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Chiaroscuro

Classic Italian finds a home beyond North Beach

  • Chiaroscuro
    550 Washington St, San Francisco, CA 94111 (Map)
    (415) 362-6012

Italian restaurants open to much skepticism in this city. The standouts are definitely a cut above the rest and are hard to compete with. As one of the newest kids in town, Chiaroscuro faces a challenge to be sure, but this taste of Rome seems to have found a home away from the masses at the base of the Transamerica building.

Upon entering the dining room, you would never recognize it for the old Tartare space. The once dark, shrouded room is now a radiant white with austere grey concrete banquettes, chalkboard tables and a scattering of simple potted plants. Large windows on two sides fill the open space with light during the day, and well-placed candles soften the edges at night. All of this comes together in an exceptionally welcoming space, like a sunny kitchen on a weekend morning.

Once we had snuggled into the down pillows that cover the benches, with a glass of Prosecco ($7) in hand, deciding on our meal was a tough deliberation. The menu is structured in true European fashion: starters first, then pasta, followed by salads and finished with meat or fish. Just from reading, it became evident that the kitchenís strong suits are appetizers and pasta. The wine list provided similar (albeit pleasant) difficulties. While concise, it is perfectly tailored to the food, offering both Italian and California selections at great prices. From Prosecco we moved into a Ribolla Gialla from Gravner ($36).

As for the food, we started with the carpaccio di manzo ($10) and trilogia ($20). I often find that chefs try too hard with carpaccio, adding sauces or extras that cover the taste of the beef. This version was classic and simple: thinly sliced beef, cracked black pepper, a drizzle of olive oil, shaved parmesan, and a handful of baby greens. However, the menu did say arugula, instead of greens, and I would have preferred the peppery kick of arugula. The trilogia, a signature dish, offers a tasting portion of three pastas: carbonara, pesto, and amatriciana. Perfect for those of us who struggle with decisions, and a definite illustration of what the kitchen does best.

From there we moved on to the tagliata di manzo al mosto díuva ($22) a grilled beef loin with balsamic reduction and pesce spada allí acqua pazza ($22), swordfish in a tomato olive sauce. Unfortunately, the beef fell flat. It was a simple preparation that would have made a great piece of meat sing, but the cut was only so-so and a bit fatty. However, the swordfish did break into song. The full-flavored fish was perfectly moist and complimented by the earthy tomato olive sauce -- a rich but nicely balanced dish.

The dessert menu didnít grab either of us; we should have stuck with our initial instinct to skip it. Instead we opted for strawberries and whipped cream -- simple, easy, and in season. While not enough to spoil the experience, it was a disappointment, with overly sweet cream and unnecessary chocolate sauce.

However, we were completely won over by the hard-to-ignore devotion and enthusiasm of the owner, Alessandro Campitelli. Well, him and the pasta. Campitelli is proud of what heís created -- as he should be -- and it shows in the gracious smile with which he welcomes you. His extensive training in all things culinary shows through in everything from staff training to the wine list.

Escape from North Beach to this modern, elegant restaurant offering classic Italian food with friendly, attentive service. No hawkers or attitude here.


Italian
Downtown
$$$

Reservations Essential? Yes.