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Italian Done Right

At Antica Trattoria

Chef Rugero Gadaldi's philosophy on cooking is straightforward. "You pick the tomato, you slice it up, you eat it," he says. Since opening Antica Trattoria in 1996, he's been bringing that philosophy to the table by using exceptional ingredients to prepare simple, superb Italian dishes at incredibly reasonable prices.

Located on the corner of Polk and Union, Antica Trattoria's décor is as simple and tasteful as its cuisine. Dark-wood floors, cream-colored walls, and low lighting warm up the room. The customers are diverse in age -- twentysomething couples, in-the-know tourists, middle-aged lawyers -- but upscale in dress. Perhaps it's the high ceilings, but when the restaurant is full, it's loud. So while an excellent choice to impress a date, it's probably not the best spot to pop the question.

Chef Gadaldi's talent for restraint is best showcased by the capocollo, an appetizer special. Thinly sliced air-dried pork salami is drizzled with fruity olive oil and topped with a smattering of fava beans and cherry tomatoes. Simple. Clean. Perfect. The tortino, a crisp potato-parsley cake stuffed with creamy gorgonzola, is slightly more complex, but equally delicious.

In true Italian fashion, the menu offers both primi piatti, the pasta course, and secondi, the meat or fish course. Although Americans often skip the primi piatti, I recommend ordering at least one pasta for the table to share, as it is too good to miss. The pappardelle, for example, is outstanding: the fresh pasta has bite but melts in the mouth, and the light tomato sauce is enhanced by chunks of soft braised duck gently flavored with cinnamon.

Since most home cooks rely on chicken as a staple for weekday meals, it's easy to overlook it as a choice of entrée when dining out. At Antica, that would be a dire mistake. With peppery, crispy skin and moist, perfectly cooked meat, the pan-fried pollo is the best half-chicken I've ever eaten. Topped with bits of salty pancetta and a balsamic sauce, the chicken was so good on a recent visit it made my dining companion want to snuggle with the chef. Lamb medallions served with sautéed artichoke hearts are also tasty and tender, although not as mind-blowing as the chicken. To accompany the meal, Antica offers a simple wine list divided by region: Northern Italy, Central Italy, Southern Italy, and California.

If wily regulars have ordered the last of Antica's famous bread pudding before you get the chance, the classic tiramisu is an excellent substitute. With velvety mascarpone and ladyfingers plump with espresso and liqueur, the dish is light and dreamy. Also well executed is the coppina antica: smooth orange-flavored pastry cream layered with whipped cream, crunchy meringue, and raspberries.

Not one to be hemmed in by narrow interpretations of Italian cuisine, Chef Gadaldi hopes Antica Trattoria will continue to expose San Franciscans to a wide variety of simple, vibrant Italian dishes. "If I were forced to cook the same tomato and garlic sauce every day," he says, "I would cry."

And so would we.