Although restaurants can be, and often are described as being, sexy, they aren’t really sexy in that way, the people way. So far as we know, and for reasons that I need not get into, they don’t actually indulge. Which means that Piccino Cafe, a petite jewel of a restaurant that opened a few months ago on a quiet Dogpatch side street between the furies of I-280 and Third Street, cannot be the love child of, say, Universal Cafe and A16. Although such a union is flatly impossible – Universal and A16 have never met, never been alone together – one can’t stop wondering. Piccino’s serious yet warm industrial look (stainless steel, blond wood, glass), the almost tissue-thin pizza crusts coming out of the kitchen, and the ingredients obtained from impeccable sources all seem profoundly familiar if not familial.http://www.youtube.com/
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If Piccino were a child, we might have our answer by waiting for it to grow up a bit. But, as the name suggests, the restaurant is tiny, with just a half dozen or so tables (not counting sidewalk seats) in a space largely given over to the kitchen. It’s almost like a catering kitchen or the original Citizen Cake; the setup seems tilted more toward making food than serving it to people, and we did notice quite a few takeout pizza boxes being whisked away by people who clearly live in the changing neighborhood. But despite the tight space, service is sharp; each table is swiftly brought a Straus Organic Creamery milk bottle filled with water (chilled but not filtered) and a plate of crispy flatbreads, and even at the outdoor tables, one’s needs are continually seen to.
It is a fact that sometimes restaurants, like children and even love children, do grow up: Delfina began in quarters no roomier than Piccino’s and is now an order of magnitude bigger, plus an adjoining pizzeria. Part of Piccino’s charm is its snugness, but the food is so good that demand is bound to raise the issue of expansion sooner or later, probably sooner. While that question simmers, wedge yourself in at one of the knee-to-knee tables, pour yourself a tumbler of water from your personal stash, have a bite of flatbread, and scan the brief menu.
What do you see? A selection of pizzas, of course, including such staples as margherita and napoletana ($9.25) – the latter swabbed with blood-red tomato sauce and dotted with halved black olives and bits of anchovy – along with special pies that vary according to season and inspiration. The people at the next table could be overheard urgently discussing a pizza topped with, among other things, speck.
"Maybe it’s fish," one of them said doubtfully. Her companion furrowed his brow. Only moments before, we too had furrowed our brows in bafflement about speck before asking our server. His answer: smoked prosciutto. The speck pie ($10.75), a bianco, was also topped with fresh arugula and mild white cheese. Since we like arugula, we’d started with a simple arugula salad ($7) decorated with Parmesan shavings and drizzled with balsamic vinegar – a simple and perfect combination, like an unforgettable piece of chamber music.
A weightier opener is the antipasti platter ($8.50), a blending of some usual suspects – country pate with Dijon mustard, thin coins of salume, black and green olives (mind the pits!) – along with a few special guests, including a chickpea spread that wasn’t hummus (coarser of texture, no tahini) and a bouquet of pickled baby carrots and radishes. There was flatbread on the side, of course, for clean-up duty.
The evening menu differs from its midday confrere mainly in the addition of a few nonbready main dishes. We did not try the evening’s risotto, though a plate that arrived at the next table (opposite the speck-flummoxed folk) looked fabulously creamy. We did try the duck confit ($14), a gently crisped leg and thigh half-recumbent on a bed of dandelion greens given some sweetness and crunch by sections of pixie tangerines and rubbly little bits of crushed hazelnuts. Duck confit is one of those ideal dishes for restaurants – it’s elegant and slightly exotic, highly skill- and time-intensive, with most of the work being done days beforehand and not much to do at the finish besides crisping the skin and warming the meat through – and Piccino’s version does honor to the kitchen. I wouldn’t have minded some lentils on the side, though maybe they’re considered cliche now, or maybe Americans just don’t have much use for legumes other than the peanut. And even with peanuts, we prefer the artifice of grinding them into paste.
There was at lunch an interesting minestrone ($5.50) that consisted largely of a mocha-colored cranberry-bean puree in which orecchiette floated like inner tubes on a muddy summer river. Perhaps legumes are more acceptable to the American palate if pulverized so as to be unrecognizable? And where there is soup, there is likely to be sandwich: of salume cotto ($8.75), slices of warm cured meat on grilled country bread. With arugula! And a nice heap of vinegar-modulated lentil salad on the side, with the legumes daringly left intact.
The advent of Piccino tells us which way the wind is blowing in the Dogpatch. In the evening the neighborhood’s streets are quiet (all the traffic is on the freeway a few blocks west and Third Street a few blocks east), and the houses show a friendly dowdiness, like a grandmother’s dresses. But the restaurant’s crowds are young and knowing, and if they’re not sure what speck is, they expect to find out. *
Mon.-Wed., 7 a.m.-3 p.m.; Thurs.-Fri., 7 a.m.-8:30 p.m.; Sat., 8 a.m.-8:30 p.m.; Sun. (coffee bar only), 8 a.m.-3 p.m.
801 22nd St., SF
Beer and wine
Cash only (credit cards pending)