Caponata bruschetta with ricotta.
Sicilian polpette (meatballs).
Did Brian Eno open a restaurant in San Francisco? Nope, the “eno trattoria” next to the ~BARBACCO~ name (in a zippy, Vespa-esque font) on the building’s exterior is short for enoteca, a term originally used to signify a local wine tasting library. But now, an enoteca is more loosely used to describe a wine shop, wine bar, or even a place to taste wine and eat. And at this new offshoot of Perbacco (they are just next door to each other), you will most certainly eat. And drink wine.
Owners Umberto Gibin and chef Staffan Terje have crafted a casual but very chic place where you can come in for a panino at lunch, a glass of wine and some bruschetta at happy hour—and once the wine keeps pouring and the bites keep coming, you can easily find yourself staying for a dinner of pasta and veal Milanese. Barbacco is busy and energetic, packed with couples, Financial District workers who walked in for a bite after punching the clock, and packs of wine-drinking women.
The long space has a slick and masculine style (from CCS Architecture) that reminds me of Milan, with a section of communal tables in the front, a winding marble counter for singles or couples who like to dine at the bar, and smaller tables for those who don’t want to dine with strangers. (I just found the modern stools to be a little awkward—their height in relation to the tables along the back wall felt odd, and sitting in them too long gets uncomfortable.) And then there’s the ceiling that cascades down like a wave, with a graphic tiled floor and original brick wall that add visual texture, plus hits of bright yellow and slightly blurred images (like you’re driving by them) of Anita Ekberg and a Ducati on the wall on your way to the restroom.
I hope you’re hungry, because the menu is positively hefty: two long columns that immediately invoke “I want”—and how pleasant, nothing is over $15. Well, unless you go for the $18 chef’s selection of salumi. And the salumi you must have, whether it’s my current obsession, the ‘nduja, a spicy spreadable pork salame (the liver and kidneys within make it extra smooth) with origins in Calabria; try the ‘nduja nera, made with blood—don’t be afraid, its dusky flavor is amazing. Other faves include the finocchiona, bright with fennel; the dense duck mortadella embedded with green Castelvetrano olives; and the fatty and spicy coppa (total amore).
You can also ramp up with the salty testa arrotolata (pig’s head), whose texture is an intersection between fat and gelatin—no, it’s not for everyone. Served with pickled onion, it’s delicious wrapped around grissini. Most salumi are around $5 or $6, and they’re all made in house—and as I noted in my book, chef Staffan Terje makes my favorite salumi in the city.
The snacking continues with the irresistible ascolane ($5/$8; fried and fat Cerignola olives stuffed with pork and covered with a dusting of Parmesan), and the crowd-pleasing arancini ($3 each), risotto croquettes studded with peas, braised pork, oozy mozzarella, and sporting a satisfying breadcrumb-y exterior.
A great dish to share is the rustic pan-fried ribollita ($6), which a stranger/neighbor at the counter kindly offered me a bite of one night. (I’m glad she insisted.) What’s brilliant is this classic Tuscan minestrone (day one) typically has stale bread added to it on day two, and then is transformed into a fry-up (usually on day four)—like an eggless fritatta—and sublime with a drizzle of peppery, green olive oil on top. This version comes loaded with cannellini beans, cavalo nero (kale), sofrito, and a bit of tomato and rosemary. Love at first bite.
There are about eight different bruschette to choose from ($3 each, 3 for $8)—the caponata topped with a spicy ricotta was a fave; while the truffled lardo was a touch too salty and thickly sliced for my taste, although I was told that is how it is authentically served.
While I am a huge fan of Perbacco, the Calabrese in me was fired up with the spicier dishes on Barbacco’s peripatetic menu, starting with the plump “angry” mussels ($11) with ‘nduja, chili, and plenty of garlic—get ready. The dish was certainly gutsy—my friend deemed these “dirty mussels” because all we wanted to do was sop up every last drop of the sauce like total hedonists (I asked for bread and was served some impeccable focaccia, but what I really wanted was a crusty Italian bread). The other feisty champ is the quick-braised local squid ($8), so tender and brilliantly executed. The fennel, chunky tomato, green olives, and topping of breadcrumbs made this dish a home run—and like most Italian men, it wasn’t shy at all.
If you want some heartier dishes, look to the hefty paccheri ($10), doused with a meaty and rustic pork ragu, or the decadent rotolo ($11), a tender rolled pasta, currently following the season and filled with asparagus, ricotta, and lemon, adorned with a mint-brown butter. The braised chicken thighs ($11) with almonds, Castelvetrano olives, and escarole were homey and flavorful, but not the first thing I’d recommend. And then there are the exquisite pork meatballs ($14), served Sicilian style with raisins, pine nuts, braised chard, and a bright-red tomato sugo—their juiciness is partly due to the ricotta added to the meaty mixture. You will totally clear your plate. (I want them to serve these in a sandwich at lunch.)
Even the side dishes pack big flavor, like the fried quarters of Brussels sprouts ($4)—if you’re missing the ones that used to be at SPQR, this variation comes with capers, anchovy, and a punch of shallot and red wine vinaigrette. Each bite was a balance of tangy, bitter, and sweet. Kudos to chef de cuisine Sarah Burchard, who is doing a bang-up job here.
Pastry chef Sarah Ballard’s desserts are delightfully affordable, like the tangy citrus curd tart ($5), whose crust crumbled perfectly—no sawing with the edge of your fork or skidding across the plate. I always enjoy the cookies at Perbacco, and the biscotti ($.50 each) here tasted a lot like my Aunt Terry’s (and she always made the best biscotti in my family). The chocolate nemesis cake ($5), however, was too sweet and thick for my taste, too much like a mousse posing as a cake—but I can see chocoholics loving it.
As you’re cruising your way through the menu, wine director Mauro Cirilli’s wine list of natural wines is not just Italian: you’ll find wines from all over the globe. And since you can order everything from a 3 oz. taste to a bottle, you can do plenty of exploring (the staff is always ready with descriptions). Cirilli must be in heaven with all the different cases storing the wines at various temperatures—as soon as you sit at the counter, you can see how dedicated the restaurant is to wine, the walls glimmering with bottles, wine shimmering in the elegant glassware. It may just be a wine library after all…