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Bar Bambino

Italiano Barra di Vino

Opened in early 2007, Bar Bambino offers a casual, wine-centric option for Italophiles basking in the recent addition of a slew of high-minded Italian restaurants in San Francisco (SPQR, Farina, Ducca, and Perbacco to name a few). Here, owner Christopher Losa seeks to lure the diner with a visually tantalizing interior: a long bar with modern fixtures; a view of salumi chef Alex Potter at work assembling delectable slivers of cured pork; and a small patio outside surrounded by grasses. Better yet, Losa has assembled a selection of fine nibblets that touch on the cuisines of Italy -- everything from “salumi” boards to meaty pastas, paninis and piattis.

Losa, a former transportation consultant and new restaurateur, really knows his Italian cuisine, but his knowledge of Italian wines appears to be encyclopedic (even if his attractive, hip employees may need some catching up here and there). During our visit he recommended a delicious Selvapiana wine ($38), providing a detailed history of the wine as well as how it fits in within Chianti, Sangiovese, and Montepulciano varieties.

But the menu is an Italian tour of its own. We began our meal in Liguria with tuna, cannellini beans, and red onion salad ($9). We found the beans tender and fresh, and with the addition of imported Genoa tuna, we could taste the Mediterranean in summer. We also sampled the roasted beets with arugula, hazelnuts, and goat cheese salad ($9) and the “Al Ginepro” bruschetta ($8), grilled toasts generously topped with rustic Tuscan-style chicken liver.

From there, we shared a cheese plate ($13) that included a Midnight Cheddar, a Pecorino, and a St. Crovato, a salty but creamy imported cheese, all accompanied by dried red plums and figs. We also ordered a small board of salumi ($10) brimming with a buttery pancetta, bright sopresetta, and a smoky domestic speck.

For our pasta, there was the “Bucatini alla Gangivecchio” ($14), a bucatini -- a long, thin spaghetti-like pasta with a hole in the middle -- perfect for trapping the garlic and red pepper flakes and the bits of swiss chard and pancetta. The portion was a bit conservative, though the flavors were simple, fresh and well balanced. Colleagues who dined there recently noted that a rabbit pappardelle was exemplary, and a trofie pasta with creamy sausage sauce -- while not the dish that was actually ordered -- was decadent and delightful.

For our piatti we tried the “Polpette di Melanzane” ($14), a veggie sort of meatball dish made with eggplant, pine nuts, a touch of raisin, and finished with a light tomato sauce. We found the “Polpette” seasoning tasty, but the sauce a little cool and overly sweet; we would have preferred something savorier. The “Maiale al Latte” ($16), pork shoulder slow-braised in milk, was tender, falling apart with the touch of a fork, and perfectly seasoned. With the soft polenta ($4) and grilled asparagus ($7) contorni, we assembled our own small plate "Osso Bucco", with barely enough room for coffee and dessert.

The espresso ($3) came with the question, “Northern or Southern Italian?”
We thought the option inventive, if only slightly pretentious. Not so for our choice of dessert, the “Bittersweet Chocolate Panini” ($7), a dry bit of cake in a cup topped with cream. Sounded interesting, but the cake was tepid, the cream warm, and the combination pretty tasteless -- an unfortunate topper to an otherwise pleasant meal.

Though the food was classic Italian fare in the vein of modern salumi pathfinders like A16 and Incanto, we thought Bar Bambino best perceived as a great place to enjoy wine with friends, with some lavish nibbles on the side, rather than looking at it as a culinary destination. Friends have reported excellent experiences dining at the bar, while others have expressed mixed feelings about service after sitting in the dining room or on the back patio.

The location, on an unsavory patch of Inner Mission pavement, was crowded and lively, though it came with one drawback -- the noise was literally ear-shattering (not the place to bring Lindsey Wagner when she’s feeling bionic). Nevertheless, Bar Bambino is a worthy addition to the Mission, and a homesteader at its 16th and South Van Ness location.

Italian Small Plates
The Mission

Reservations Accepted.