Some locals have said it took a lot of chutzpah (or as the Italians would say it, "palle") to move into the Mission and open a big sprawling Italian restaurant mere blocks away from the long-standing beloved, Delfina. The unique look of ~FARINA~ (nope, this was definitely NOT another rustic 49-seater) additionally raised eyebrows. And there were tales of disgruntled neighbors, gossip about valet parking politics (and paint maliciously splattered on a few parked cars), and let's not even get started on the ruckus surrounding the permits for the upcoming roof terrace.
With that much buzz and chatter swirling around, you really have to be on your game the second your doors swing open. Being different, and splashy, sets up serious expectations (especially in this town), almost encouraging people to hover about, gossip, and critique, perhaps secretly waiting for you to trip in those high heels of yours, or fail. Farina was totally our pop star restaurant opening of 2007--the only thing missing was a head shaving and coverage on PerezHilton.com.
I don't have the whole story on all the various dramas, who does, really? (Does anyone have the scandalous video? I kid.) But no matter. Because from the moment Anna's Danish Cookies went dark and the plywood went up, I was excitedly awaiting who was going to take over the sunny corner on one of the best gourmet streets in the city, our own little Hollywood Walk of Fame.
In a restaurant scene moving more and more toward regional Italian fare, and giving Tuscan food a breather, Farina's Ligurian offerings have perfect timing. I dined at Farina a couple times in the beginning months, but honestly wasn't enamored with my experiences--even the highlighted focaccia wasn't quite there yet, so I decided to sit back and wait a bit, let things iron out. Italians like to look well pressed, so I was confident things would get sorted. Based on my most recent meal at Farina, let's just say that Zegna suit is ready to hit the runway.
There is a spacious communal table, with two-tops that that are cleverly made out of the former Anna's Danish Cookies sign that line the towering front bay windows, plus there is casual bar seating (there's a full bar) and some high tables, while larger wood tables line the side wall for bigger groups. The lighting fixtures are funky and eclectic, with hits of red and playful shapes, while the white ceiling and tiles pop and feel bakery appropriate. The furnishings mix industrial elements and wood in an engaging way that makes me think of New York, or London. It has personality. I adore the presence of all the marble, almost sarcophagus heavy, enticing you to run your fingers along them--and wow, some of the hulking and sculptured pieces are actually sinks.
I think a ringside seat on one of the red lollipop stools in front of the busily working pasta and focaccia makers is where it's at. You can smell the irresistible wafting of cheese and bread baking, watch cooks pound out the carpaccio, and prep the focaccia and pastas--it's quite mesmerizing, actually--much more interesting than a visit to the Twinkie factory, and totally builds your anticipation for your impending order.
So, about that focaccia: you really should take the focaccia di Recco ($15) for a whirl. My fave was the one with prosciutto ($17), actually, Rovagnati ham, with crispy and curling edges from the intense heat of the oven. These are not the thick bready focaccias you are probably used to--instead, you get layers of thin dough that's flaky and crackly, enclosing dollops of melted stracchino cheese (a tangy Crescenza-like cow's milk cheese, one of my favorites when I lived in Italy, and sadly not one I see a lot of stateside). You can easily share an order with twoÂ or three people.
Genovese chef Paolo Laboa has crafted a menu that is quite unlike anything in the city--you'll find dishes he has painstakingly researched, some dating back hundreds of years. The chilled Genovese layered salad ($16) of seafood, potato, and vegetables was gorgeous (admittedly prettier than its rather subtle flavors), looking like something out of the film Marie Antoinette, or an historical book on the Medici dining habits. (It's actually from a 17th century recipe.)
During truffle season, we indulged in the tortino of white truffle ($30), a delicate and oozing buttery little number that was ideal for showing off a shaving of this year's rarity of Piemontese truffle. The presentation of this dish was downright artful.
So after watching the staff churn out fresh pastas all night, you start to understand the $17 price tag. Yes, it's a scoch more than what you're used to paying around town, but with one bite of the supple mandilli al pesto ($18), a tender handkerchief pasta laced with the most fragrant and enchanting pesto, you are impelled to open that wallet. Wide. It's like it hypnotizes you or something.
The capellacci ($17), hand-made ravioli of eggplant, summer squash, and Brie had a perfect ratio of stuffing (an unusual one at that) to pasta, which was almost crepe-like in its delicacy, napped in a subtle thyme brown-butter sauce. The hard part was there were five more pastas I wanted to try--it brought up the same kind of indecision I get at a Batali establishment, what to choose, what to choose...
Mains have a good representation of seafood (hello, Genova)--the pan-roasted orata (dorade/$26) took me back to Italy, with its fishy Mediterranean flavor and fattiness, served head-on in a savory tomato broth. I just wanted a sharper knife to cut through the slice of oily (in a good way) crostini resting underneath.
The rack of venison ($29) was the essence of winter, with chestnuts, black truffle, and glistening with a port reduction. It was a real hunk of meat, and one that got better, and juicier, as you cut closer to the bone. It's the kind of dish that begs for a stellar wine pairing, which the list can definitely provide. The helpful descriptions on the wine list keep it from being intimidating, but feel free to ask questions and for guidance, especially of Gabriele Originario, the manager. Oh, and one quick thing about the mains: they are Euro a-la-carte style, baby, and not plated with accompanying side dishes--you have to order those separately.
Sweets range from the bigne al cioccolato ($8), little ethereal puffs with a custardy/pudding-like center, or the marron glace con crema ($10), mascarpone cream infused with amaretto and served with candied chestnuts. People are also losing it over the sweet milk fritters ($9). The cheeses are also tempting--be sure to ask what's available that night.
Service has piccolo missteps here and there, with instances like servers leaving you alone for too long, or not explaining dishes well (the menu will inspire a lot of questions), or I had my coffee served without sugar. Nothing dramatic, but not buttoned up like other establishments in this city that are running at a parallel price point. Speaking of, the place definitely draws a moneyed crowd, with lots of expensive eyewear, trios of S*x in the City chicks, and well-groomed homos and hipster couples, all in the mix. Oh, and the staff? Hot.
A lot of thought and labor (and hello, money) went into this place; there are so many details to take in. It's just taken some time for it all to develop and be less self-conscious, and begin meshing into the city's dining landscape. I think people are realizing it's time to stop talking: let's eat.
3560 18th St.
Cross: Guerrero St.
San Francisco, CA 94110