable future. Sure, it’s another pasta and pizza spot in this pasta and pizza-mad city. But it also isn’t — they’re just one of many components to the whole experience. In Nayfeld’s eyes, this is “noble food” that requires painstaking “craftsmanship.” He’s right. This is home-cooking that nobody, or at least most of us non-professional chefs, can come close to replicating. It’s bringing together one of the world’s most treasured cuisines with the ingredients of the world’s most produce-friendly climate and having fun in the process with a few cocktails.
Oh that’s cool.
838 Divisadero St.
San Francisco, CA 94117
Ph: (415) 416-6959
Hours: Dinner Tue-Thu 5:30pm-11pm, Fri-Sat 5:30pm-1am; closed Sunday and Monday
Facebook: Chef David Nayfeld
Price Range: $$$ (most dishes $16-$20)