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Quietly, Genuinely Italian

Some restaurants strive to be the next big thing and are lucky to live up to the buzz, while others without such designs quietly go about gaining reputation and becoming favorite, under-the-radar dining spots. Claiming the latter distinction, Capannina is part of a quiet resurgence of shiny new restaurants on Union Street.

Michele di Ruocco managed North Beach favorites such as Ideale for several years before setting out to open Capannina in 2005. The gem is named nostalgically after his favorite restaurant growing up on the isle of Capri. Like any inviting Italian family, Di Ruocco and staff (some who followed him from back home to San Francisco) welcome guests as if they were long lost cousins.

Raised thick velvet curtains open up into the hall of a dining room. Red striped banquettes adorn the two sides of the room, framed by sage green walls illuminated softly by swirly cream lamps. The small and lively room, which seats roughly 40, never gets too loud for dinner conversation. It suits a date just as well as a family gathering.

The menu does not feature one particular region. Rather, it focuses on familiar yet fresh takes on dishes found from Tuscany to Naples. For early diners, the three-course prix fixe option for $25 between 5-6pm is a great way to go. For others, the menu possesses many options that allow for tasting several courses. Portions do lean towards the generous side.

Each antipasti dish sounds as refreshing and tempting as the next. The Carpaccio di Manzo ($12) is a beautiful presentation of paper-thin slices of peppered red beef, overlapped by roughly grated parmigiano and sprinkles of arugula. The Risotto Nero Con Capesante Alla Veneziana ($14) is one of the big hits on the menu. In several visits, we dared not stray away from this black ink risotto, which serves as a dark canvas for delicately seared sea scallops in a lobster bisque sauce. Though the dish sounds busy, the flavors play lightly and nicely against one another.

The pasta dishes need a little fine tuning, covering the gamut from linguine to ravioli to orecchiette. The Ravioli al Prosciutto e Mozzarella di Bufala ($16), large mounds of ravioli in a perfunctory red tomato sauce, didn't create a zip or excite the palate like many of the other dishes. Our favorite of the pastas was the pappardelle with thick, flavorful wild boar ragu ($16).

Main courses shine, like the antipasti, with every main dish vying for attention. To be sure, as a starter, middle course, or side, the risotto in its many renditions is cooked to an al dente perfection. The parmesan risotto accompanies an equally toothsome veal scallopini with lemon-caper sauce ($19), comprised of thin, flavorful cuts of pan-fried veal. The braised short ribs ($26) could not be more tender -- nice mounds lined smartly in a row -- accompanied by fluffy mashed potatoes. Branzino con Fregola Sarda ($23) is a pairing of sea bass baked to a perfect golden hue with fregola: firm, marble-shaped pasta in a bright vibrant green leek sauce.

Perusing the wine list, covering the span of Italy with all its different varietals, is an interesting endeavor. A good selection of wines by the glass will keep your attention, and bottle prices are extremely reasonable, offering Northern-Central Italian, Southern Italian, and Californian wines.

Be sure to save room for the desserts. They are formidable, with the almond cannoli ($8) taking the cake. The delicious housemade tiramisu is a boozy version, edged with slabs of white chocolate and exclamated with drops of raspberry sauce. If you're lucky, Michele might even offer a glass of his very own limoncello, made from a family recipe.

With Michele giving genuine personal attention to every table, not a minute goes by without hearing his happy "prego" or "buona sera." Capannina rewards the savvy diner with a taste of Italy that feels like home.

Italian cuisine

Reservations Essential? Yes