Friday, May 12, 2006


Finding good, innovative Italian food in San Francisco isn't always as easy as it sounds. Sure, there are a handful of winners out there - a few of my favorites being Jackson-Fillmore and Antica Trattoria - but good Italian isn't nearly as pervasive as one would assume. Perhaps it's the very high standards for great produce that comes with making Italian food great, but it is what it is.

The other thing that has recently struck me is a lack of neighborhood restaurants that deliver top-notch dining experiences for less-than-top-notch prices. My first reaction has always been to say that San Francisco is chalk full of this type of place - that the dining landscape is built on this. But dig a little deeper and ask me to name them, and I have unexpected trouble. Some, like La Folie for instance, have long-ago priced themselves out of this category. Others, like Blue Plate or Street, are going for a less-formal feel and scene than what I mean by "top-notch" in this instance. Still others, like Range, can't quite be considered "neighborhood" anymore when people from Sacramento and Santa Cruz are making reservations a month out. Finally, some others, like Firefly, Le Petit Robert, and Eos for instance, fall just short of their desired mark.

One place that is actually good Italian, and is actually a neighborhood place offering a top-notch dining experience, is
Sociale on Sacramento Street in Presidio Heights. Granted, this neighborhood is so sleepy that there's little competition, but this place really delivers. Last night we had a very reasonable four-course tasting menu with some excellent wine that came recommended by the knowledgable owner. With the food, like with the wine, here you can ask the staff to lead you in the right direction and you won't be disappointed.

I started with a crostini topped with a super-soft mozzarella. The crostini was nice and thin, the cheese was very fresh, and the flavors popped. Second course was an egg-noodle pasta dish with duck. As a light eater, a pasta dish as secondi usually puts me over the edge and wastes my entree, but the portion size was just right and the flavors made it well-worth it.

My main course was a rib-eye steak that was done perfectly. Some rib-eyes (by design) have too much fat content for my liking, but this one struck a nice balance and the sauce on top of it was really flavorful and interesting.
Finally, we (all four of us) finished with the Sfingi, which is pronounced just as it appears. This is basically a grown-up donut, with incredible homemade vanilla ice cream, all topped with honey. Yep, it's damn good.

Part of the highlight of Sociale is eating outside under the awning with the heat lamps. It's an incredibly comfortable and quiet place to have a conversation, and just festive enough that you don't feel inhibited at all by the other tables. It's a classic setting for a meeting with friends that you actually want to spend time with.

So as you can tell, I'm pretty positive on Sociale. The only downside is that with wine and everything else, the bill can add up a bit faster than you intended, but that's their goal, right?

One side note on this subject that both writing this post and also dining at Sociale made me think of was La Table - that ill-fated Bay Bread restaurant in Presidio Heights. They tried to create the neighborhood place I described above and failed miserably. It featured a $110 tasting menu with $25-per-entree-level food, The service was haughty and uncomfortable, and that description is being generous. The place generally sucked and the neighborhood rebelled and stopped going. Typically the Bay Bread Company comes out with great concepts, but this wasn't one of them.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I would consider Zarzuela an excellent neighborhood restaurant. Reasonable prices for stellar food.