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Relaxed Italian in the Marina

Inspired by Italy's relaxed and casual all-day enotecas, Italian pastry chef and owner, Gary Rulli, recently morphed his Emporio Rulli Gran Caffe in the Marina into a combination restaurant, wine, and salumi bar.

Stepping into the recently reborn Ristobar is like stepping back in time to an era of 80s opulence, where a grand room with a drop-ceiling, ornate frescoes, and a long marble bar are meant to lend touches of old world elegance and evoke classic European charm.

But everything feels new, from the large stone floor tiles to the frosted glass jars with their faux battery-operated flames. The restrained palette is reminiscent of a hotel lobby. Meats and cheeses comes on branded wooden platters, and the massive wine rack in the back has the sort of espresso finish and beveled edges that calls to mind the kind of furniture bought in matching sets at discounted price.

The menu, in contrast, is more personal. Chef Angelo Auriana, who spent nearly 20 years as executive chef of Los Angeles’ acclaimed Valentino Restaurant, has created a homey and rustic Italian small plates menu of salads, pastas, pizzas, vegetable sides and mains — not one of them over $18.

The sizes and prices are meant to encourage sharing, and both the affettati and formaggi (both for $10) are great places to start. Charcuterie is sourced from artisanal producers stateside and abroad rather than made in house, while cheeses are exclusively from Italy, served one night with candied walnuts and sun-dried tomatoes.

A vibrant, lighthearted crudo ($11) — the Italian version of sushi — is equal parts salad and sashimi; cubes of tuna as fresh as they come but almost secondary to the pleasure of freshly shaved carrot, fennel, cucumber, and arugula enveloped in a herbaceous oil.

However, determining doneness seems to be difficult for the kitchen: the farro, a dish of spelt pappardelle, duck liver, charred cipolline, and brown butter ($15), was infused with a gamey, rich flavor but presented with tough, chewy little pieces of meat and onions still raw in the center.

The paccheri ($15) — giant, hollow tubes of pasta with a thin, fennel-spiced pork sugo, tomato and pecorino romano — needed at least another two minutes in boiling water. Conversely, the polpettine ($12) were overcooked, the little meatballs of lamb laced with raisins and almonds unable to hide beneath a blanket of too-sweet zucchini sauce.

Only the orata ($18) was executed with precision — moist fillets of olive oil-poached sea bream came stacked on sheets of thinly sliced artichoke, wonderfully balanced by the brightness of lemon.

The five pizzas ($10-$12) strive for redemption, cooked in less than three minutes in Ristobar’s custom-built eco-friendly pizza oven with a rotating ceramic stone. The thin-crusted, oval-shaped pizzas have a pillowy dough more like naan than Naples, but there’s a pleasant chewiness to the airy and supple flatbread, which the Market Street pizza ($10) with smoked mozzarella, escarole, calabrian chili and herbs showcases well.

Desserts reinforce Rulli’s reputation as a talented pastry chef, whose bread pudding ($8), made with panettone and topped with vanilla gelato, is reliably classic. The crème brûlée ($8) is saved from tedium with the addition of valrhona milk chocolate and tobacco. But the trilogia al cioccolato ($8) is the perfect anecdote for the indecisive or the addict, with three kinds of chocolate assembled onto one plate: a soft and sumptuous gianduia chocolate bar lingers on the tongue with the essence of toasted hazelnuts, trumped only by a velvety Venetian hot chocolate and delicately crisp cocoa nib meringues.

The wine list is almost entirely Italian, its ten pages organized by geographical region with a few Californian wines tucked toward the back. Prices run the gamut, meaning you can find something quite lovely for a very fair price, and the charming sommelier is quite happy to accommodate. (The sommelier also appears to know much more about the food than do the servers; redirect menu questions here.)

A shiny Enomatic wine dispenser preserves open bottles through gas pressurization, enabling Ristobar to pour 24 Italy-only wines in a variety of sizes from the half glass to the carafe. Corkage is $15 with no limit if you’d prefer to bring your own, and beer is worth exploring with 20-plus beers (six on draft) that make sure Italy’s suds are well represented.

Despite its intent as a “comfortable neighborhood gathering place where friends and family convene to conversate, eat and drink,” Ristobar doesn’t feel like a place to linger. On one night, the dining room was half empty at 7:30, and by 9 o’clock we were dining alone.

Still the place holds promise, and its proximity to similarly themed A16 and Delarosa should motivate Ristobar to iron out its executions pronto. Their wine bar/salumi/small plates idea is good one, and with some tweaking — starting with daytime hours — this nod toward the all-day Italian eatery could find itself embraced.

Reservations Essential? No.