Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Pazzia Caffe and Trattoria

Northbeach and Coit Tower from the Financial District, SF.
Long before I had ever set foot in Firenze (or Italia for that matter), I would usually not weigh in too heavily on matters regarding the authenticity of one Italian restaurant or another.

I had some opinions, but I kept them to myself wisely knowing that there was less that I knew than what I didn't know - and to some degree that is the same today as it was 15 or 20 years ago.

Pizza at Pazzia.
Of course, I was an avid watcher of Public Television cooking shows - before Mario Batali ever set foot on The Food Network he was a fixture on PBS along with opinion makers like The Frugal Gourmet (Jeff Smith), Julia Child, Jacques Pepin and of course Lidia Bastianich.

Adding to my limited bona fides in the 1990s, we had two pretty good Italian restaurants in proximity to where I lived: Cafe D'oro, a restaurant that eventually imploded in scandal, and the Baricelli Inn, Cleveland's Michelin-rated fine-dining centerpiece nestled among dozens of mediocre or worse "Italian" restaurants in Cleveland's Little Italy.

The first, D'oro, had a good run until the death of Coventry in the mid-1990s, and fell apart quickly.

Many of us shed a tear when the wood-fired pizza oven was dismantled to make way for the nightclub that now resides in the space. The food was better than average at worst, at least prior to the end, and they employed a dyed-in-the-wool Italian to tend the pizza oven.

At the tender age of "Not Yet Old Enough To Drink" Cafe D'oro hipped me to the very authentic European practice of day drinking red wine while snacking on cold-cuts and proper cheeses, that tomatoes are for late summer and that pizza doesn't have to have a "culinary clown car" of toppings.

I never had the pleasure of dining at The Baricelli Inn, but I did have the pleasure of "dating" a waitress who would spend a great deal of time in Paul Minnillo's "cheese cave" (he was among the first restauranteurs in America to evangelize the concept of "affinage"). She would come home wanting to shower and I would want to curl up with her and all her cheese funkiness. It's not exactly a cheese fetish, but it's close.

Now Manillo runs the excellent Flour Restaurant in Moreland Hills, Ohio.

My sister lived in Florence (Firenze) for several years, learning to speak Italian fluently. I visited her for two weeks in 2003 after being laid off. We returned years later as a group, after she had moved back to New York, with some friends and met up with her ex-boyfriend (a Florentine Irish pub owner, no less) in a rented villa (less expensive that you would think, split 8 ways).

Mornings would start late, afternoons would slip into evenings - a walk in the trellised hills, glasses of wine, naps.

We would tour Tuscany's winding roads to go out to eat, explore Medieval castles and villages. We would make dinner, pasta, roasts, antipasti, more wine. We would wave at each other and call back and forth "ciao, ciao!"

Those are my Italian food bona fides - such that they are.

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Pazzia Caffe
The first, best thing about Pazzia Caffe is that it is not in North Beach, San Francisco's "little Italy" and a district for which I have abiding lack of affection despite its own bona fides (ground zero of the beat generation, the wedding place of Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio, a truer, older subculture of literature and art that puts to shame all that the Summer of Love and Haight-Ashbury has produced).

Modern North Beach is the valley on which the collar popping crowd descend from their domiciles in Nob Hill, Pacific Heights and the Marina. Like many places in the Mission, I will not set foot in most of North Beach after dark. I stay out of it during tourist-heavy events (Fleet Week, the Jazz Festival, Hardly Strictly, Noise Pop, etc).

That's because I am a curmudgeon and complainer who has lost my joie-de-vivre. I encourage the uninitiated to walk Columbus from end to end on a sunny afternoon, stopping first for espresso and when you near the end of your journey, a glass of Chianti.

Stop in Vesuvio for an Irish coffee or bloody mary. Check out City Lights Books while it's still there. Get a table dance at the Lusty Lady - San Francisco's unionized worker-owned peeler bar.

Yes, a union strip club. Take that, Portland!

North Beach is not the hell-hole I often describe it as, and, well, I lived in the Mission for ten years so what does that say about me? Still, it's nice to not actually have to be in North Beach to get good Italian.

Its even nicer not to be in Cleveland's Little Italy. What can be said about Cleveland's Little Italy? I asked a good friend of mine back home who is in the food and beverage biz:

Boy am I going to catch hell for this...
[ To be fair, there a lot to like about Little Italy, and it's certainly not as bad as it was in the 1970s and 1980s. But it has a well earned reputation for violence, cloistered, close-mindedness and yes, racism and homophobia. As the years go by, the neighborhood improves. ]

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Pazzia is on Third Street between Folsom and Harrison, which was just adjacent to what was originally a garment district of SOMA (the SF MUNI shuttling Asian immigrant textile workers between warehouses and Chinese and Pacific-rim enclaves along Stockton in Chinatown all the way out to the Sunset).

In the middle 1990s the avant garde of the Internet revolution had moved in, with their ironic young people and higher rents, into an area called "The Media Gulch" whose nexus was South Park. Further East, a golf driving range and Graybar Electronics store stood where Willie Mays Plaza and AT&T Park now reside: China Basin.

Nearby is the Moscone Center, named after San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, murdered in 1978 along with Supervisor Harvey Milk by former Supervisor Dan White. Moscone Center was the host of the 1984 Democratic National Convention, which was a bit of a bust for Democrats, and more recently the SF Fancy Foods Show.

Across the street is the Pacific Telephone and Telegraph (PacBell) office where Dilbert creator Scott Adams allegedly worked. SFMOMA is on the next block.

I first set foot in Pazzia with my purple-haired roommate and a number of technicolor-haired friends back in 1997.

"This is the best Italian food in San Francisco," said my roommate, who we will refer to by his middle name, Richard, or Dick for short.

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Pro-tip, always ask to "taste" the wine first. Free wine.
It may not be the best, but it is quite good.

Even the sucker course is worth diving into.

Of course, the real fun of Pazzia is the Italian-to-the-bone staff and the owner, an artist and painter who is responsible for the decor and who also designs wine labels (must be nice).

Its one of my favorite places to take dates - because the staff will flirt shamelessly with your companion. It shows confidence that you can have all these handsome Italian men falling over themselves to flatter her. Chivalry isn't dead, its in SOMA.

The food is good, and represents a wide cross-section of Italian styles: Emilia-Romagna, Toscano, Roma, Milanese, Sicilian.

Their pizzas are Napolitano to the core: thin, crispy pizzas large enough to a good meal for a single, hungry person, or to be shared by up to four people. The pizzas arrive table side nuclear hot and bubbling, the crust has a hint of a flakiness to it as if a small amount of oil is used in mixing the dough.

The menu is divided in the familiar sections of antipasti (cold cuts, zuppa and insaladas), primo (divided into pizza and pasta) and secondo. Primo and Secondo are also the names of the protagonists for the epic food-nerd film "Big Night". Go out and, uh, download it today! Save room for dessert.


Antipasti include cold cuts, burrata and prosciutto, insalada di caprese, bresaola, carpaccio and so on.

The primo and secondo change seasonally with daily specials. The gnocchi is always a winner, as is the ragu Bolognese with tagliatelli - a wide, flat noodle hailing from the Emilia-Romagna served with a stewed meat sauce.

You won't find any "spaghetti and meatballs" here.

Secondo features steaks, roasted chicken, pork chops, fish and the occasional seasonal special (stuffed calamari, stew made of polpa, or octopus, game birds, duck).

If you saved room, you should have their excellent tiramisu - an espresso and brandied confection with lady fingers and boozy mascarpone cream.

Of course, don't take my word or my bona fides for granted. You will always find visiting Italians imbibing vino rosso during long lunches and longer dinners at Pazzia.

Like finding a Chinese restaurant patronized by Chinese, or a Phô shop full of Vietnamese, Pazzia's authenticity is proven in its popularity with actual Italians.

For me, it's the next best thing to hanging out in a piazza in Firenze. Well, maybe not the next best thing, but pretty close.

The Sucker Course with imported olive oil.
Insalada Pazzia, be sure to add anchovies.
Burrata and prosciutto.
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Pazzia Caffe & Trattoria
337 3rd Street, SF, CA
415-512-1693