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Il Mare alla Chiesa
by Albert Pearson on Jan 11, 2007
If the light falls just right and one is properly sated and besotted by halibut, polenta and the requisite number of Campari-and-gin's, the southern end of Church street may be magically transmuted into a northern Italian coastal village. The speedy clip of a 30-something stroller pusher gradually slows to the laggardly saunter of an oyster cart vendor, and shuffling iPods all mysteriously skip to tracks by Nino Rota. It does indeed require a super-human suspension of disbelief to let the rattling of Muni trains fade into the gentle murmur of waves lapping against the sun-warmed skin of Sofia Loren. However, after dining at Pescheria, one can easily imagine San Francisco restaurant mogul Joseph Manzare (Globe, Zuppa, Tres Agaves) doing some thorough and impassioned research in many an Italian seaside trattoria while conceptualizing his latest eatery.
Pescheria, an old Italian noun meaning expensive fish served in relatively unpretentious environments, lives up to expectations. Accordingly, one should come in search of charmingly simple, rather than elaborately haute, cuisine.
We were seated in starkly modern brushed steel chairs beside one of Pescheria's walls of cool blue Mediterranean glass tiles and ordered glasses of a very dry and effervescent prosecco. Although the tilled walls create a charming aesthetic effect, the acoustics cause so much reverberation that the noise level is more reminiscent of an Italian fish market than a coastal bistro.
While our waiter was relatively attentive, he had clearly cultivated the casual air of his Mediterranean colleagues, and the appetizers he brought elicited an equally cool disinterest from us. The octopus, artichokes and potatoes with Italian parsley ($8), proved to be a bland, oily, grey mélange, and the anonymous oysters on the half shell ($2 ea.) lacked the complexity of flavor of their more distinguished cousins from Tomales Bay.
Just as things were beginning to look grim, the waiter whisked away the peaked tentacles and returned with the perfectly conciliating creamy polenta with Dungeness crab ($8). This dinner plate, flooded with rich, salty polenta and garnished with fresh crab and spicy greens, exudes a Mediterranean warmth powerful enough to steel even the most bone-chilled diner against the Noe Valley fog. We also chose the heirloom tomato and burrata salad ($8), and while the tomatoes lacked the perfection of ripeness one might expect for the price, the excellence of the rich, mozzarella-like burrata cheese more than compensated.
Unsure of what to drink with our entrées of halibut and scallops, we asked our ultra-casual waiter for a wine recommendation. Rather than pushing us toward a specific wine, he gave a learned disposition on the origins and respective merits of several whites, and promptly fetched us tasters of his two favorites. This typified the wait staff; beneath a patina of Mediterranean nonchalance, Pescheria is staffed by an extremely knowledgeable and attentive team.
After choosing a complex Basque white, we received a very moist halibut on a bed of leeks, baked in a parchment shell ($19), and a plate of perfectly seared scallops tasting of fennel, accompanied by a very good olive tapenade ($19). In the entrées, Pescheria's kitchen remained true to its Northern Italian prototypes: both dishes subtly accentuated the simple tastes of the fish, and were neither overly saucy nor overly spiced. Our menu finished with a small, delicate pear tart ($8), tasting of lemon, thyme and honey; a distinctly Provençal close to this very Italian meal.
Reservations Recommended? Yes.
by Albert Pearson on Jan 11, 2007
images courtesy of Pescheria