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Honest Italian Food in the Richmond

Café Riggio keeping it real

North Beach is inarguably the best place in the city for traditional family Italian, but sometimes we just don't feel like dealing with the parking, the crowds or the prices. On those nights, we walk over to Café Riggio, a moderately priced neighborhood Italian nestled between 5th and 6th Avenues on Geary's burgeoning "restaurant row."

A relaxed, convivial and unpretentious restaurant, Café Riggio is an excellent place to take your mom, your friend's visiting dad, or your snooty boss who insists, "there isn't any good Italian anymore." The dining room is casual, the service is friendly, and you can almost always get a table -- although things tend to get noisy and crowded during peak hours. The pleasant service is consistent no matter what the hour, and the cheerful wait staff will always recommend something extremely tasty if asked.

John Riggio According to its website, Café Riggio features what owner John Riggio calls "The best veal money can buy," Vitello all Parmigiana. We haven't tried it yet, but based on the restaurant's track record, we're more than willing to believe Riggio's claim. We have tried the Risotto con Funghi Selvatici (moist, flavorful and hearty, even to our carnivorous palettes), the Cannelloni Ripleni (mmm... gobs of meat and cheese...), the Linguine con Vongole (fresh clams -- neither gritty nor fishy!) and the grilled salmon. We were delighted with all of it. Equally wonderful were the crab cakes, which came drizzled with a sweet, tangy red pepper sauce, and the Mozzarella alla Caprese: slabs of real mozzarella, fresh tomatoes and basil -- a perennial favorite of ours. But by far the most outstanding item on the menu -- and quite possibly the best thing we've ever eaten -- is the Gamberoni con Aglio e Burro: jumbo prawns sautéed with a light (!) brandy, garlic, butter and lemon sauce. The prawns arrived cooked to perfection, not too rubbery, not too dry, and the sauce... well, let's just say that we used up our table's vast supply of bread in sopping up every last particle of that wonderful sauce, which was neither low-fat nor skimpily portioned.

The preponderance of veal dishes -- over a dozen by our count -- may terrify vegetarians, but they shouldn't worry too much. Café Riggio features lots of options for herbivores, including the aforementioned mushroom risotto, a delicious spaghetti dish loaded with fresh vegetables, the ubiquitous cheesy baked pasta dishes, and an extensive seafood menu for those who only eschew red meat. The desserts are also quite wonderful; our party managed to put away two cannoli each, with very little effort. We were eyeing the tiramisu, but we realized that if we ate any more, we would most likely die.

Update Review in Fall 2002
We first encountered Chef Michael Baker a few years ago when he was fresh to the mainland from Hawaii, during his stint at Murray's Glasshouse (now Lehr's Glasshouse) on Sutter. Fans of his Pacific Rim fusion cuisine, we were intrigued to find out how he approaches traditional Italian food at his latest gig: Geary Blvd.'s Café Riggio, which is pretty much totally Italian. Good news. The sprawling, comfortable neighborhood restaurant has a gigantic menu ranging from traditional to modern, and everything we tried was great. Garlicky formaggio all' Argintera ($6), the house specialty of sauteed Caciocavallo cheese, arrives crackling in a cast iron pan - fun with one of the reasonably priced wines on the unpretentious wine list. We enjoyed the mussels in tomato broth ($8) and the spaghetti al pesto ($11), while the simple, elegant seared scallops with risotto satisfied the yearning for something more... Californian. Our server was just a darling, all smiles. All around, a nice place to have dinner with friends.