Cotogna

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Housemade ricotta and wild mushroom crostini.

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Fava leaf sformato with Grana Padano fonduta.

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Tagliolini “carbonara” with Dungeness crab.

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Rosemary gnocchi with braised duck.

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Bonet with caramel and amaretti crumble.

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The Jet-setter aperitivo.

Oh yes, let’s just throw another log on ye olde hype fire, shall we? There has been citywide dismay at how hard it is to secure a reservation at the at-capacity ~COTOGNA~, and I could practically write the starlet section based on the star sightings there alone. And then chef-owner Michael Tusk had to go and win a James Beard Award for Best Chef: Pacific. This place is en fuego, baby.

What is it about this restaurant that has an entire city pawing for reservations like the ruthless Russian ladies I once encountered at a Saks Fifth Avenue sale? Well, it kind of has everything you want—and does it well. Since Cotogna is a little sister to its posh and well-manicured big sister Quince next door, you get access to the amazing pastas Tusk is known for, not to mention stellar kitchen technique and ingredient sourcing—but since it’s more casual, the flavorful dishes are simpler and more rustic. Killer kitchen crew—check!—with chef Tim Caspare (previously a sous at Eleven Madison Park) leading the charge.

And then there’s such polished service—that Quince pedigree and refinement shines right through. The 60-seat room is warm and stylish, with tobacco leather bench seats, elm-topped tables, Jerusalem stone floors, a wood slat ceiling, and full-length windows (the light-filled room is lovely at lunch or an early evening dinner, so don’t fret too much over that 5:45pm reservation you got).

To quote Bob Barker, the price is right: the handmade pastas are all $16, and there’s a three-course presso-fisso menu for $24. I adore wine director David Lynch’s list that has 50 Italian wines, all at $10 a glass and $40 for the bottle. Naturally, you can always order off the Quince list, so if you wanna play high-low (say, Barolo and duck bolognese) with your meal, go for it. Certo, the glassware and place settings are well chosen and pleasing to the eye (and hand).

Did I miss anything?

It’s an all-day menu, so while the price tag of $12 for a choice off the list of antipasti gave me a moment of pause at lunchtime, as soon as your spoon scoops through the infinitely smooth fava leaf sformato—picking up a few drops from the pool of Grana Padano fonduta—and then the prickle of salt hits your tongue, you’re like, uhhh, yeah. That dish is not only the same bright green color as a dime bag’s contents—but the effect of said contents is equally mesmerizing. To conclude: the hit is definitely worth $12.

The antipasti change often—a wintertime salad of Monterey Bay squid (grilled on a skewer, so tender with a whiff of smoke and spiciness) has been swapped out for a springtime fritto misto of carrot, spring onion, asparagus, and fava beans (with an oh-so-light coating) that you dunk into a bright green garlic aioli. And then there was the housemade ricotta, a bubbling little hot tub of iniquity, served with wild mushrooms on top and crostini on the side—you just want to grab your glass of vermentino, drop your bathrobe, and slip right in for a couple hours.

The pastas have ranged from the “let me sell my firstborn for another plate” (the decadent tagliolini “carbonara” with Dungeness crab and buttery onion; the flavorful and tender spring lamb cappelletti stuffed with ramps and pecorino) to the slightly flawed (too many pine nuts on some not very supple nettle tortelloni). On three visits, the selection of six-seven pastas has almost completely changed up each time, so don’t get too obsessed with one—like that Italian lover you had one summer, it will eventually say, “Ciao, bella.” (Sadly, the “goodbye” ciao.)

The spit-roasted pork ($24) off the Italian rotisserie and grill has become Ms. Popularity—I decided to give it a second try (on my first visit I found it a bit overcooked), and the second time around is when I could understand its charms: it’s just delicious pork (so juicy) with a well-seasoned exterior that I loved the way I love the browned exterior of prime rib. They have that thing down.

I was also pining for my neighbor’s sardines ($14) with chickpeas—next time, guys. On top of all this, there are also daily specials at the bottom of the menu to tempt you, like periwinkles alla marinara ($16) winking at you, and rabbit ($20) showing some leg (with artichokes and Taggiasche olives). Come hungry.

Now, with this bounty of choices, I have to admit pizza isn’t the first thing that catches my fancy. But, pizza hounds, you can partake with your choice from three pies from the wood-burning oven for $15. In the beginning, there was an uni pizza (of course I had to order it), with the tiniest florets of cauliflower and flakes of peperoncino. The crust was chewy (in a good way), and while it had perfect ingredient dispersion (I loved this briny combination) and the crust had good flavor, I would ultimately choose pasta over pizza here—they’re more memorable.

A vegetarian could have a field day with the sides ($6), from the sweet and deeply colored roasted carrots drizzled with honey from Quince’s rooftop beehive, to a bright salad of shaved spring vegetables and lettuces with sliced green almonds. Gorgeous produce.

Besides the custardy bonet (a Piemontese dessert) with caramel and amaretti crumble, the desserts ($8) haven’t quite filled my sails like the antipasti and primi do. Example: a very minimalist napoleon of dates, walnut, and mandarins disappeared in four tempered bites (clocking in at $2 a bite). Then again, after chowing down on so many savory courses (yeah, just try to not over-order here), I don’t exactly need an ice cream sundae at the end.

Now, I don’t know if you’re a cocktailing type, but I highly recommend starting your meal with an aperitif from Jason “Buffalo” LoGrasso, who is holding it down at the copper-topped bar. In particular, try the Jet-setter ($9), a spot-on combination of house “cardamaro” and Dolin Gran Classico. My Cydonia Fizz ($10, apple brandy, quince, almond, lemon, meringue, seltzer), was another champ, balanced and with a pleasing texture. I felt like I had to order a cocktail with the namesake quince in it (cotogna means “quince” in Italian).

The crowd offers great people watching: the usual tony diners (toting their luxe bags) at Quince come here to let their hair down, plus you’ll see plenty of business casual lunches, date nights, and, to be expected, ladies who lunch. Since the tables are so close together, you’ll be able to quickly figure out what kind of date is happening next to you.

So, how the hell are you going to get a table? Well, some folks have had luck slipping in on the later side (the communal table and bar seats are left open for walk-ins, and they’re open until midnight Fri-Sat), and you could try your luck on the earlier side at Saturday brunch before the hordes descend for lunch (I think their farm egg raviolo with brown butter at 11:30am sounds delightful). And then there’s always take-out—you can go sit outside in your car and have the rosemary gnocchi with braised duck all to yourself.

Note: A fantastic bit of news: Cotogna is going to open for brunch and supper on Sundays in mid-June. Brunch will be served continuously until dinner, which will be a three-course Sunday supper served family style. The idea is that it will be like the Italian Sunday meals anyone who has traveled to Italy knows well (and loves). And I hear the bistecca fiorentina should be making an appearance.

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Stars Sighted

490 Pacific Ave. San Francisco
(at Montgomery St.)
415-775-8508
cotognasf.com
$$
Michael Tusk, chef

Cuisine

  • Italian

Features

  • Bar Dining
  • Brunch (Weekend)
  • Chef Table
  • Lunch
  • Bar

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