There are two kinds of Italian restaurant in San Francisco: the super popular Cal-Italian, defined by the Delfina group’s ebullient, moderately priced, local ingredient-inspired ethos; and the Italian-Italian restaurant of which Farina, and Gary Rulli’s Ristobar are prime examples.
The food at Farina, however, is in a class by itself: profoundly Italian, refined, expensive and now, with Angelo Auriana as chef, transporting.
If you want to taste what a pasta can be, or a fish, or a stuffed focaccia, or a bowl of tripe, Farina is the place. With Auriana, Farina has taken a turn toward the sublime.
Though the menu reads expensive, Farina’s setting is decidedly trattoria-like, with marble and wooden tables, a partially open kitchen behind a marble counter with stools, and a tall windowed front that looks onto sidewalk seating. Intuitive servers encourage sharing, which keeps the prices in the stratosphere, though it would take a pantagruelian appetite to polish off three full savory courses, especially with tempting contorni — side dishes — and stuffed focaccia thrown in.
Frankly, I stopped worrying about the tab with the first bite of the first dish on Auriana’s daily changing menu, trippa alla calabrese ($14), beef tripe braised to buttery tenderness, and infused with red pepper, wine and tomatoes. Priceless.
Then I had a pasta I will never forget, chestnut flour tortelli, filled with hand chopped squab, sauced Roman-style with a whisper of cacio — aged sheeps’ milk cheese — and black pepper ($28). Each little pillow evoked fall in the Umbrian woods. In fact, the menu offered the prize of those woods, shaved black truffle, at $8 a gram, but the dish was so complete, it didn’t need it.
A thick filet of John Dory ($36) was seared golden, its snowy flesh moistened with a pan sauce of white wine, olives, cherry tomatoes, and peeled spring favas literally the size of a baby’s thumbnail. The preparation revealed the very nature of sole — Italian fish cookery at its highest.
Don’t worry. Farina’s famous Ligurian specialties from former chef Paolo Laboa are still on the menu: mandilli ($26), silken handkerchiefs of pasta draped in creamy pesto; and focaccia di Recco ($18), a lake of mild, melted stracchino cheese captured between two thin, crisp layers of pizza crust. If you haven’t had these, you owe yourself.
Whatever you do, don’t pass up timballo di raschera ($14), a delicate, cheese custard whose pure richness is offset by the subtle smoke and bite of grilled chicories Auriana makes local puntarella chicory taste as juicy and mild as any in Rome, bathed in the warm yolk of a poached egg mingling with anchovy oil ($14).
Local asparagus wowed — in brown butter scented with real white truffle ($14).
Farina still makes true flavored ice creams such as malaga gelato with raisins ($8). A molded panna cotta, fragrant with vanilla ($10) almost has the density of ice cream. These cool, simple desserts work well after meals of such complexity.
I have followed Auriana since he came to San Francisco from Valentino in Los Angeles, after his own place in the Gold Country closed. He’s as passionate a cook as I am an eater. At Farina, where the prices support his culinary aspirations, such ebullient, labor intensive, authentic Italian cooking is right a home.
Patricia Unterman is the author of many editions of the “San Francisco Food Lovers’ Guide.” Contact her at email@example.com.
Location: 3560 18th St. (between Guerrero and Valencia streets), San Francisco
Contact: (415) 565-0360; www.farina-foods.com
Hours: 5:30 to 10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 5 to 10 p.m. Fridays-Sundays
Price range: Antipasti $12-24; pasta $24-30; focacce $18-20; main course $36-42
Recommended dishes: Asparagus in brown butter, timballo de raschera, chestnut tortelli filled with squab; John Dory in pigato white wine, focaccia di recco; malaga raisin gelato
Credit cards: All major