Related Articles: Restaurants, All

54 Mint

Under the Radar

Opened in May 2009, 54 Mint joined Blue Bottle and Chez Papa Resto as the latest inhabitant of the Mint Plaza project. Technically housed at 16 Mint Plaza (54 was the original address), owner Alberto Avalle considers ’54 a great year and kept the name in spite of the postal change. Avalle, one of the founders of Manhattan’s Il Buco, has a great thing going at this new Sicilian-focused eatery that emphasizes fine ingredients without a lot of fuss.

While they do more than place a fig on a plate, the style and flavors are pleasantly straightforward. This is the sort of restaurant that exudes an Old World charm, melded with an urban, New York vibe nestled in a part of San Francisco that makes it more of a destination eatery than a neighborhood haunt. Whether you’re looking for a bustling date spot, a place to impress your visiting family, or a quick bite at the bar, 54 Mint is where you’ll want to go.

Big groups will like the festive cellar ambiance downstairs that almost feels like you’ve been transported to a small eatery on the other side of the Atlantic. Otherwise, sit upstairs — either at the long marble-topped bar overlooking various spices and sauces that are actually for sale, or at one of the smaller tables past the stairway.

A hefty basket of housemade focaccia landed in front of us within minutes of landing a seat at the bar. Mentioning that they were down a no-show server that night, it was clear that the staff was under more stress than they were comfortable with. After ordering wine from the all-Italian list of roughly 10 pours by the glass — which are said to reflect the list at Il Buco and to be exclusive to 54 Mint in the City — we debated on the relatively expansive menu.

To start, we tried the insalata di rughettta ($10), a salad of baby arugula lightly dressed in aged balsamic vinegar and extra virgin olive oil. And we also shared the caponata ($10), which we’d expected to be served warm, but appeared closer to a chilled sweet and sour ratatouille. Then, skipping over the signature three-year aged Parmigiano-Reggiano ($16) dressed with extra aged balsamic and the arancina di carne ($12) fried saffron risotto ball stuffed with meat ragout and peas, we opted for the lighter (arguably healthier) carpaccio di polipo al salmoriglio ($12). The octopus was shaved ultra thin and drizzled with a citrus olive oil for some zest.

Since the pastas are made in house daily, we vacillated on whether to get the trenette al pesto trapanese ($14) to experience Sicilian pesto — made with tomatoes, almonds and fresh basil. But after seeing heaping platefuls of the linguine alla pescatora ($18) showcasing the house pasta in a tomato-based sauce with a bounty of calamari, prawns, clams and mussels, served topped with a head-on prawn, we went for it. And happily so, since the generous amounts of shellfish accompanied by the al dente hand-rolled linguine made for satisfying bitefuls of protein and pasta. Next, ending on the slightly more rustic and hearty side of things, we chose the creamy carbonara ($14) enhanced with crisp pork cheeks that brought just the right amount of texture to the creamy pasta.

Finishing off with glasses of effervescent Moscato, we selected the plate of biscotti arranged around a generous bowl of fresh cream from Straus dairy. Not being privy to the off-the-menu desserts that are often available on the weekends, we were presented with a Fuji apple tart made from scratch by Alberto’s wife that day. Refreshing and light, the expertly made tart prompted us to ask whether she makes more. Indeed, she’s responsible for the secret limoncello as well as other tarts when the mood strikes.

Walking out already thinking about what to order during the next few visits is always a good indicator of a satisfying meal. Giving the understaffed crew the benefit of the doubt, our service hiccups are but a distant memory far overshadowed by the simple, expertly executed dishes. Overall, we’d classify 54 Mint as one of the under-the-radar hidden gems of 2009.

Reservations Essential? Yes