Acquerello’s new ridged pasta with “faux gras,” scented with black truffles and Marsala. Photo: © tablehopper.com.
With the looming statewide ban on foie gras that’s happening this weekend, many San Francisco diners are out on the town having their final foie farewell (it’s like citywide human gavage out there). Just last night, chef David Bazirgan of Fifth Floor tweeted he did 96 covers, 66 seven-course foie tastings, and 13 nine-course tastings. I, too, was hatching some plans to say farewell: my dining wingwoman and I had an impromptu meet-up at La Folie Lounge for chef Roland Passot’s foie soup with seared foie on the side—the place was bursting at the seams. Chef Passot is known for always coming out of the kitchen to greet regulars, but he was so busy on Wednesday night he couldn’t even sign my “Au Revoir Foie” menu for me. There’s no free time during foiemageddon.
While finishing our foie spread, I discovered my dining partner had never had the famed ridged pasta with foie gras, black truffles, and Marsala at ~ACQUERELLO~. I have chef Rob Lam (Butterfly) to thank for turning me on to this dish. Many years ago, I was raving about chef Sean O’Brien’s foie and garganelli dish at Myth, and Lam schooled me a bit: “Babe, you know where that dish came from, right? It’s Suzette’s, over at Acquerello. [O’Brien used to work at Acquerello.] Man I love that dish. I’ve called Acquerello before and begged for them to just let me pick up a box of it to go after service but they won’t let me.” That would be one hell of a takeout coup.
So after a phone call to Acquerello, we were lucky enough to score a late table. Owner Giancarlo Paterlini was pleased to hear about our foie pasta mission, because he said he had a surprise for us. After a few courses of fantastic new dishes on the menu (like the “baked potato” gnocchi with chive créme fraîche, pancetta, and crispy potato skins, and the spicy cuttlefish “tagliatelle” with capers, lobster, and agretti, a fun twist on aglio olio [garlic and oil]), Giancarlo presented us with two bowls, each under a porcelain cloche. After he lifted the lids, he said: “One of you has the original dish, and one of you has something different.” He then smiled and walked away.
This dish is a decadent one of epic proportions: your nose immediately gets hit with the sweet wafting of Marsala and the earthy perfume of shaved black truffle. My wingwoman smiled. We dove in, savoring the creamy sauce—so infinitely smooth—that clings to the ridges of the rigatoni pasta. It makes you want to purr.
After a few bites, we traded plates. A few more bites. How exciting, the difference was almost undetectable. One tasted just a tiny bit earthier, but otherwise, they were almost exactly alike. We were fired up for the reveal. It ends up the mystery version was made with duck liver, in a brilliant feat of reverse engineering. How awesome. The dish I was honestly sad to say farewell to, one of the city’s most magnificent pasta dishes (and most beloved), had been saved.
This signature dish is part of Suzette Gresham-Tognetti’s legacy as a chef, and of the restaurant—Acquerello opened in 1989, and the dish was added to the menu a couple years later. Of course she was heartbroken about having to take it off the menu (as were her customers).
I had a chance to speak with both the chef and her oh-so-talented protégé, chef de cuisine Mark Pensa, who has been in the kitchen since 2009 and is the one who reverse engineered the new dish. He walked me through the new process, which entails soaking the duck livers in milk overnight, blending them with Marsala, cream, and butter, and then cooking them in the oven like a liver mousse. He also devised a new variation of the foie gras butter that forms the base of the sauce into one made with liver. He said it was shocking how close he was able to get it.
The day he revealed the new dish to Suzette, he was scrambling to get it done before she came into the kitchen. He said the look on her face when she tasted it, the huge smile, was such a proud moment for him (especially since she’s one tough cookie—and these two often butt heads like a mother and son). He saw her eyes were a little teary—they were not going to say goodbye to her baby. Pensa said, “I could have quit right there. The work we are doing to be a two-star Michelin, to get four stars, it didn’t matter, because this moment made me proudest. I could be happy, just because of this.”
My wingwoman and I talked about how necessity really is the mother of all invention. Sure, the foie sauce on the pasta was perfect as it was, and the new version is a bit more labor-intensive and unstable. The kitchen probably never would have tweaked the recipe—why would they ever need to? And then the ban happened. And the protégé probably never would have had the opportunity to rise to the occasion like this, the ultimate homage to his teacher.
Everyone should enjoy this historic and now redux-ed dish at some point, in addition to the stellar pairing by Giancarlo Paterlini’s son, Gianpaolo (right now it’s Fausto Maculan, Breganze ‘Torcolato’ 2007—with one sip after a bite of the pasta, it made me say “boom”).
Acquerello offers a three-course menu for $75, four courses for $90, and five courses $105. I said it in a recent review, and I’ll say it again: this restaurant is one of San Francisco’s finest—there is so much care and love and passion that make this place the memorable experience that it is, every time. The different generations (father and son, chef and chef de cuisine) help it strike that perfect balance of Old World class and New World innovation. I am always so taken with Acquerello’s immaculate service, inspiring dishes, deep wine cellar (and spot-on pairings), stellar cheese cart, elegant desserts (the peach Bavarian with tarragon sorbet is a winner), the engaging dining room, and the take-home box of almond biscotti you get to enjoy with your coffee the next day. Acquerello’s name may mean watercolor, but it has the history, style, mechanics, and grace of a finely tuned Alfa Romeo.