Crema di Zucca: Cream of Butternut Squash Soup with Gorgonzola and Sage; Tagliata: Grilled Angus Sterling Silver Flat Iron Steak with Balsamic Reduction, Tuscan Style Cannellini Beans and Sautéed Organic Broccoli Rabe; Garganelli: Pasta with Homemade Sausage
Occupation: Internet Retailer
Location: San Francisco
Favorite Restaurant: Bacco
Reviewed Bacco: Saturday February 2, 2008
I had the great good fortune of growing up with Italian grandparents. Whenever I visited, there was always something warm and inviting cooking in the kitchen. It didn’t matter what time of day it was, when you walked through the front door you felt welcome and comfortable. When I pull back the heavy curtain at the entrance to Ristorante Bacco and step inside, I always feel welcome and comfortable. That’s one of the reasons I’ve been going to this Noe Valley restaurant for the past decade. Bacco is my “go-to” restaurant no matter what the occasion: dinner with friends, client meetings over a bowl of pasta, dining with my very picky parents (gotta love ‘em), and even a kid-friendly dinner to celebrate my niece’s 10th birthday.
The menu holds true to the fundamentals of fine Italian cooking, quality ingredients prepared simply but well. My absolute favorite dish is the rigatoni pasta in a tomato cream sauce with fresh peas and homemade spicy sausage. There was a period of about two years when I ordered nothing but this pasta with a salad. It is a true comfort food. Whenever I visit, I really have to force myself to order something else. And, when I do, I usually go for the risotto of the day, especially if it’s October or November when the white truffles of Alba, Italy are in season, and truffle risotto is on the menu. The risotto at Bacco is always made to order. There are no shortcuts taken. The result is a creamy risotto, which always arrives perfectly cooked "all’onda," which means wavy (it's a wetter risotto, and if you shake the plate, waves form).
During a recent visit to Bacco we ordered the Burrata antipasto and squash soup as starters. The soup was more refined than the thick squash soup I’m accustomed to. It was velvety smooth and partnered perfectly with a light sprinkling of freshly grated Parmesan cheese. The flavors came together deliciously and reminded me of a wonderful dinner shared in Tuscany with my parents and cousins. The Burrata was new to me. I’d heard of it, but until recently it wasn’t available in the U.S. It is an imported cheese made of mozzarella and cream. It has an outer layer of mozzarella and a cream and mozzarella center. Bacco served a good-sized ball of Burrata on a bed of arugula with slices of prosciutto di Parma, black olives, and extra-virgin olive oil. The buttery sweetness of the cheese mixed with the saltiness of the ham and olives and the peppery arugula to great effect. We couldn’t resist using the homemade whole wheat bread to soak up the cheesy goodness.
Next we enjoyed the rigatoni as usual, and another new dish for us, stewed wild boar with vegetables and buckwheat polenta. We’d never tasted buckwheat polenta before, but it was delicious, warm, and nutty with a great texture that’s a bit coarser than cornmeal polenta. The flavors of the stew were very good, but the boar meat was a bit tough; it could have used some more time stewing.
The vegetable side dishes are always simple and well prepared. The Brussels sprouts were sautéed with bits of crispy pancetta. They were just the right texture, not overcooked or undercooked. The string beans were cooked with a classic spicy arrabbiata sauce, again done just right.
Desserts at Bacco are straightforward but delicious. A perennial favorite is the affogato. What’s not to like about vanilla gelato doused with espresso and topped with cream? The tiramisu, while not a cutting edge dessert, is the best in town, light and flavorful.
The service at Bacco is very Italian, in that it seems more professional than at other restaurants. Most of the waiters have been there for a few years and know not to pile dirty plates and napkins together. They have been trained to provide unobtrusive service, but when you ask a question or start up a conversation, the waiters are all quite knowledgeable and charming, after all they are true Italians. Likewise the owner and host, Paolo, is attentive, and he’s always happy to explain ingredients or preparation techniques.
There’s nothing as powerful as a food memory. Bacco always brings back happy memories of my trips to Italy and childhood dinners at my Nonni’s house. Best of all, it creates new memories of time spent with family, friends and, yes, even clients.
Occupation: Kaiser Permanente Pediatrician
Location: San Francisco
Favorite Restaurant: Alfred's Steakhouse
Reviewed Bacco: Wednesday January 23, 2008
The moment you arrive at Bacco, you realize that you have entered an establishment that is here for the long term. The solid dark ceramic floor, and sage green and sunflower walls are evocative of a restaurant that is part of an albergo (inn) located in a small town either in Umbria or Southern Tuscany.
We were cordially greeted by the owner and seated at a small round table with country Napoleonic chairs adjacent to the window in an attractive sunken dining room. The table was set with simple flatware and candlelit. Our Venetian waiter asked if we would like a glass of wine while we perused the various selections from the standard menu and the Speciali Del Giorno. This restaurant offers a three-course, prix fixe menu Sunday through Thursday for $37 (plus supplements, depending upon entrée) Included therein is one appetizer, entrée, and a dessert. A special that evening, which I considered but did not order, was the Risotto al Tartufo Bianco, a made-to-order risotto with fresh Oregon white truffle. (There was a supplemental charge of $7 for this entrée selection.)
I ordered the crema di zucca, a cream of butternut squash soup with gorgonzola and sage, while my guest ordered the Insalata Bacco, a blend of wild arugula, radicchio, roasted walnuts, Gorgonzola cheese, and balsamic dressing. Both were very good. The soup had a very nice depth of flavors without any being particularly dominating or detracting from the overall gustatory pleasure of the dish. In addition, regarding texture, it was neither too thin, nor too thick the way some soups these days often have become. In sum, it tasted homemade in every way. Likewise, the salad was very fresh and redolent of a good quality extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar, which was proportioned just right. It was neither too acidic nor too oily, but had the perfect balance of flavor as would be traditionally prepared in a fine establishment in Italy.
For the entrees, I selected the Tagliata, a grilled Angus Sterling Silver flat iron steak with balsamic reduction served with Tuscan-style cannellini beans and sautéed organic broccoli rabe (with a $3 supplement), while my guest chose the Vitello, a stuffed and breaded veal scaloppine with prosciutto, fresh mozzarella cheese, and caramelized onions. My steak was very good, if a bit rarer than the medium that I ordered. The balsamic reduction sauce was beautifully colored and rich without being the least bit greasy or acidic. On the other hand, the veal entrée seemed somewhat greasy and suffered from lack of crispness, perhaps due to not having been cooked in hot enough oil. It also could have been warmer. The northern Italian red sauce served along side lacked any real flavor or pleasing color and seemed too oily.
We each chose desserts. My guest took the tiramisu, which was light and creamy but not very strongly flavored while I chose the Sfogliata di Male, slices of baked caramelized apple in puff pastry and served with vanilla gelato. In addition to a light caramel glaze, the plate was dusted with cinnamon and sugar. A very nice ending.
Our wine was the last bottle of a Dolcetto di Dogliani Cascina Minella (2004) from the Piedmont region of Italy ($44). It was a very fine wine with a shimmering and clear color in the glass and hints of ripe red fruits, including cherry and black currant.
Bacco is a restaurant with an ambience that is soft and romantic; nevertheless it feels a bit sparse and unfinished in execution. Also, the table settings are reflective of this by introducing porcelain exhibition bowls and plates, which add to the dramatic and warm atmosphere. The restaurant’s quest to remain up to date in the face of strong competition in this category could be enhanced by adding more distinctive wine glasses and a continued search for new and interesting regional recipes to introduce to San Francisco. Overall, the food is good and sometimes excellent, while the portions remain adequate but a little small. The establishment received an excellent score of 94% from the San Francisco Health Department in an area where others did not fare nearly as well.
Occupation: High Tech Product Designer
Location: San Francisco
Favorite Restaurant: El Tonayense Taco Truck
Reviewed Bacco: Sunday January 27, 2008
My girlfriend (Mara) and I went to Bacco on what seemed to be the rainiest, windiest, coldest Sunday night in the history of San Francisco. It's on a quiet street in Noe Valley, only four blocks from the 24th Street J-train stop, but I was thoroughly chilled by the time we walked in. What I noticed right off the bat about Bacco: It was warm. Cozy, even. It's got a funky layout, the dining room is split-level with high ceilings, and it's strung lengthwise across two storefronts with nice big windows onto the street, but it seems to make good use of the space. We both felt like it was a comfy spot from which to watch the storm.
Food-wise, it was solid, not outstanding. The crowd seemed neighborhood-y, and I get the sense that Bacco aims to be a place that delivers the dependables and serves up seasonal favorites, not a place that's going to blow your food-mind or make you feel like you're at the very cuttingest of edges. And thank goodness for that -- who needs flash on a chilly night? I thought that the garganelli was pretty remarkable. The pasta was fresh and springy and really tasty, and the homemade sausage was plentiful and spicy. Mara's apple tart was good, too. (The dessert took a while to arrive, but when it did, it was clear that the tart had just come out of the oven -- or it tasted like it did, anyway).
The service was unpretentious, attentive, competent -- you name it. It was good. It was professional and classy, i.e. having a super-chic haircut does not qualify you for a job here. Anyway, our waiter didn't hover over us or secretly spirit dishes away as we glanced out the window, but he was always around, and he capably answered all of our questions. It was clear from the beginning that we were in good hands, and that's all that matters, really.
I know Check, Please! is generally wine-oriented, so I'll say this: The wine list appeared to be Italian in language and one page in length.
The beer list, on the other hand, left much to be desired. As much as I like Italian food, Italian beer is, in my experience, disgusting. Maybe it doesn't travel well? In any case, there are a great many local beers that taste quite nice with pasta, and none were on Bacco's list. On another night, a moderately cool night, this would have been a big deal for me. The weird thing is that even beer-ignorant restaurants will serve one decent beer (perhaps by accident), so maybe there's a method to Bacco's madness? Maybe they just don't want customers to drink beer? Check, Please! should do an investigative follow-up to this.
In the end, Bacco is kinda your father's Oldsmobile, and that's not a bad thing. If I lived in the neighborhood, I'd probably head there on cold, rainy nights, and I'd definitely explore the pasta section further.