On a scruffy block of the Mission, littered with empty storefronts and abandoned restaurants, Bar Bambino, a smart Italian wine bar and salumeria, comes as a shock. You’d expect to find an A-16-ish place like this on Chestnut Street or even nearby Valencia. Yet this raffish location gives Bar Bambino cachet. The clued-in crowd who vie for spots at the bar and postage-stamp aluminum tables have the additional fun of claiming a discovery.
Much is ambitious about this compact operation: a multi-page menu heavy on small bites; an extensive all-Italian wine list with many offered by the glass; nonstop hours of operation from morning till late night. When the urge for chicken liver bruschetta overtakes me at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, I know where to head.
A meal could be made out of two long, oval toasts mounded with chunky liver puree, brushcetta al ginepro ($6.50), but sharing is the thing here. Something as simple as a bruschetta layered with oven-dried tomatoes and fresh ricotta ($5.75) satisfies as well, especially with a bowl of warm roasted olives ($3.50). Customers won’t let space-strapped servers take them away.
Salume, sliced see-through thin, marches in columns down wooden boards ($9.50 on up). House-made salami is almost terrine-like, with a moist, loose texture, big grains of fat and an herbal aroma. I particularly liked dewy speck, a smoky, almost perfumed proscuitto from Salumeria Biellese in New York.
A winning chicory salad ($7.50), is lightly but effectively dressed in vinaigrette with crumbly fried pancetta. Buoyant beet and goat cheese salad ($8.25) points to a California pro lurking in the kitchen.
You can go meaty in the pasta section with impressively thin house-made papardelle bathed in brothy, boneless rabbit stew ($13.75) finished with a dusting of parmesan for depth. Al dente corkscrew noodles hold onto a creamy sauce enriched with egg and cheese ($12.25). Batons of deep-fried zucchini and basil add dimension.
Eggplant “meatballs,” studded with currants and pine nuts in a lively tomato sauce ($13.50) are as substantial as firm, traditional meatballs, heartily sauced with tomato and chard ($14.75).
Hunks of pork loin braised in milk ($15.50) were lukewarm one night and depended on lemon zest for flavor.
With so many savory choices, you won’t miss dessert. Gluey, underbaked polenta cake ($6.25), assertive olive oil cake with grilled nectarine halves with a meaty aftertaste ($6.25) and a special of leaden nut cake topped with strawberries ($6.25), all need to be rethought.
Spend your carb allowance on wine instead. Pair the eggplant polpettone with a big berryish nero d’avola from Sicily. Drink restrained dry red lagrein from way up north in the Alto Adige with chicken liver bruschetta. Take wine suggestions from the friendly staff to avoid spending half your evening parsing the wine list. Those conversant in Italian regional varietals and producers — and speed readers — can decide for themselves.
On top of all of this, you can compare olive oils from Napa, Sonoma and four regions of Italy ($1.75 to $3 for 1 ounce) on grilled bread ($4.50/basket). Be sure to sprinkle on some salt.
After a couple of visits, you’ll know exactly what Italian treats you crave and where to find them — the Mission.
Location: 2931 16th St. (between Mission Street and South Van Ness Avenue), San Francisco
Contact: (415) 701-8466; www.barbambino.com
Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 11 a.m. to midnight Friday-Saturday; 10 a.m. to 9p.m. Sunday.
Price range: $3.50 to $15.50
Recommended dishes: Salumi on a board; meatballs; eggplant balls; rabbit pasta; roasted olives; chicory salad
Credit cards: Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover
Patricia Unterman is author of the “San Francisco Food Lovers’ Pocket Guide” and a newsletter, “Unterman on Food.” Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.