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Dining Gem Revealed

It's easy to overlook the entrance to Sociale. Tucked away in a quiet Presidio Heights alleyway behind a small salon and plant shop, this darling spot doesn't call attention to itself. And the locals like to keep it that way. I traverse through the pathway into the secret garden: Sociale's quaint courtyard, set with intimate candlelit tables warmed by heat lamps. A perfect spot for an alfresco dinner, even on a foggy San Francisco night.

A peek inside reveals a cozy 45-seat dining room with butterscotch walls dressed with black and white photos of beaming Italian families. A petite unassuming wine bar in the corner is an easy draw for a pre-dinner glass of Prosecco or Chianti. A once-over of the room reveals a charming, relaxed space with a broad appeal, from the well-to-do neighbors to couples out on an intimate date to families gathering for a special occasion.

The clever, rustic menu offers a well-rounded variety of plates, nothing overly fussy, but interesting, tending towards the hearty. I pace myself, starting with the beet and goat cheese salad ($8). A brightly colored tower of sliced roasted red and yellow beets is sandwiched with thin slabs of goat cheese, topped with a tumble of baby frisee. The plate is further dusted with dots of goat cheese and drizzled with a balsamic herb vinaigrette. The flavors and texture demonstrate a good balance of sweetness and tartness, with the goat cheese cutting through the acidity. Other starters include the standard Caesar salad ($6.50) as well as tempting fried olives stuffed with cheese ($6.50) and braised rabbit with spaetzle ($10).

I become decision-challenged with the pasta course, given the irresistible selections including the Dungeness crab risotto ($18). The linguine with clams ($16) was tried on a previous visit, and it's a winner. I opt for a half order of the wild boar ravioli ($8.50, $17 full order). The palm-sized pasta is a textbook al dente, enveloping shredded boar that could not be more tender. However, the overpowering acidic marinara sauce gets in the way. A little more sweetness would've complemented the ravioli better but, luckily, my glass of Nero d'Avola, a lovely Sicilian red, does the trick, bringing out the smoky flavor of the boar.

At Sociale, a nice range of entrees with attractive sides have been created with care. There is something for everyone, be it the vegetarian, sea-fare lover, or the carnivore. Pan-seared snapper ($20) in a light garlic fennel sauce accompanied by herbed polenta and braised savoy cabbage sounds appetizing, as well as the roasted rack of lamb ($22) in its own jus paired with a spinach, potato, artichoke and ricotta torta. I order the grilled quail ($21) stuffed with truffle mousse coupled with fingerling potatoes with pancetta in a pumpkin beurre blanc. The quail is cooked to a nice golden brown, the meat tender and succulent. Here, there is a slight flavor struggle with the salty mousse overtaking the quail rather than enhancing its natural flavor. The pancetta brings out further saltiness, but the roasted fingerlings balance it out.

It would be tragic to stop here and deny myself the delight of the sfingi ($7) for dessert. The Sicilian sweet consists of two balls of fried dough resembling doughnut holes, rolled with orange blossom honey and roasted pistachios and paired with a vanilla gelato shake. It is a delicious, very adult dessert with a kiss of sugar.

Wine lovers and novices will enjoy Sociale's comprehensive but tight wine list with 24 wines offered by the glass or taste and several by the half bottle. The focus here is wines spanning many of Italy's wine regions such as the Vermentino de Gallura, a lovely white from Sardinia, and several Barbarescos and Barolos from the Piemonte region, with several Californians thrown in for good measure. The list is fairly reasonable with prices ranging from $21 to fit the wallet up to $115 for those who want to impress.

Overall, Sociale offers good Italian comfort food with staying power. Minor adjustments to seasoning and blending will ensure its place as a longtime neighborhood haunt- especially with that perfect little outdoor courtyard.