The first time I stepped onto a Roman street it felt like home. The breezy sun-filled air vibrated with familiarity that radiated from the cobblestones. Though I only understood a few phrases, melodious Italian filled my ears with a tone that tugged at some mystic ancient memory as I wandered from Monteverde to the Aventine, Vatican City to Trastevere, letting my feet guide me, barely needing a map, feeling for all the world like I’d walked these streets before in some long-forgotten life.
As far as I know, I’m not Italian. I’m from Los Angeles, and as distantly as you can trace my lineage there’s not a Roman in the bunch. But something about that city, that place, that culture, clutches at my spirit. And that spirit is embodied in its cuisine. And that cuisine has a new home in San Francisco: Montesacro.
A rustically stylish enoteca located on an unassuming alley in the SoMa/Tenderloin limbo, Montesacro specializes in a uniquely Roman dish: pinsa. Not to be confused with pizza, this is its ancestor, a flatbread made with wheat, rice, and soy flours that’s been a staple in Rome for the last few millennia, give or take.
The eponymous Montesacro pinsa showcases the unique beauty of this dish, as well as the intense care that goes into the creation of the food here. It starts with the crust, which exhibits a pleasing push-pull balance of elasticity, airiness, and crunchy, nutty substance.
Brought to blistered life in a state-of-the-art electric oven, it’s topped with lightly charred curls of kale, hot red ribbons of pepperoncini, and garum, a fermented fish sauce made popular a few dozen centuries ago (give or take).
The flavors are spectacular. Salt, earth, spice, heat and wheat dance along a blanket of milky stracciatella (the creamy, unleashed core of burrata). Every time you think one sensation is going to take over, cheese coats and cools your palate, and then the next wave moves in.
Not every pinsa has cheese — notably, the delicious Garbatella, which combines bright summery citrus, tomato, tuna and onion — but the ones that do exhibit a serendipitous meld of dairy and dough.
The Infernetto is a big, bold example. Smoked buffalo mozzarella oozes its volcanic essence into every pore of crust, while pockets of ’nduja, spreadable spicy pork sausage, burst with meat and fire.
There’s a lot of great non-pinsa food here, too. The porchetta is salty and herbaceous with a punch of rosemary, its essence lying in the interplay of flesh and fat, a glorious tribute to the pig in every bite.
The carpaccio — not raw beef, but savory cured bresaola — is topped with a familiar trio of arugula, parmigiano and lemon, the high-toned citrus notes anchored by each iron-rich slice of meat.
But it all comes back to the pinsa. I love the unapolagetic heat of the Maranella’s fiery sausage, tempered by vegetal sprigs of broccolini and that blanket of mellowing cheese, this time luscious, buttery burrata.
My dark-horse favorite turned out to be the Mandrione, a simple pairing of gorgonzola and radicchio, so bitter, so funky, so creamy, so perfect that I couldn’t believe I’d never tasted that combination of flavors before.
Or maybe I have, in that former life. As the football fans say, viva la pazza gioia di essere romanisti.
Location: 510 Stevenson St., S.F.
Contact: (415) 795-3040, www.montesacrosf.com
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays for lunch; 4 to 10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 4 to 11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays for dinner
Recommended dishes: Montesacro ($16), Infernetto ($17), Mandrione ($17), Maranella ($18), Porchetta ($12), Carpaccio ($13)
Price range: $5 to $22
Credit cards: All major
Reservations: Recommended for dinner