Indulge in authentic, unique Ligurian fare

Farina Focaccia & Cucina Italiana — an authentic Ligurian restaurant that daringly opened two years ago a block from the beloved Delfina — seems to enrage yelping first-time diners who don’t understand why a modest-size plate of noodles enrobed in pesto should cost $20. Let me explain.

In Farina’s extraordinary mandilli di seta ($20) — the restaurant’s iconic dish — the noodles themselves are glorious, satiny wide ribbons so thin you can almost see through them. They put up teasing resistance to the teeth, but voluptuously give in without protesting too much.

These noodles are the flower of Liguria, which is a tiny crescent of Italy hugging the Mediterranean shore from the border of France to the northwest corner of Tuscany. The sauce on these “silk handkerchiefs” is a vibrant, creamy, sea-green basil pesto — powerfully fragrant yet rich and mild — an ingenious Genovese creation that buffers a floral herb with an emulsion of buttery olive oil, nuts and cheese.

This lovely expression comes from a Ligurian cook, Farina’s Paolo Laboa, a master of the technique. Is it worth $20? I’d say the experience is actually priceless. The best always is.

Pillows of pasta filled with airy ricotta and borage greens, called pansotti, draped in a walnut sauce that’s as evocative of nuts as the extraordinary pesto is of basil ($18), is worth ordering at any price. And when tiny, tender nettle gnocchetti ($20), which look like fava beans, are back on the menu in spring, drop everything and get over there.

On a Tuesday in September, I dutifully shared a plate of mandilli — I really wanted to eat the whole thing myself — and was delighted to see that Farina offered two special dishes off the grill for $18: a thick piece of coho salmon in a too-tart green sauce; and a luscious, grilled whole little chicken, fire licked and juicy, with grilled pearl onions and peppers. The flavors were unmistakably Italian. (We may not see these prices again until next summer.)

A meal at Farina is not complete without focaccia di Recco ($16), tart stracchino cheese oozing out of two thin layers of oven-blistered crust — another triumph of cooking technique.

Instead of appetizers, I order three contorni — side dishes — for the table: fennel roasted with rosemary ($8), naturally sweet with overtones of caramel; green beans sautéed with just the right amount of toasty garlic ($8); and a salad of sweet and bitter greens with shaved parmesan and balsamic vinaigrette ($10). They go together well.

Usually an Italian meal ends with fruit, but Farina’s desserts must be factored into the appetite equation. I’m still pining after my own
pacciugo ($8), a narrow glass layered with house made vanilla gelato, pistachio cream, brandied cherries, crunchy meringue, chocolate sauce and almonds. Do not even think about sharing this.

Expect to spend $50 for a bottle of full-bodied Italian red and a little less for a white with character on a well-chosen list.

The echoey, hard-surfaced dining room — with marble tables and counters and austere wooden chairs — strikes me as less luxurious than the food. On warmer Mission district evenings, the sidewalk tables are popular.

After two years, I am still hungry for Farina’s uniquely Ligurian cooking, price be damned. For me, a bite of the best remains the most affordable of indulgences.

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

 

Farina

Location: 3560 18th St. (between Guerrero and Valencia streets), San Francisco

Contact: (415) 565-0360, www.farinafoods.com

Hours: 5:30 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; noon to 3 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday

Price range: Antipasti and contorni, $8-$14; foccace, $15-$18; pasta and main courses, $18-$32

Recommended dishes: Focaccia di Recco, mandilli di seta al pesto; pansotti al sugo di noci; grilled whole, young chicken; roasted fennel with rosemary; pacciugo

Credit cards: All major

Reservations: Accepted

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