Every Tuesday, master chef Angelo Auriana flies up from Los Angeles to cook a surprise $45 prix fixe dinner at Emporio Rulli Gran Caffe on Chestnut Street. The ever-changing, unannounced, one-day-a-week menu is his whim and an opportunity to taste his refined, playful, swooningly luscious Northern Italian cooking at a great price. Dinner at Valentino in Santa Monica where he heads the kitchen costs twice the amount.
A lot of Italians here — restaurant owners, chefs, waiters, wine people — all seem to know about this culinary windfall. On Tuesday nights, the evocatively frescoed Rulli caffe feels like a piece of Milan.
Last Tuesday, Auriana sent out crudo, thin slices of pristine raw tuna and yellowtail in scented oils with incomparably creamy and flavorful Italian buffalo milk mozzarella. The next dish, a wild mushroom sformatino, an intensely mushroomy custard, was an example of his own unsurpassed wizardry.
He coaxes limitless flavor and texture out of pasta. Agnolotti de plin, little crescent-shaped ravioli with a miraculous texture, and a smooth, rosemary-scented meat filling, were moistened only with a spoon of natural cooking juices. I've never had anything like them.
Shaved porcini and tissue-thin San Danieli prosciutto melted into a classic risotto, each grain of rice separate yet adhering, excitingly chewy and plumped with flavor.
Then sliced duck breast arrived, velvety, rare, tender as filet mignon, with a ragout of thinly sliced black olives and zucchini and a bright green, herby salsa.
Auriana drew on the Rulli pantry of sweets to compose his dessert — a shimmering, mini-panna cotta of barely set cream, an espresso cup of rum-spiked chocolate mascarpone mousse flecked with hazelnut meringue crumbs, and a little scoop of refreshing blood orange and Campari ice.
Beyond his dazzling technical skill, Auriana understands proportion and contrast, the aesthetic of the meal as a whole. His friend Gary Rulli gives him complete freedom to create these soaring culinary flights, and the Tuesday night patrons are the lucky passengers.
Rulli's own chef de cuisine, John Ruggieri, has learned from the master. Many of Auriana's dishes are on the nightly a la carte menu — and they are spectacular, but the portions are gigantic. A spring inspired risotto captures the sweet, grassy nature of asparagus ($18). Light, tender gnocchi topped with a sprightly ragout of tender squashes, roasted cipollini and cherry tomatoes, sink into an extravagant bed of pureed fresh peas ($13).
The duck dish on the regular menu happens to be delicious, showered with fava beans, sweetened by dried mission figs, enriched by a velvety sunchoke puree ($22).
The building blocks of a great meal are there, so craft your own. Start with a fire-licked grilled artichoke ($11). Ask if the kitchen would split the pasta course. Choose one of the nicely constructed main dishes. Finish with Italian cheese, or a Rulli dessert. The reasonably priced, all Italian wine list with many excellent glasses at $7 to $9, works hand in glove with the food.
But — treat yourself to a Tuesday night meal. You won't find a better Northern Italian experience here, or there.
Emporio Rulli Gran Caffe
Location: 2300 Chestnut St., San Francisco
Contact: (415) 923-6464; www.rulli.com
Hours: 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; until 11 p.m. Friday; 8:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday; until 10 p.m. Sunday
Price range: Antipasti $4 to $11; pasta and main courses $13 to $29 at dinner
Recommended dishes: Tuesday night surprise prix fixe dinner
Credit cards: MasterCard, Visa, American Express