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Trattoria Contadina

More Than Meets the Eye

Stray from the tourist-heavy North Beach corridor that is Columbus Avenue, and you may happen upon a cozy establishment known as Trattoria Contadina. The modest interior gives the place a good friendly Ma-and-Pa vibe, though the white tablecloths and formal-ish waitstaff better reflect the caliber of the dining experience.

There's nothing too surprising about the food at Trattoria Contadina. It's straightforward, honest fare with authentic Italian styling. True to form, meals are prepared using fresh, seasonal ingredients. A solid menu of antipasti, salads, homemade pastas and secondi piatti has been attracting locals and tourists to this casual spot since 1983. The folks at Contadina are doing something right.

We kicked off our meal with Prosciutto e Melone ($10.95) and found it to be unremarkable, though tasty nonetheless. A better appetizer choice would be the creamy Polenta e Funghi ($8.95) with its velvety texture and savory wild mushroom demi-glace. For the main course, we sampled the risotto of the day, Risotto di Gambaretti ($19.95) and found it to be skillfully crafted. The flavor lacked punch, but the plump shrimps that topped the dish were delightfully fresh and succulent.

Most impressive was the Ravioli Correnti ($12.95), an elegant dish of spinach, meat and cheese pasta pillows with a porcini mushroom cream sauce, which had incredible flavor and literally melted in our mouths. Paired with a good, solid wine from the restaurant's California-heavy selection, the meal generally satiated a craving for Italian indulgence.

No Italian feast would be complete without dolci, and Trattoria Contadina offers some enticing, albeit predictable, selections: cheesecake and chocolate mousse cake (both served with the obvious raspberry sauce), sit beside spumoni, gelato, and sorbet in the selection of sweets. Our choice, the tiramisu ($6), was heavier than most of its kind, though the sweet richness of this classic dessert makes it a must have. Our waiter insisted we try it with the house "after-dinner drink", Totara, the drinker's delicious alternative to cappuccino.

Where service is concerned, the place has the class of a four-star establishment. Throughout the meal, our server stayed perfectly attentive without hovering. Aesthetically however, Trattoria Contadina doesn't quite live up to its price point. Linoleum flooring, an out-of-place bar, and cheap wainscoting make one wonder what all the fuss is about. On the other hand, some elements add a provincial charm, like walls covered in pictures of celebrity faces and a smattering of found-this-in-the-attic treasures.

The interior may be less than spectacular, but the atmosphere is undeniably warm and comfortable. Diners downstairs feel a part of the action, with the exposed kitchen filling the space with clatter and clink. Be warned though, the noise level downstairs reaches a moderate din. For an intimate evening, request a seat in the calmer upstairs.

Whatever your company, this restaurant can be a good standby for times when you want that real North Beach dining experience. It seems that Trattoria Contadina has found a formula that works: Italian staples with a few twists, plus top-notch service in a laid-back setting equals "una buona cena," a good meal.