I never set foot in the old Tosca Cafe in North Beach. The name never popped up in the first few months I moved to the Bay; these days, dives (however famous) don’t tend to enter a list of must-see bars for city newbies unless they’re in the Mission. The name didn’t show up on my radar until the news last January that the infamous bar had been bought by April Bloomfield, the famously British, offal-centric New York chef, along with her business partner Ken Friedman. By then, of course, the news was fraught with concern about the Manhattan-ification of San Francisco and the death of neighborhood institutions.
I was just excited to have the opportunity to taste Bloomfield’s cooking. I’ve also never dined at any of her east coast outposts. Pictures and stories of her bombastically meaty dishes have taunted me for years. Finally, time and place aligned. Tosca is only a short BART ride away. I can go whenever I’d like—or else, as often as my wallet allows.
For a bar-turned-restaurant with no reservations and a short, small-plates-focused menu, Tosca is very expensive. You’ll need to shell out at least $30 for one of the three entrees (and $42 for half a chicken). Putting together a meal of a couple of more diminutive dishes will easily top that. Cocktails, including their spiked house cappuccino served out of their gorgeous antique espresso machine, are a cool $12. Beer isn’t much cheaper, and wines (mostly old world) run on the high end as well.
Is it worth the cost, you ask? Those $12 cocktails? Superbly crafted, gimmick-free classics by Bourbon and Branch alum Isaac Shumway. The miniscule, five dollar saucer of warm marinated olives? Redolent of anise, studded with braised fennel, and compulsively eatable. Pickled giardiniera (also $5) is fresh and light, with a pleasant pucker.
Roasted Tokyo turnips ($7), greens attached, tossed with garlic, marjoram, and chili were a runaway hit. The sharp white orbs are transformed in the oven, turning sweet and fork-tender, and the lemon-y, grassy notes of the marjoram enliven the olive-oil slicked vegetables.
The chicken liver spiedini ($7) are even better: Three meaty livers come grilled and skewered atop thinly sliced grilled bread topped with a potent garlicky gremolata and sweet marsala sauce that focus the iron-y richness of the livers. Lumaconi pasta ($17) studded with smoky speck, bitter puntarelle, and lemon-y breadcrumbs is a solid choice as well. It verges on too salty, but the creamy sauce keeps the toothsome pasta in balance.
Yet if there’s one dish that has inspired more simultaneous praise and consternation, it’s the "secret" meatballs ($12). Not listed on the menu, but cheerfully introduced by servers, the trio of earthy, guanciale-laced beef and pork meatballs served in a wine-forward tomato sauce are indicative of Tosca’s ethos. Like the rest of the dishes on the menu, the meatballs are expertly prepared—one cannot even think the words “dry” or “tough” in their presence—but, at $4 per meatball, they verge on extravagantly expensive. (Tosca has actually lowered the price on the special; at opening the meatballs were $15.) For a dish of peasant origins, the cost is laughable.
I suppose you’re paying for more than just the meatballs. Tosca’s renovation has affected more than just the kitchen. Everything in the restaurant is polished, from the espresso machine to the red leather boots to the bartenders’ crisp white coats. The room feels like a time warp; Tosca effortlessly evokes a mid-century ethos of aspiration. Service is sunny, sharp, and attentive, even when dining in the crowded bar area (a wait for a table at 5pm on a Sunday was close to 2 hours). It is as if Bloomfield managed to conjure the best of New York service and meld it with the utter casualness of San Francisco.
Even with great service, I find it hard to justify a full, multicourse meal at Tosca, at least until I’ve got a tech-sized salary. But I find no problem in dropping in for a drink, a few meatballs, and a roasted vegetable or two. I might just have to go out for a slice of pizza afterwards.