High-end Italian in an inviting, affordable package

When Mike and Lindsay Tusk opened their ground-breaking Quince six years ago, San Franciscans had to trek to the East Bay to get cooking anything like it. Tusk, who worked with Paul Bertolli at both Chez Panisse and Oliveto, gave The City his own version of this simple-yet-imaginative cooking that uses beautiful, seasonal ingredients and traditional techniques. With only 15 tables, Quince quickly became impossible to book.

A year ago, the Tusks moved from their Pacific Heights Victorian to spacious new quarters near Jackson Square to launch an unabashedly elegant, modern, high-end dinner house with a full bar and a deep wine cellar. Then a month ago, they added Cotogna, a casual, noisy, small place next door that reminds me of the very first Quince.

A sexy, wood-burning Italian rotisserie, grill and oven in an open kitchen sets the tone of the place — rustic, warm, inviting. Affordability reigns. Every bottle of wine on the excellent all-Italian list is $40; every glass of wine and cocktail, $9. All antipasti are $10, pasta $16; pizza $15; vegetable dishes $6. None of the fish and meat dishes are more than $24. And yet, the kitchen uses the same quality ingredients as Quince next door.

I’ve had dreamy $10 dishes, such as Cotogna’s spinach sformato, a fragile, bright green, spinach custard unmolded onto a plate of nutty, salty, velvety fonduta, a “soup” of melted Italian cheese. A chopped salad of sharply dressed radicchio gets a big slab of creamy burrata — barely formed mozzarella — plunked in the middle for balance. Better hope that deep-fried pumpkin blossoms, plump with freshly picked Dungeness crab ($14), is a daily special when you go.

No one makes better pasta than Mike Tusk, and all the old favorites are here: pillowy gnocchi folded in mysteriously herbal pureed wild nettles; a golden farm egg yolk pouring out of a gossamer raviolo slicked with brown butter; al dente ribbons of spinach pappardelle with chewy bits of lamb and lemon zest, baked in the wood-burning oven; long curly strands called pici, in a celery-scented sauce with fennel sausage and soft chestnuts; firm whole-wheat spaghetti called bigoli, in a tobacco-ey, Venetian-style octopus and tomato sauce.

The thin-crusted pizzas, licked by the fire, can be topped with combinations such as salt cod, crumbled egg and anchovy, which all melt into the foundation of marinara sauce — what a nicoise salad might taste like if it were a pizza.

Juicy little lamb chops ($24) from the rotisserie are best eaten by picking them up by their thin bones. Knife and fork work on slices of smoke-seasoned, spit-roasted pork ($20), laid atop smooth fennel puree. You get wondrous food here.

The room, with high ceiling and a red brick wall criss-crossed with earthquake beams, is romantically lit at night so that the tree-lined street visible through tall windows and the brightly illuminated kitchen and bar become part of the decor. Cotogna may be as hard to get into as the first little Quince, but at least here, 25 counter seats are dedicated for walk-ins. The restaurant stays open late, but maybe the sure bet is to arrive very early.

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


Where: 490 Pacific Ave., San Francisco

Contact: (415) 775-8508; www.cotognasf.com

Hours: Mondays through Thursdays from 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays from 11:30 a.m. to midnight

Price range:
$10 to $24; daily three-course prix fixe is $24

Recommended dishes: All pasta; spinach sformato; burrata with chopped chicories; fried pumpkin blossoms stuffed with crab; porcini pizza; creme fraiche panna cotta

Credit cards:
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