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Italian Elegance on Polk Street
Only a mere handful of local eateries can stomach a jacket and — dare we say it? Tie — and not feel tongue-in-cheek. But it can be fun to play dress-up around the table, pushing the free-formity of shared plates, finger foods, and as-it-happens service to the curb.
And in the folds of SF’s starched white table cloths — Masa’s, Fleur de Lys, Danko, etc. — some establishments may have existed for as long as Acquerello, but few have excelled at such superb fussing so successfully with so little notice. And almost none have delivered just footsteps from the City's best gay karaoke.
Bust out that Bar Mitzvah suit and show it a good time as your maitre d' waltzes you through the mauve dining hall of the former chapel, soaring with a vaulted Alpine ceiling and elephantine floral arrangements. Service is a key factor in dining of this standard. And here, it is attentive nearly to a fault: Wine glasses are refilled before they're replaced, chargers and plates are quickly whisked away, and, without irony, synchronized servers reveal (yes, lift the lid!) on the main course on cue. One has the sensation that crumbs are caught almost before they fall.
Though the borderline stuffiness may not be your cup of pinky-pointed tea, the elegant, Michelin-star appointed, classic cuisine is modern, reasonably approachable, and a sincere draw for the seniors who’ve been coming for two decades, and for the Marina dating crowd showing off on Polk Street.
The menu changes weekly, and diners may choose from Chef Suzette Gresham-Tognetti’s mind-blowing seven-course tasting menu ($94), or construct their own three ($60), four ($72) or five-course ($82) meal. The wine list, heavy on Italian, is priced to match the décor and maintained by a team of three. It has a table-of-contents, but its heft would better benefit from electronic search.
We went the straight-up Italian route: a primo, a secondi, a carne, and dessert. On our visit, a green garlic soup with shrimp polpetine lit the table with its Day-Glo hue, and its bold flavor, refreshing like lemongrass, was just as fetching. A creamy Parmesan budino (that's pudding, ya'll), a house staple, drove it home with a well-salted mince of mushrooms beneath. Like many dishes, it teetered on the border of assertive and over-salted.
The pasta with foie gras, black truffles, and Marsala seemed a bit overkill, and in no way did we regret choosing the lobster ravioli — briny meat expertly nestled in tender, toothsome pasta, with a two-fisted lobster sauce and brilliantly spicy olive oil. The Arctic Char, generous and seared perfectly, was delicious. But it was missing the menu-promised engagement of oxtails and clams. The lamb loin wrapped in lamb sausage was, we can only imagine, as exciting and as genius a culinary invention of wrapping a hot dog in fried corn bread. So, so good that one can't help but wonder why this meat-on-meat meeting never happened before.
Though we're suckers for a good cheese cart on wheels, we opted for the sweet stuff: a bourbon and caramel semifreddo, and a humble panna cotta. Both were thoughtful, but they could not hold a candle to the house biscotti, a memorable texture of crispy without being rock hard, which was the supporting actor who stole the show. Like the eatery itself, they were something we might not have otherwise noticed, but one that we will always keep in mind.
Photo Credit: Acquerello
Photo Credit: Acquerello