Ahhh, the elusive “authentic” and excellent Italian restaurant—yes, one that’s run by Italians. It’s a rare bird here, although you can find a few, and it’s an experience I am always seeking. Don’t get me wrong, I do adore all our Cal-Italian places led by American chefs who fell in love with Italy, learning to make pasta from some of the best, their dishes featuring just-arrived-at-the-market ingredients, served by good-looking servers in their locally made aprons. And yes, so many Italian restaurants are just bad, serving a mishmash of dishes from all over Italy and God knows where, catering to what they think Americans want; the food made with subpar ingredients and, of course, there’s some lousy tiramisú.
I was having this rant/discussion over an espresso with a new Italian friend, a fellow writer who moved here not too long ago, and a Sardinian (yes, she adores La Ciccia). She said, “You need to meet my husband, he has so much to say about Italian food in San Francisco. You need to try his amatriciana. You need to eat at his restaurant.”
She then proceeds to tell me his place is 54 MINT, and my memories of having a couple of very strange and lackluster meals there start flowing into my brain. I tell her as much and she cuts me off gently: “No, no. It’s different now. I hope we can go. No pressure, just to see.” Of course I said “Sí!”
I have been so excited to write about this place, this somewhat hidden gem in Mint Plaza. A lot of tourists and folks meeting at Moscone have been dining there, but I have heard close to zero about it from my Italian network. The face (and heart) of the restaurant now is Gianluca Legrottaglie, who devotees of New York’s Il Buco would recognize; he is such a passionate lover of Italian wine and cuisine (and hospitality).
His chef is Mattia Marcelli, a talented young man of 25 from Rome, who learned to cook from the women in his family (the best teachers). When he was 19, he was cooking in New York at Aurora; he then returned home to Rome, and Gianluca got him to come back to the States. Lucky us.
The menu is full of Roman specialties, and some new creations too; lovers of prosciutto should start with the prosciutto e formaggio plate ($16), with beautiful ribbons of prosciutto di Parma “Martelli” (the sweet fat is exquisite) and the 24-month D.O.P. Parmigiano-Reggiano “Boni” that you can’t stop biting into. On the side is housemade bread they have a baker come in and make each morning, and they’re just fine-tuning some grissini too.
Another fantastic antipasto: the supplí ($12), with a crisp and chewy exterior, thankfully hot enough in the middle to give you the “telephone lines” of melted cheese when you pull it apart (which is what their name, supplí al telefono, refers to). One time they were filled with mushroom and molten Fontina instead of the current version with tomato and smoked mozzarella.
The kitchen is especially proud of their bruschetta ($16), topped with Di Stefano burrata, lobes of sea urchin, and a generous shaving of golden bottarga (you gotta have the good stuff around when have a Sardinian wife). Yes, it’s a sexy, umami-rich, creamy dish. The first time I had it, I thought the bread was too crusty and thick; but the second time, it was the perfect thickness, and they are now sourcing their urchin from farther north along the California coast. Over my three visits, I was happy to see how the kitchen is constantly tweaking and fine-tuning the menu (seasonal produce is highlighted as well).
Tripe fans, you will happily sink into the rustic version here ($13); the tender tripe is braised with tomato and loaded with big chunks of pancetta, pecorino, and perfumed with mint. Truly casareccia (home-style).
This is a place for pasta lovers. I can’t stay away from the cacio e pepe ($17), the housemade tonnarelli (a plumper version of spaghetti that is extruded in a square instead of round cut, with a delicate texture due to the eggs in it) that has a decadent, saucy coating of pecorino—with a touch of granularity to it. You won’t believe it doesn’t have cream in it, and the hearty dose of pepper will make your throat prickle. This is the kind of pasta that will make you quiet and not want to share as you twirl the wiggly strands onto your fork. Although on one visit it was notably creamier—another time, chef Marcelli wasn’t in the kitchen, and you could tell by the looser, oilier sauce that didn’t cling to the tonnarelli the same way. It was still very satisfying, just not transcendent.
The pasta all’amatriciana ($17), the Italian sauce I adore, features a bright tomato sauce with onion and a smoky perfume from smoked pancetta, and of course loads of pecorino. One night I had it with perfectly cooked bucatini, and another time their superlative potato gnocchi ($17) were taking a bath in it, the silky pillows layering the entire base of the dish. It’s a dish that says, “Abbondanza!” One snag I’d like to see fixed is to have the plates warmed up for the pastas; they deserve the best presentation possible.
The carbonara ($17) is arm wrestling the cacio e pepe for the position of my favorite, the thick coating on the spaghetti is a cremoso (and non-coagulated) combination of eggs, black pepper, and pecorino romano, with more chunks of guanciale than you’ll know what to do with. Oh, this dish. It would get you pregnant, it’s that seductive. (Yes, even if you’re a man. You’re gonna have babies!)
A couple of Roman classics for the mains include coda alla vaccinara ($28), a honking portion of oxtail stewed in a deep red sauce with pancetta and celery. (You’ll want to pick it up with your hands once it cools a bit—you can wash your hands later! Go ahead, ruin your napkin.)
The agnello ($30) lamb chops are another one to pick up with your hands, so tender and tasting a bit ferroso (of iron) and rosemary. They reminded me of something a relative would make, the lamby chops with their salty coating of bread crumbs, and the smashed and fried potatoes on the side. There are also some seafood options, but when in Rome…I want lamb. (And happily the lamb here is responsibly raised.)
Did you save room for dessert? Well, you better make some, because the panna cotta ($10) drizzled with 20-year balsamic needs your attention, or try the homey ricotta and strawberry crostata ($7). Say yes to a dessert wine too.
All along, you have the opportunity to let Legrottaglie take you on a rollicking journey through his wine list. He is so enthusiastic to pour new discoveries for you, from sparkling malvasia to small organic producers to wines from Mount Etna that will ruin you (Cisterna Fuori, I am talking about you—get back into my life soon please). No Super Tuscans here, it’s all about highlighting the autochthonous (indigenous) grape varieties of Italy. I hope you took a cab, because this man lives to pour wine.
And if you’re curious about some beers beyond Moretti, you’ll find six unique ones to try. They also have a full bar, so you can get your heat on with a Ciao Marcello! And let me tell you, an Aperol spritz on their outdoor patio on one of our rare warm evenings is the move. 54 Mint is also open for lunch during the week, so try to snag a table for an alfresco meal, or happy hour (Mon-Sat 4pm-6pm).
I have always been fond of the dining room, with its white walls and panels of exposed brick, the high-backed chairs at the wooden tables, and the long granite bar with white swivel stools (great for solo diners). Italian products are displayed everywhere for a reason: you can buy them. Some décor elements could use a little freshening: the white leather seats on the dining room chairs could use replacing, and the edges of the wood tables need a good buffing.
The dining room can get loud and boisterous, but fortunately large groups tend to be seated downstairs in the cantina, which is a great party space. The staff is friendly, and while things can get a little scattered (it gets busy here), just sink back into your chair, keep drinking your cesanese, and appreciate that this too is an authentic Roman moment.
This review was based on three dinner visits. Prosciutto e formaggio. Just look at those striations of fat in the prosciutto. All photos: © tablehopper.com.