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North Beach Italian meets Mission Hip

"You've got to hurry, Broom!" a colleague noted last month via email. "Go check out this new Italian place on Mission before it becomes the next Delfina!" Specchio, he said, was the name, noting that this brand new spot next to Cha Cha Cha was opened by a North Beach veteran chef who was already getting high marks for his pappardelle with wild boar ragu.

While I suspect Specchio isn't going to make the cover of Food & Wine (although kudos if they do), the food is very good (thoughtful Cal-Mediterranean), the staff is friendly, wines are smart and inexpensive, the atmosphere is hip enough to feel like you're really "going out" while the menu is solidly mid-priced, with no entree over $15.

That's right, no dishes over $15. Three people can do two courses and two bottles of wine and escape for a buck fifty, which is what a couple might normally expect to pay for a chi chi dinner out.

For a recent evening reservation, the relaxed, personable maitre d' picked a gorgeous, light white at our request for our short wait at the bar -- a $36 '06 Roero Arneis Recit from Piemonte -- and brought out a little plate of shaved Parmigiano Reggiano or some such, drizzled with good balsamic. The wine list is almost exclusively Italian, and bottles tend to hover comfortably between $20 and $40 with a handful of pricier wines and a Barolo that spikes to $110. Our server didn't disappoint with her suggestion for a red, steering us toward a $28 bottle of Fillipo Gallino '06 Barbera d'Alba, which was light and rustic and just what we wanted.

The high-ceilinged room (which used to be a not-so-hot art gallery, if I recall correctly?) has been painted a silvery grey and outfitted with kitschy light fixtures and glowing red bulbs. Doglegging back from the street, the space opens up to a mid-sized dining room with a bustling open kitchen. Chef Gino Assaf runs the show, as he did up at Ristorante Gondola and at Ristorante Ideale before that, both well-regarded little outposts of good Italian cooking up in North Beach.

While a too-small salad of orange, fennel, black olives and olive oil ($7) arrived with zero olives and therefore lackluster flavor, our table agreed that the classic beef carpaccio ($8), sliced super-thin and spread wide with zingy accoutrements, was a hit. Breaded, fried scallops over a red pepper-ginger puree ($9) were pretty tasty as well, but so far nothing had our palates begging for repeats -- and it's all about finding those dishes that make you want to come back for more. Would entrees hold promise?

We eschewed the $11-$12 thin-crust pizzas in favor of pastas all around. A dish of pumpkin ravioli ($15) in a creamy amaretto sauce was just a little too sweet and monotone to stand on its own as an entree for one person. However, share it as a middle course and you'll likely be stoked.

However, a big bowl of orechiette pasta with a brilliant green pistachio pesto was more of a crowd-pleaser, if again a bit homogenous in flavor. We noticed a distinct lack of salt in the cooking overall, and since shakers aren't placed on tables we sheepishly asked for the s + p and moved forward. I had chosen the wild boar ragu over wide, long pappardelle noodles, a dish which erred toward the light and simple, providing a few tasty bits of slow-cooked ground boar and a light slip of sauce with each bite. We got the sense overall that we weren't in the presence of some kind of out-of-nowhere culinary genius, but still, this chef had serious chops and a delicate hand, something all too rare in the typical Italian risto.

The verdict: while we couldn't find anything that screamed for us to return ASAP for a foodie blowout, this spot is our new go-to when meeting up for a 4-8 person dinner, where the low menu prices and reasonable wine list take the stress out of group dining. The unpretentious, happening atmosphere is easy and relaxed, and the location on Mission at 19th is convenient for all modes of transport.


Reservations - Yes.