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Il Cantuccio

Subtle Italian in the Mission Dolores

The true test of an exceptional Italian restaurant doesn't lie in newfangled interpretations of old dishes or plates presented so artfully it's almost a shame to dig in, but in how they render the time-honored classics: Does the Alfredo sauce sing? Are the veal shanks melt-in-your-mouth tender?

Il Cantuccio gets high marks on all points. Sure, you'll find sophisticated menu choices that boast major culinary flair - such as the braciole di maiale: roasted pork layered with prosciutto and mozzarella accented by an exquisite rosemary and sage wine sauce - but it's the sublime rendering of Italian staples that makes Il Cantuccio a bastion of authentic Tuscan fare.

Located a block from the flashy Valencia Street corridor, proprietor Michele Massimo's classic eatery opened its doors two years ago. The ambiance reflects the food - subtle, classy, Italian without overdoing it - and Il Cantuccio's sleek, contemporary lines pre-empt any pretension of glamour. Decorative dishes, bottles of Chianti, cloves of garlic and charming scenes of the Old World adorn the walls while popera plays in the background. Tables covered in crisp white linen line the impossibly narrow space while a short bar makes solo diners feel less conspicuous. The cozy setup lends itself to a more intimate dining experience, perfect for a first date or to catch up with an old friend.

As with most Italian joints, the menu is heavy on complex carbs and garlic. The meal starts with a basket of warm bread accompanied by a delicious pesto spread. The seafood appetizer, with succulent chunks of fish, oysters and garlic croutons in a spicy marinara sauce, is highly recommended. The carpacccio di manzo, paper-thin slices of raw beef, comes drizzled with a subtle olive oil and lemon dressing.

Entrees, salads, pizza and pasta dishes are served up in perfect portions. You won't guiltily stare at half a bowl of fettuccine or feel obligated to stuff yourself. The gnocchi, delicately seasoned with basil and accented by a spritely tomato cream sauce, is a standout. Half the menu is dedicated to carnivorous choices, such as pork chops braised with spices and a sublime version of veal scaloppini. And what's an Italian restaurant without some decent vino? The wine list boasts some of Tuscany's finest vintages.

Desserts provide a perfect ending to the meal, if you can manage to leave enough room. A bitter chocolate cake with vanilla sauce gets top honors, and the drop-dead perfect tiramisu is surprisingly light.

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