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Buca Giovanni

A Real Casanova In The Kitchen

While North Beach may still have its charm, it hasn't had a reputation for the best restaurants in the City in a while. With a few exceptions, the established Italian restaurants of North Beach have rested on their laurels for far too long. Buca Giovanni is not a new restaurant but a new chef-owner, Vic Casanova, took over last year and the effort of both kitchen and wait staff is obvious.

Buca Giovanni is on the edge of North Beach both literally and figuratively as Casanova pushes the boundaries of Italian fare. There is something refreshing about this young New York Italian chef who has come to the Bay Area. You can taste the inspiration of the local ingredients in his cooking. Not bound by adherence to traditional preparations, Casanova's dish often surprise and delight.

One of the best dishes we had on a recent visit, a "would-return-for" dish was the Sformato. A delicate fresh spinach flan redolent with herbs was lovingly draped with a fonduta of Fontina and Val d'osta and served with just a tiny bit of sun-dried tomato pesto. The balance of the dish was wonderful and won us over from the start. There are several pastas on the menu and they range from a traditional Pappardelle Bolognese to a contemporary preparation of Agnolotti -- stuffed with sweet white corn, mascarpone, goat cheese and Parmesan cheese. Our choice was a beautifully presented squid ink fettuccine, which was tender and toothsome coated in a rich cream sauce, almost too rich and slightly salty from Prosciutto. Though garnished with chives, it might have benefited from a little grated lemon peel to cut the richness.

The entrees at Buca Giovanni are huge. One of the signature dishes is the Osso Bucco in which a 3 1/2 inch thick center-cut veal shank is braised for 7 1/2 hours. The presentation was dramatic with rosemary sprigs and the shank bone filled with gremolata, though it could have used a tiny bit more of this sharp herb mixture to finish the dish. The meat was tender and the sauce tasty but the polenta may have been the star of the dish. This was possibly the creamiest polenta ever, enriched with milk, butter and Parmesan cheese. If polenta doesn't come with your entrée consider ordering it as a side dish.

Caccuico is a Livornese dish you don't often find on menus outside of Italy. It's a tasty, tomato-based seafood stew that varies based on the availability of fresh fish. This version had Sardinian pasta beads called "fregola" in addition to the more classic accompaniment of garlic toasts. Unusual additions also included creamy pine nuts and caperberries, immense in size but mildly flavored.

Service at Buca Giovanni is warm and solicitous. The kitchen is open but the chef also makes the rounds throughout the evening stopping at each table to chat with customers and answer questions. The feel of the restaurant is fresh yet rustic with terra cotta and brick. Unlike so many other Italian restaurants this one is quiet and cozy, which makes it a perfect place to catch up with family from out of town or for a romantic evening for two.

Buca Giovanni
North Beach