One bite of chef Paolo Laboa’s mandilli ai pesto ($15) — silken “handkerchiefs” of handmade pasta slathered in a creamy green basil sauce — announces that this new Genovese restaurant in the Missionis the real thing. Farina’s pesto, subtle, nutty, whispering of licorice and anise, uncannily resurrected dinners I’ve had along the Ligurian coast. Farina transplants a very specific culinary experience to San Francisco.
Cappon magro ($15), the first dish on a small daily menu, is a rarely seen Genovese classic, a mini-version of a magnificent Ligurian molded salad made with soaked bread crumbs. Here, a mound of cauliflower, carrots, green beans, potatoes and beets with flaked halibut and bits of lobster, is topped with a swatch of vinegary salsa verde and garnished with a big shrimp and a couple of tiny mussels. Textures and flavors in this soft salad are layered and muted, unique to this region of Italy.
Porcini salad ($15), a demure pile of shaved wild mushrooms, firm and white, Parmigiano and mild fresh black Umbrian truffles is dressed with fresh herbs, salt, a few drops of lemon and delicious, soft, golden Ligurian olive oil. It’s perfect, if more generically of northern Italian origin. Hot, soft squares of onion-topped foccacia, and slices of moist Italian bread with chewy crusts are brought out to accompany the antipasti.
Four other pasta dishes besides the pasta with pesto include pansotti with walnut sauce ($15), another hyper Ligurian dish of hand made tortelli filled with ricotta and fresh borage in a creamy brown sauce that tastes just like fresh walnuts. A sprinkling of salty grated Parmigiano around the edge of the plate completed the flavor profile. Each bite was exquisite.
Instead of a meat or fish course (only four to choose from), I ordered the two vegetable dishes of the day ($5). They were just about as good as vegetables can get: roasted peppers and celery in a little vinegar and olive oil, and grilled cauliflower with toasty charred edges.
Crisp Ligurian white wines served in large ($25) and small ($12) carafes embrace the food.
I was so taken by the authentic cookingat Farina, I rushed back for lunch when Farina becomes a focacciaria — cheaper, quicker, more panini-oriented. Frittatina ($9), a cake of satiny, pan-baked beaten eggs larded with those delicious roasted peppers and artichokes, becomes a light meal with a Little Gem salad on the side, dressed simply with olive oil and shaved Parmesan.
Pesce marinato ($13) turned out to be succulent ribbons of raw wild salmon “cooked” in olive oil, lemon and aromatic herbs. Pizza-like focaccia di Recco ($12), sandwiches mild, melted, mozzarella-like stracchino cheese between two paper-thin layers of dough. At night it can be topped with proscuitto ($17); or tomato sauce, capers, anchovies and oregano ($16).
For dessert, have one intense, syrupy sip of Lavazza espresso, without a hint of bitterness.
Both Farina’s location in the restaurant-packed Mission a block away from the landmark Delfina, and the restaurant’s casual ambience don’t quite match the elegance — or price — of the night time cooking. A former cookie bakery, the sprawling space has tall, curving front windows, seating at marble bars and counters on red Naugahyde stools; and at bare tables on school room chairs.
But after one of Laboa’s magnificent pastas, who can complain? You’ve saved a bundle on a trip to Liguria.
Location: 3560 18th St. (between Guerrero and Valencia streets), San Francisco
Contact: (415) 565-0360
Hours: 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday for lunch; 5:30 to 10 p.m. daily for dinner; 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday for brunch
Price range: $9 to $15 for dinner antipasti, $15 to $19 pasta and focaccia; $25 to $29 main courses; $9 to $12 lunch
Recommended dishes: Pansotti, mandilli al pesto, porcini salad, all vegetableside dishes, focaccia di Recco, frittatina, espresso
Credit cards: All major
Reservations: Accepted, but seats reserved for walk-ins
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.