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Caffe Ponte Vecchio - Closed

Cozies Up the Mission

In order to avoid reputation-harming clichés, it would be wrong to say that if you blink, you'll miss the cozy Caffe Ponte Vecchio. Instead, let's say that even if you know the address of the place, it will still take some searching to find.

Owner and head chef Corrado Giustini guesses that the tiny Italian restaurant seats twenty-two. If you're lucky enough to be one of those, you're destined to receive a home-style meal of the Florentine variety. And most of the clientele looked to have been here before. Ponte Vecchio is one of those places that people list as one of their favorite neighborhood spots. Many of the visitors are on a first name basis with Corrado, and the rest have likely been tipped off about it.

Mr. Giustini has been in the restaurant business all of his life, from his beginnings in Florence to stints in various San Francisco and Miami restaurants. He opened Ponte Vecchio in 1997 as a coffeehouse until he could secure the liquor license he needed to turn it into the restaurant we have today. It's been a labor of love, and Corrado does everything from taking reservations to bussing tables to doing all of the prep work on all of the meals.

Even with soccer on television in the corner and close-quarters seating, Caffe Ponte Vecchio manages to carry with it a quaint, very personal dining atmosphere. It's a great place to have dinner with a couple of friends, and it's also a top-notch date destination. The appetizers and entrees are priced reasonably enough that locals can enjoy them at least once a week, even in the recession.

The first step for many on an Italian culinary adventure is the Insalata Cesare. Ponte Vecchio's passed this one easily. Another popular appetizer, one much less common, is the Melanzane All'Agrodolce, a house specialty that finds cold eggplants cooked in vinaigrette and served with olive oil, garlic, and red pepper.

Mr. Giustini's pizza creations are just a step off of the traditional. The thin, crispy crusts hold the toppings firmly, such as in the case of the Pizza 4 Stagione, which showcases artichokes, black olives, ham, and mushrooms. They're not mixed together, as most pizza joints would be wont to do. Rather, Giustini's recipe calls for a separate-but-equal scenario in which each ingredient is given one fourth of the real estate. This way, each flavor is allowed to dominate two slices without interference by the others.

The dinner specials change periodically, and the eggplant parmigiana is one of the best, literally melting in your mouth and not heaped atop a bed of pasta. It's just you and the eggplant on this one, and it's definitely worth going after.

Caffe Ponte Vecchio's menu also showcases just about all of the classic pasta dishes you can think of, so if you're in the mood for a meat-and-potatoes kind of Italian meal, you can find that here, too. So don't let the people of the 23rd and Valencia corridor be the only ones to brag about "their" neighborhood Italian restaurant.