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A Thoroughly Enjoyable Dining Experience

Baldoria Lights Up Russian Hill

White tablecloths, neutral walls lined with bottles of wine, and barely noticeable opera transform this refined row house located at the corner of Larkin and Green Streets into an intimate restaurant. An elegant menu and extensive wine list confirm Baldoria's fine-dining standing. However, a warm interior, an understanding staff (primarily handsome young Italian men) and the frequent appearance of the hospitable host (who spends most of his time patrolling the dining room and kissing regular customers on their way in and out) make each and every customer feel important.

Baldoria's two smallish dining rooms make it the perfect place for birthday dinner for 10 or an intimate anniversary dinner for two. Although the atmosphere suggests dressy attire, I've enjoyed several impromptu meals at the bar in casual wear. Regardless of the reason, I go to Baldoria to all-out feast and feel like a princess. A well-rounded meal at Baldoria should start with one of the many antipasti. If I opt for pasta, I like the mixed greens with fennel, oranges, olives, extra virgin oil and balsamic vinegar ($3.95) as a light appetizer. The clams and mussels sauteed with fresh tomatoes and garlic ($6.50) are the perfect accompaniment to the buttery baguette, which is placed on the table upon arrival. The antipasto della casa (small $6.95/9.00 large) is perfect for those who'd like to try a healthy sampling of fresh roasted vegetables, cheeses, olives and meats.

Homemade moon-shaped spinach ravioli with ricotta and mascarpone (Mezzelune di Spinaci $10.95) may be the best pasta dish in the city. The depth of flavors always makes for a superlative experience. Other dishes belong on a best-of short list: Homemade tagliolini with smoked salmon, caviar, and cream (tagliolini al salmone e caviale $11.95) and pumpkin gnocchi with shittake mushrooms in gorgonzola cream sauce (zucca e funghi $12.95). If you are having a difficult time figuring out what to try (and with so many fantastic dishes from which to choose it won't be easy), go with the Assaggini (three kinds of pasta: ravioli in cream, penne in pink and gnocchi in red sauces) for $10.95 -- you absolutely can't lose. For the carnivore at heart, chicken breast stuffed with eggplant and mozzarella in rosemary sauce (Pollo con Melanzana $16.95) is an excellent choice. The menu has a healthy selection of fresh fish and seafood. The grilled salmon topped with shrimp in avocado and pineapple sauce (Salmone and Scampi $17.95) is something that you must sample -- it's not like any you've tasted before.

For dessert, chocolate profiteroles stuffed with rich vanilla cream and topped with warm chocolate ($5.50) are decadently delicious or try the poached apples in wine topped with mascarpone ($4.95).

The food is simple, yet elegantly understated (and reasonably priced) at Baldoria, the service is outstanding yet not stuffy, and the atmosphere is intimate and inviting. There is simply no better combination of inspired, exquisite Italian food and incredible warmth of service that I know of anywhere. Tell your waiter the types of food and wine that you like, and you will come away with one of the most memorable dining experiences you will ever have. Arrive early in the evening on weekends for seats (or make reservations); otherwise you'll end up waiting (which may give you enough time to sit at one of the bar's highly coveted seats and enjoy a bottle of wine).