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Country Italian Elegance on Russian Hill

Giancarlo Paterni's Acquerello has stood as San Francisco's single most acclaimed Italian destination restaurant for well over a decade. Rustic refinement is the order of the day; Aqcuerello's dining room is all vaulted ceiling, dramatic floral arrangements, and stained glass. The food is sublime, the service polished, and the wine list deep and well researched.

This is not a place for your flashy Armani suit; the crowd at Acquerello is decidedly conservative, but on the night of our visit, the Charles Schwab types were packing it in for chef Suzette Gresham's acclaimed Italian cookery.

Acquerello's menu offers either a Chef's tasting menu of five courses with paired wines ($95), or a la carte selections in larger portions. Once seated, the servers promptly arrive with a refreshing aperitif and recite the list of daily specials. The "papa al pomodoro" soup ($10) is great place to get started. Served chilled, this is a near perfect rendition of the Italian classic. Moving on to pasta, don't miss the ridged rigatoni with foie gras and black truffles ($16). On our visit this dish absolutely brought the house down. Be warned, this is not a plate for weight watchers, but reservations aside, the creamy truffle sauce was one of the most rich and delicious things we had ever tasted. One bite and the flavor rolls on in your mouth for a solid two minutes. The lobster ravioli special with saffron sauce ($14) was fantastic as well, but maybe a bit overshadowed by the rigatoni.

For main courses, the seared filet of salmon ($29) is cooked to a perfect medium rare, and topped with sweet, almost molasses-like 25 year-old balsamic vinegar. The pan-roasted halibut ($29) is crisp on the outside, tender and juicy on the interior, and served over braised vegetables, with a surprisingly light veal reduction. For the carnivorous, Acquerello offers a massive grilled "Piemontese" rib-eye steak ($31) topped with rich, truffled anchovy butter, served over creamy polenta, as well as a house specialty, Trittico of Rabbit: three cuts done three ways but somehow perfectly coherent when put together. For dessert the delicious housemade gelato ($9) is topped with sweet, 25 year-old balsamic vinegar, and the Vin Santo cake ($10) arrives topped with the freshest in seasonal fruits.

Acquerello has been open for over ten years now, and looking at its wine list that fact is unsurprising. In his massive cellar, Giancarlo has amassed numerous rare and hard-to-find bottles, and he offers them at prices unheard of in the Bay Area. The list includes more than thirty bottles from acclaimed super Tuscan producer Angelo Gaja, with vintages going back nearly two decades, as well as an entire section devoted to California cult pinot noir. There are numerous obscure selections as well, all well priced, with which the service staff will eagerly offer assistance.

For a fancy night out on the town, or maybe just a romantic dinner for two, Acquerello is not to be missed. Call ahead and enjoy.