One of my favorites at the Champagne tasting. Such a beaut.
Nothing quite like running stairs on a drizzly morning, with your head still fuzzy from a night of drinking bubbles. (Yeah, my life is a vicious cycle of pleasure and then punishment.)
And on the theme of pleasure, I have quite the doozy of a writeup for you today. I had a five-hour meal at Acquerello and lived to tell about it, so buckle up. Actually, get into your comfortable pants or muumuu for this one. And in case you are inspired to head over there for the white truffle dishes I mention, good news: Giancarlo Paterlini assures me they’ll have them for the next couple of weeks, and quite possibly on their New Year’s Eve menu. What a year for truffles, I swear.
This evening I’m heading over to the Mission for the La Cocina second annual holiday gift fair! It’s from 4pm-9pm, and there will be all kinds of locally made gifts, drinks, and a raffle. You’ll be able to pick up a variety of goods, from Clairesquares to alfajores from Sabores del Sur—and yours truly will also be there, signing and selling my book! Come on by, yo! Admission is free and open to the public. Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts, 2868 Mission St. (near the 24th & Mission BART).
Happy Friday, folks.
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Hey, we need to talk. No, nothing’s wrong. Wellll—sort of. See, it’s about you. You and… someone else. Who? You and ACQUERELLO. Yeah—you’re not seeing each other as much as you should. And this past year, I heard you aren’t even speaking? We need to patch that up.
It surprises me when I talk to some long-term locals or fellow restaurant obsessives, and they haven’t ever eaten at Acquerello. Like, NEVER. Or, in my case, having something like three years elapse since my last meal. I know, times are tight, so it’s not exactly top of your list to go blow $150 on a night out. But maybe you want a little treat. Or you want to take someone out for a special night. Or here’s a good reason: you want to go have a memorable dining experience, and are going to allow yourself to pony up a little more than your usual night out. Come on, it’s some of the best Italian food in town, and I’m here to tell you: you’re worth it.
So first, let’s break it down: it’s three courses for $64, four for $78, and five for $90 (right up there with Danko, which clocks in at $68, $85, and $102, respectively). Or you can go for the chef’s tasting menu: eight courses for $105. Co-owners Giancarlo Paterlini and chef Suzette Gresham-Tognetti have been running the show here since 1989 (they originally worked together at Donatello—Giancarlo for over nine years, and Suzette for two). The experience is all about class, refinement, and an effortless European sensibility.
The chapel-like room (welcome to your restaurant church!) has also had quite a décor update since I was last there—it’s elegant but contemporary, with warm-toned walls in terracotta and butter yellow, comfortable wood-backed chairs (which have small stools next to them for ladies’ bags, grazie), and a spiffy striped fabric on the banquettes. There was a stunning floral display in the middle of the room, dramatically lit up from underneath, surrounded by a gathering of modern decanters (and with the wine list here, trust me, they get used). The place is immaculate—nary a fingerprint or breadcrumb anywhere. And you can hear every single word your dining companion says—the room is blissfully comfortable for conversation.
Okay, let’s get down to business. Our evening started with a trio of amuses: first up was a toast point with a quenelle of vitello battuto, a hand-chopped veal tartare topped with a shaving of black truffle; followed by a haute spoonful of baccalà, crowned with sturgeon caviar, and with parsley mayonnaise and breadcrumbs on the side. And then came the hold-the-phone bite: a fried profiterole filled with a garlicky tonnato sauce inside, and lidded with a folded slice of house-cured lonza (cured pork loin). You pop the whole thing in your mouth. And then you consider that it just may be the party appetizer of the year.
As soon as the duo of ahi tuna and hamachi crudo came out, two wavy little blocks of color nestled next to each other, with a bright green square of a pesto gelatin on top (and a chopped Castelvetrano olive base underneath), and then all covered with a flurry of egg yolk “bottarga” (the yolk is dehydrated and then grated), I was like, whoa, Acquerello has some molecular moves going on! It ends up Suzette has a young gun in the kitchen, Mark Pensa—who she happily mentions—is keeping her up on the latest techniques. He has been working with her in the kitchen for the past four years, and is now the chef de cuisine. What I loved is the balance these two create together: the dishes are rooted in traditional flavors (and total deliciousness), but have an extra element of creative technique that never goes too far, but just enough. I also found the plating to be so appetizing, and playful—check out the applewood-smoked and grilled sturgeon, with the circles of parsnip purée on the plate and sprinkled with celery microgreens.
The next course inspired my Greek dining companion to give two resounding thumbs up (we would have yelled “Opa!” if we could have): a perfectly seasoned and grilled lamb’s tongue is plated with dollops of green olive purée and a black Gaeta olive oil, along with carrot and hearts of fire lettuce. The richness of the tongue was tempered with a slathering of salsa verde—really a spectacular dish. I had the slow-braised octopus (try five hours)—so tender, and the unusual chickpea flour croutons looked like puffs of sea sponge. The Padrón peppers, celery leaves, and braising liquid (strained and then poured over the bowl tableside) equated to such a flavorful tour de force (we dunked our bread into the braising liquid when no one was looking—well, we hoped no one was looking).
Call me a genius—I managed to visit Acquerello during white truffle season. (Actually, Giancarlo is the genius, he’s the one who suggested I come in.) Anyway, the two dishes we had here were such perfetto (and borderline pornographic) showcases for truffle that I am already plotting my return next season, starting with the handmade tajarin (a famed Piemontese pasta—rich tagliolini made with egg yolk), served with melted butter that is thickened with chicken broth, Parmesan cheese, and egg yolk at the last minute. So simple, and yet so spectacular—especially when covered in a heady layer of white truffles. Mamma mia.
The other was a nest of creamy leeks (braised with pancetta) and topped with a sous vide-cooked orange-red yolked egg (from Suzette’s chickens) that reminded me of the remarkable eggs you get in Italy. The plate was then surrounded with thin strips of fried leeks, adding to the cute nest effect. This dish as well was blanketed in truffle—I decided this is what I want my final resting place to look like. My friend and I just sat there, completely blown away with the decadence of it all. This course was the BOMBA. Total holy grail of truffleness. I felt like a fat little dove in my chair, one small step away from cooing.
Okay, this review is getting long. Again. Oops. So, the fish course: impeccably seared sea scallops and orange- and fennel-dusted California white bass, both delish. The potato-wrapped cannelloni of braised beef, with a thick and truffled sauce, magic (and a nice gluten-free option for folks who want “cannelloni”). If I told you what else we ate you’d freak out. Not too many people are built for tasting menus like this, but I AM. Okay, fine: we shared involtini of veal loin with polenta taragna (you can thank the Lombardy region for this cheesy rendition made with buckwheat flour) and the pinkest lamb loin with purple buffalo barley—there, okay, you happy? We sure were.
Now, there are three definite classics you need to consider when you come to Acquerello for your first time: the famed Parmesan budino, a savory cheese custard that will quickly have you enter into some Machiavellian-type contract in order to keep access to it in your life forever; the lobster panzarotti, with a spicy shellfish sauce that borders on a bisque; and the ridged pasta with foie gras. The sauce is unlike anything you’ve ever tasted, rich with foie, black truffle, cream, butter, and Marsala, and a vanilla-like sexiness, clinging to the pasta like the creamiest caramel. Suzette was inspired by a dish from the famed Italian chef Gualtiero Marchesi, and so this is her own twist on it. It totally fires up your monkey brain, watch out. And is top of my imaginary “last meal of my life” menu (served on Acquerello’s pretty pink and gold plates).
You ready? Because that cheese cart is gonna wheel up. They have such stunning Italian cheeses here, from a ciabra from Piedmont that was like goat cheesecake; piacentino, a pecorino from Enna, Sicily, with saffron and peppercorn; and the speziato al tartufo, a truffled cheese from the Veneto with a rind of cinnamon and nutmeg. You’ll even find honey on the cheese cart that Suzette gets from a beekeeper friend, along with other inspired accompaniments like pickled fennel, amarena cherries, and Tropea onions with fig.
Giancarlo’s son, also Giancarlo, has been overseeing the wine list of late, and really did a fantastic job with pairings (like the Arnaldo Caprai grechetto “Grecante” 2007 with the lamb’s tongue). Another winner was what we started with: a Majolini Franciacorta Brut Riserva “Valentino” from 1994 (10 years on the lees). It’s a significant cellar here, and fans of Piemontese wines will especially be thrilled with the options. And I’m happy to see the son take after his talented and knowledgeable father—Giancarlo Sr. has the kind of expertise you want to pass on for generations.
Dessert featured two beauties: a Valrhona dark chocolate ganache topped with a tuile and pistachios, served with huckleberry sorbet; and a choux “basket” of lemon custard (made with lemons from Suzette’s tree), topped with soft, golden, plump little clouds of meringue, and surrounded with a cranberry-cherry relish and pistachios (Giancarlo and Suzette picked the cherries and pickled them for use in the winter).
You can’t get away without the chocolate truffle course, which included whiskey, chai, caffè, cosmopolitan, and this Calabrese-American’s favorite, a very feisty cayenne. They even send you out the door with their famed biscotti, which you can nibble on the next day, as you count your lucky stars that you’ve had the good fortune to experience a meal like the one you just had. Pinch pinch. (With perhaps a little extra pinch pinch on that waistline of yours as well).
Acquerello - 1722 Sacramento St. San Francisco - 415-567-5432