Florio: Simple, beautiful bistro dining at its best

Hungry folks mill around the front door of SPQR, anguishing over whether they can endure the wait. I breeze by and find a seat at Florio, a few storefronts north, and one of my favorite little bistros anywhere.

I sit at the bar, sip a Negroni (gin, campari, sweet vermouth, up) and nibble farmers-market radishes served with sweet butter and flaky sea salt ($4). Only the French, a people who understand butter, would come up with such a perfectly simple yet rewarding combination. From day one, which was 10 years ago, Florio served radishes. For that alone they get extra credit in my book.

Current chef Jason Smith understands the charm of straightforward bistro classics — steak frites, roasted chicken, green salad — and has the skill and confidence to keep them simple.

Owner and founder Doug Biederbeck, a restaurant pro if there ever was one, holds up hisend of this blessedly mature restaurant. His waiters actually serve, not perform. They don’t tell you their names or order you to “enjoy.” They don’t rattle on endlessly about the wine, or list every ingredient in a dish. They just get you what you need at the right moment.

Even Florio’s classic décor makes me hungry: black-and-white checked floor, wood paneling, half-curtained windows, ceiling fans, shoulder-high mirrors, school house lamps, white linen and butcher paper on the tables, heavy silverware, thick Florio water tumblers that feel good in your hand. I could live here.

In two recent visits, I had to force myself to try new things. Otherwise I would always have a thick slice of chicken liver paté ($6), foie gras-like in its texture and flavor, served with buttery thin toasts, sweet/hot Italian mustard fruits and bracing pickled fennel, cucumbers, carrots and onions — a divine plate.

With it I want my Florio green salad ($8), an airy pile of tiny leaves expertly dressed.

Then I share a bone-in rib eye ($65 for two) — ordering it grilled medium rare, but nearer to rare — with a nice salty charred crust.

It comes sliced with a big pile of thin, crisp french fries and sauce bearnaise to dunk them in, plus a plate of sauteed spinach with toasted garlic. This is very good eating.

I finish with a frosty metal dish of house-made ice creams and sorbet ($6.50).

Fulfilling my responsibility to you, dear readers, I now have polished off a thick hunk of impeccably fresh striped bass ($24) golden on the outside, moist and juicy inside, on a buttery pile of rapini greens cooked with saffron onions and nutty black Italian rice. What a fair price for this generous dish!

The Sunday special, two huge, soft veal meatballs in mild tomato sauce, served with spaghetti ($15), or not ($10), has earned a loyal following of comfort-food lovers.A Caesar salad ($10) is lightly but vibrantly dressed; and a pretty salad of roasted beets, tangerines and arugula in orange vinaigrette ($10) is distinguished by crisp goat cheese toasts.

The handful of wines are well chosen and affordably priced, and cocktails are mixed with precision.

When I want to treat myself to the rare meal eaten only for pleasure — and make my long-suffering martini, meat-and-potato loving dining companion happy — Florio is where we head.

Patricia Unterman is author of the “San Francisco Food Lovers’ Pocket Guide” and a newsletter, “Unterman on Food.” Contact her at pattiu@concentric.net.

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