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Authentic Venetian Cicchetti Becomes a Russian Hill Staple

Like a fine wine, some restaurants get better with age, and Pesce -- a bustling, Venetian-style small plates eatery that highlights fresh seafood -- is one of those lucky few. Open since 2000, Pesce graces Polk Street with a winning combination of consistently fresh, relatively healthy cuisine and a friendly atmosphere that accommodates first dates, business meetings and casual neighborhood diners. While it's possible to walk in without a reservation, an immediate seat at one of the closely packed tables is never a guarantee.

The ample bar, white-tiled floors, teal-and-yellow-globed light fixture, and trio of chalkboards displaying the daily specials add a level of seafood-eatery casualness to what could otherwise be a stuffy vibe, while the dark-wood walls lend some intimacy and keep the noise levels down. As the tables are tightly set, a seat at the bar provides a nice alternative, not to mention that the service at the bar is equally astute.

Like most of the regulars who pop into Pesce, we each started with a zangy oyster shot ($3/each) on a recent weeknight. The cucumber lends a welcome bite to the slimy oyster, while the horseradish and cocktail sauce provide traditional flavoring. Two small plates per person is generally the safe recommendation, and while most of the hot cicchetti on the list is tempting, the house-smoked salmon bruschetta with a creamy horseradish spread ($8, salmone affumicato) is a signature cold cichetti that is not to be missed. And if the Dungeness crab tower (with layers of avocado and citrus) is on the specials list, consider yourself lucky and snap it up.

The restaurant's standout hot dishes showcase chef-owner Ruggero Gadaldi's talents (Antica Trattoria, Beretta). First, the polpo ($10) -- braised octopus with slices of potato and celery in a garlic vinaigrette -- rivals its so-called authentic counterpart in Italy. The tonno puttanesca ($11) -- herb-crusted tuna swimming in a spicy tomato sauce -- adds a nice kick that is balanced by the seared dayboat scallops dipped in a chanterelle cream sauce ($13). However, few dishes can match the drunken tuna that was once on the menu -- a beef stew-like flavor with richly braised tuna and polenta.

On a cold, rainy night (or a balmy, clear night, if you're a fan), a steaming bowl of cioppino ($15) bursting with clams, mussels, shrimp, crab, and fish, hits the spot. A few extra slices of bread should be by your side for dipping into the tomato-and-saffron broth, but the cubes of polenta at the bottom of the bowl provide another nice carb opportunity. If there are non-seafood eaters in the crowd, skip the crab risotto cake ($9) and the gamberoni with cannelini beans ($8), and opt for the venison, pan-seared with spaetzle in a Barbera wine sauce ($13), or the three-mushroom risotto.

The roasted pumpkin ($6) with toasted almonds, rosemary, and garlic is a side that does well for dessert. Otherwise, the warm bread pudding (desserts all $7) is good for comfort, and the fruit tart (ours was apple) doesn't get enough attention.

For more hearty Italian fare, Antica, Pesce's sister restaurant is just a few blocks away on Polk, and the other sibling -- Beretta, f.k.a. The Last Supper Club -- resides in the Mission. But for authentic Venetian seafood with a casual -- but not too casual -- atmosphere, Pesce's little plates are sure to please.

Russian Hill