Sweet Potato Gnocchi, Penne Amatriciana with House-Cured Pork Cheek, Pistachio Cake with Crème Fraîche
Occupation: Software Engineer
Location: San Francisco
Favorite Restaurant: Da Flora
Reviewed Da Flora: Wednesday, July 19, 2006
I found Da Flora by chance one hot fall evening soon after they opened. Things weren’t going very well that night. They were clearly over-booked and under-staffed. Yet while we were probably there three times longer than we should have been, I was hooked. I had just returned from a month in Italy and being at Da Flora was like being in Italy and at home.
The atmosphere is very homey with dark red walls, white tiled floor, and Venetian and cat bric-a-brac. Look around and you’ll see photos of customer’s babies (and cats) and artwork by friends and family. It’s all pretty unpretentious but it’s also a great romantic date space. But do not bring a date that’s on a diet for this is not a place for moderation.
Flora Gaspar and her chef, Jen McMahon, change their menu regularly to reflect what’s available and in season, but there is usually a pasta dish or two, some hearty meat dish, and then a seafood dish or three (Venice is on the water). There will also be a good array of salads and other starters to tempt you and make it difficult to decide on a three-course meal.
Their signature starter, which I had again just last night, is a sweet potato gnocchi in a sherry cream and bacon sauce. Yes, you can order it as a full order too, and I have. This is the dish to turn a vegetarian into a bacon eater. It’s so perfectly balanced between savory smoky sweetness that you can’t help yourself. I tried to only eat one last night knowing I had lots of food to come and I ate half the order. For lighter eaters I would recommend their Caesar salad, it’s one of the best in the city. Another specialty that we enjoyed last night but hasn’t been on the menu much lately is the porchetta tonnato, thinly sliced pork with a tuna/mayonnaise sauce. I must confess I avoided this dish at first until I ate it accidentally from a buffet at one of their Carnevale parties. It’s great. Try it! Another somewhat-regular starter that I don’t particularly enjoy but everyone else I know loves it (so I’m assuming I’m wrong) is the baccalà, a salt cod paste served on crostini.
For dinner you can’t go wrong with any of the pasta dishes. Pick which one to order by the ingredients you like. However, if any is prepared with the house-cured pork cheek, order it. (They like the pig here.) Last night I had the penne amatriciana with it and it was a delicious blend of tomato, onion, savory pork, and (not too) fiery pepper. My companion had a typical fish dish for the restaurant: a petrale sole, which had been pan-fried and was served on a bed of summer squash and corn. It looked as good as it tasted. Another classic fish favorite are the sardines. Bottom line, if it’s got pig or sardine in it, it’s a safe bet.
You’ll want amazing wines to pair with the amazing fresh flavors coming from the kitchen. Flora specializes in Italian wines and searches out varietals that are uncommon or not widely imported. Don’t be intimidated by the list. I usually just leave it in Flora’s hands. She’s very patient and will guide you through it, or you can take my path and tell her your tastes and budget and she’ll bring you amazing wine you’ve never heard of and may never see again. You might also hear some great stories of travels and travails while you discuss the wine.
Occupation: Theological Librarian
Favorite Restaurant: Picante
Reviewed Da Flora: Thursday, July 20, 2006
Talk about finding a hidden gem, we are adding Da Flora to our list of great restaurants for a special occasion. Walking in made us feel like we were going into someone’s home for dinner. My intrepid dining party made the wise choice to call the day before for a reservation, because this is a small place with only about 10 tables. We also threw them a curve by bringing along our preschooler, a particular eater. After dealing with the hassles of parking in North Beach (we recommend the garage across the street), the owner settled us into a lovely window seat to watch the traffic on Columbus and enjoy our meal. Although the portions weren’t large, this was some of the best Italian food I have eaten. We found the wine list was extensive and the limited, hand-written menu refreshing. It was easy to put together a meal we could eat family style, something the wait staff encouraged. For starters, we had the melon and smoked prosciutto as well as the sweet potato gnocchi.
Let’s just say we practically licked the plates clean it was so good.
Then we split an order of the homemade tagliatelle with zucchini in a light cream sauce and the double-cut pork chop covered in caramelized onions and sitting on top of mashed Yukon gold potatoes. The pork chop was so thick, we couldn’t believe it, and was cooked to a moist, meaty perfection. Once again, except for the bone from the pork chop, we cleaned our plates. Even our preschooler commented that the food tasted good, high praise from a particular eater. For dessert we order the pistachio cake with crème fraîche and the hand-churned lemon ice cream.
The cake was dense and flavorful while the lemon ice cream was wonderfully light. The normally chatty preschooler was practically silent devouring his ice cream. We also sampled a glass of the house white, a pinot grigio, and the house rosé, both very fine selections. As mentioned before, Da Flora has a very neighborhood atmosphere with burgundy walls, sparse décor, and sparkling white table linen. The wait staff is casual yet efficient and the owner clearly knows her wines. We also enjoyed that the kitchen was speedy, sending out the different courses in a timely manner. Although they did a good job of accommodating a preschooler, this isn’t necessarily a place for kids, as there is no children’s menu nor is there anything on the menu really designed for the younger set. We got around this by eating family style and sharing everything we ordered. Ultimately, because of the price, for me this is a special occasion restaurant, not weekly fare.
Occupation: Construction Manager
Location: San Francisco
Favorite Restaurant: Miller's East Coast West Delicatessen
Reviewed Da Flora: Friday, July 14, 2006
Most everyone who ventures to North Beach knows that parking can be a bear, so we decided this time not even to try to find street parking, rather we parked in a garage (ended up being $15) directly across the street from Da Flora. This charming little restaurant is located on a corner space that we figured had been around for over 100 years and used to be a corner market (we later found out that it was most likely a hardware store). The interior is painted a deep red, which lent to an atmosphere of comfort and relaxation. Wine bottles were positioned along the back corner wall and it appeared that all of the patrons were enjoying themselves. We had a reservation; we were seated immediately.
A feature we loved was the menu -- handwritten Primi and Secondi pages placed in a small book. Don and Becca started out the night with a salad of baby watercress accented with Bing cherries, Gorgonzola Dolce, and toasted almonds in a champagne vinaigrette. Nancie chose the dandelion greens in a honey mustard vinaigrette with grated hard-boiled eggs and roasted tomatoes. I enjoyed the smoked prosciutto and melon with a balsamic reduction. To say that we all thoroughly enjoyed our starters was an understatement -- they were fantastic. And on top of it all, the server described each dish with great accuracy. (For example, she described the dandelions as something you would like if you like rough greens, and that’s exactly what we expected). Everything was exquisitely prepared and the all items were very fresh.
We also started off with a bottle of Valpolicella wine and followed it with another. It was a good blend, and just what we had hoped for. Another item of note was this was the cheapest bottle of wine on the menu, and instead of trying to upsell us to another bottle, the server told us this was a fantastic bottle and she was right! The wine selection was a good size, but the beauty was more in its diversity (more then just your average Cabernet, Merlot, Zinfandel, etc.) and I would love to go back and dig into that list at greater length.
For our Secondi, Don and Becca chose local petrale sole pan-seared in a lemon caper butter with squash, cherry tomatoes, and white corn. Nancie had the duck livers, and I enjoyed the house-made tagliatelle with roast zucchini and pancetta in a lemon-laced arugula pesto. Again, everything was top-notch, extremely fresh, and unique. Nancie loved the livers, and while I’m not a liver fan, the flavor on the outside was superb. The fish was perfectly cooked, and the crust on the outside was beautifully done. We closed out our meal with Lemon Almond Pistachio cake with house made crème fraîche. A unique Sicilian dish, this cake was light on the flour and heavy on the crushed pistachio, so the body of the cake was all pistachio. It was delicious different, and again exactly as the server described (she also made the cake)!
All in all, our party thoroughly enjoyed the atmosphere, food, wine, service, and time spent at Da Flora. Without a doubt I would recommend it, and I would return myself. I told our guests (visiting from Michigan) that there are so many restaurants in North Beach, you not only have to have good food, but also something unique. Da Flora managed both with an original menu, fantastic atmosphere, and, of course, delicious food.