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La Gondola

I moved to San Francisco a little over a year ago and was elated to land myself an apartment in the heart of North Beach. Figuring good coffee and great food would abound, I was soon disenchanted with the abundance of mediocre tourist-targeted restaurants. But, at the bottom of Columbus, right before you enter the looming grayness of the financial district, is a warm, inviting haven called La Gondola. At night it sticks out amidst its dormant block with twinkling Christmas lights and glowing orange walls.

My first two encounters left me with the impression of simple, rustic Italian cuisine, minus the balking hosts and slick theatrics found further up Columbus. But with a recent upgrade to the menu and the addition of white tablecloths, this is not just your typical neighborhood joint. The small, open dining room offers enough quaintness for an intimate date, but also enough of a festive atmosphere to encourage those parties of six or so to enjoy themselves- and neither will feel intruded upon by the other.

The service perfectly compliments the atmosphere. It's casual and friendly. Your used utensils remain on the table, but clean plates are brought for every new course that is to be shared. You fill your wineglass yourself, but you are never in need of water. And when the food is ready, it's brought to the table, even if you haven't finished that last bite of salad. As it should because our second course of pumpkin gnocchi with a gorgonzola cream shouldn't have sat while my companion wiped every last drop of the sauce from the scamorza off the plate. But I get a bit ahead of myself.

The wine list is small but crafted to compliment the food: a good range of well-priced Italian table wines and a few heavy hitters for good measure. There's an Amarone for under $40 that I couldn't help but test on a previous visit.

The antipasto is a selection of classics done well, from beef carpaccio and crostini to sauteed mussels and grilled vegetables. The scamorza ($6), baked smoked mozzarella with perfectly sauteed mushrooms, is a must-have: rich and decadent. The arugula salad ($5) was a bit overdressed and lacking in color but had great flavor and a nice crisp contrast.

Moving on to the second course, we had to try the pumpkin gnocchi ($11) with a gorgonzola cream sauce. The pumpkin flavor could have been a bit more pronounced and the texture was a bit gummy, even for gnocchi, but still a stellar combination. The tagliolini neri ($12) came recommended by the house and we were not disappointed. The black pasta had no trace of the often-present salty background taste from the squid ink. Accompanied by sweet tender scallops in a lightly spiced tomato sauce, this simple dish surprised.

Finally, we rounded things out with rabbit ($16) roasted with sage, thyme, and rosemary, finished with a Chianti reduction that I can still taste. It was amazing, dark and rich, but did not overpower the flavor of the rabbit itself. The roasted potatoes on the side are perfect for sopping up the extra.

Finish with a little vin santo or espresso, and you will step back on to the dark street feeling as though you found the neighborhood's best kept secret.