So I’m riding my bike down Valencia Street around 5:15pm, and wow, look at that line of people snaking down the street. Everyone is far too snazzily dressed for it to be a soup kitchen queue. As I get closer, I realize they’re reservation-less people waiting to get into ~LOCANDA~, the latest restaurant to open in Craig and Anne Stoll’s Delfina family of businesses. Yup, there’s another food establishment in town that people are lining up for, and it’s not a food truck or Ike’s—providing neighbors Tartine Bakery and Mission Chinese Food some company, I guess.
The place draws a good looking and well-heeled crowd (with bags to match), one that packs a constant buzz in the chic room. I found myself having dot com-Mission flashbacks for a dizzy moment, but then the thoroughly au courant cocktail menu (designed by Eric Alperin of L.A’s The Varnish) reminded me I was very much planted in 2011. The cocktails have held at $10 each, and considering the sheer deliciousness of some of the concoctions (the spiritous Agro Uve with grappa, peach, lemon, egg, and bitters; the Santa Rosa Smash with fresh plum, bourbon, and pinot noir that was a bit julep-y with its minty freshness), you’ll want to get acquainted with most of them, whether you’re in for dinner or just swinging by for a late night drink.
Chef Anthony Strong, who cut his teeth on the pizza peel while at Pizzeria Delfina, is leading the helm of this busy kitchen that is cranking it out—and that charcoal grill is one hot mutha. His rustic, osteria-style menu is Roman-inspired, with California ingredients and seasonality playing strong supporting roles. You simply have to order the Jewish-style artichoke ($6)—it’s Locanda’s logo for a reason—a masterfully fried thistle that’s all tender leaves and heart, with a chiffonade of feisty mint on top. It’s rich, crisp, a touch oily, and pops with a little spritz of lemon. As far as the oily part, you better get used to it—olive oil is used abundantly here, from the complimentary pizza bianca you’ll start your meal with, to many dishes getting an extra glug or two just before landing on your table.
More artichoke amore: the carciofi crudi ($10), a salad of thinly sliced raw artichoke with peppery wild arugula, creamy avocado, grilled ricotta salata, and bright olive oil (a favorite for sure). A salad of little gems and albacore conserva ($11) was perked up with fennel (including the fronds, seeds, and bulb), but the little gems needed more chilling. (You must chill!) Both that salad and the early girl salad ($10) are not going to win any beauty contests: I couldn’t help but think a little more attention to plating would go a long way.
But often sloppy is hella tasty, like in the case of the pizza bianca ($9) topped with crushed figs (two kinds), prosciutto, and the genius addition of lardo paste—spread some on me. Messy as all get out, and worth the sticky fingers and every crumb that landed on the table. And then you have the star of the “ugly/tasty” category: the fried shrimp ($11) off the bar menu. Where the hell did these things come from? They’re a bit incongruous with the rest of the menu and very Chinese in style (spicy and salty), with a splash of brown butter. Yeah, suck those heads, baby. (Or pass them to your friend who is much more excited to suck the heads than you are, which was my situation.)
We ordered a main dish of grilled seppia ($25) as an appetizer, which was almost clairvoyant on our part since we only got four breaded pieces of tender but not very corpulent cuttlefish bodies. They had a pleasing smoky tang from the grill (reminded me of the grilled squid my family does for our Christmas Eve meal), but the price to portion ratio felt off. What unexpectedly stole the show was the simple side of green and yellow beans, flourished with basil and parsley and lemon. They were kind of brilliant.
Rome and offal—they’re close, close buddies. The quinto quarto (fifth quarter) portion of the menu is for those of you who aren’t afraid of the naughty bits done right, like the sublime fried sweetbreads and artichokes ($12/$22) with a flurry of fried capers, sage, and parsley (like fall leaves on the paper-topped plate), to the trippa ($9/$16), a rich variation with chickpeas, plenty of mint, and rather large pieces of tripe. Soft and supple, but still rather chunky. Like I said, it’s for those of you who aren’t afraid.
So, the pasta. Rome has some very famous pasta dishes, namely, carbonara, amatriciana, and cacio e pepe, plus shapes like tonnarelli—and of course a lot of pecorino on many of them. Amatriciana ($16) is one of my favorite styles ev-ah, so of course I beelined for it here. The guanciale had a deep, rich flavor (the kitchen uses skin in addition to the cheek meat), and the heat from the peperoncino was dialed just right. The housemade bucatini were a treat, as were the rigatoni ($15) alla carbonara (incredible texture), but the dish was so salty I couldn’t really enjoy it. I also didn’t understand the three small pieces of guanciale in the dish—you end up having to chop them up even more to share the wealth of porky flavor. Some portions are not what I’d call generous, so don’t expect a big heaping bowl just like mamma would make.
The twirling casarecce ($16) in a suckling pig sugo—studded with little squares of green tomato—was a luscious dish (just like the pieces of pork in there), balanced with acidity from the tomato. Loved. (Very much.) The caramelle ($16) were some of the plumper ones I’ve seen, bracing on the tongue from the eggplant within and tossed in a deep red tomato sauce the color of pimentón, with the presence of a little cocoa to deepen things even further.
You could totally overdo it just with apps and pastas, let alone the quinto quarto selections. And honestly, I’d be tempted to stop there, a decision partly influenced by my pocketbook, because this is where things can really start totaling up. The fried Amish rabbit ($21) was oh-so delicious, piping hot and fried with mastery, kickin’ it on the plate with fried okra and a bagna rossa red sauce that was almost sriracha-like (I want some for my fridge). But even with all that okra on the plate, it couldn’t hide the fact that there were only three pieces of rabbit. And rabbit is, uh, small and rabbity (like McNugget size on bones).
There’s the lamb scottadito ($26), which isn’t really scottadito at all (it literally means “burn your fingers,” which is what happens when you pick up the traditionally little lamb chops—maybe that’s what’s happening to the grill cook). These are fork-and-knife thick chops, with a heavy char flavor that came on too strong for me, although I did like the torn-up pieces of escarole underneath, a perfect foil and canvas for the plate’s juices and anchovy sauce.
After all that Roman feasting (emperor style, baby!), you’re going to want to pick something off their extensive amari menu—I did a little yip of excitement when I saw how many there were. I say go for a tasting of three ($13), and each is poured into a different and petite amaro glass (get the Montenegro in the mix—it’s elegant, floral, and so smooth). Chris Wright (formerly AQUA) has put together a wine list that mixes selections from Italy, California, and France, with a well-rounded by-the-glass program (he even has a manzanilla and an amontillado sherry on there, nice), plus some local wines on tap. And then keeping it all real, the last item on the eight-beer list is … Miller High Life ($3). Word.
For dessert, what stood out for me is the ricotta fritta ($9), little fried balls with a seductive texture, so creamy and light (kudos to Bellwether for making such fantastic domestic ricotta), finished with citrus caramel and lemon thyme. I also liked the simplicity of the ciambellini ($6) cookies—but I’d just ask for all anise next time (call me old school, but the cocoa nib and Earl Grey flavors didn’t move me).
Yeah, it’s hard as hell to get a table here, but the kitchen is fantastically open until 12am, with the bar until 1am, so try to come by late if you can. There’s a communal table for walk-ins, and I got lucky one night with a table for two after the first turn, just around 7pm. There’s also valet parking ($10), a big bonus for some.
One thing that can be a touch alienating is the lack of translation on the menu—the majority of it is in Italian, so you’ll have to dialogue with your (well schooled) server if you don’t know what something is—especially the pasta shapes. Personally, I think a little more definition could be added—and if you’re going to insist on using Italian on your menu even though we are not in Italy, at least triple check and make sure things are spelled correctly (barlotti and sepia, I’m looking at you).
It’s such an attractive restaurant—I love it when people with good taste (and funding) put something like this together. Envelope A+D (Delfina, Pizzeria Delfina, Contigo) is behind the modern and comfortable osteria-by-way-of-the-Mission look (you’d never know it used to be Ramblas), which includes a hand-laid tiled wall and a dark walnut bar. I liked the eclectic light fixtures, and dig the smaller touches, like the Roma concert posters in the restrooms, the Lamborghini yellow espresso cups, and the engraved bottles of water. I thought the music is well thought out as well (Beck, Broken Bells, and Mark Bolan), and the art program is cool and feels fresh (the wolves are a clever nod to the Roman she-wolf).
The restaurant has been open for five months at the time of this review, and I feel like there are some key elements that are still being tuned, like service style, timing, and dish execution. The team is wicked talented, and works so very hard under very busy conditions. In six months, this place is going to be a well-oiled machine, while maintaining a lot of personality. But in the meantime, when you’re paying top dollar, expectations run a little high—I know mine do.
- 557 Valencia St. San Francisco