Piccino, a smart corner cafe in a remodeled, navy blue Victorian comes as a surprise in gentrifying Dogpatch, a sunny microneighborhood at the bottom of the eastern slope of Potrero Hill.
Who would expect to find rows of untouched, pre-earthquake cottages on a narrow tree-lined block amid warehouses, truck depots and workshops?
A surge of well-being washes over a wind-whipped San Franciscan eating outside at a protected small table under a tree on the sidewalk in this hidden urban oasis. Potrero Hill serves as a windscreen. And when the food radiates the vibrancy of local and organic raw materials, the bliss is complete.
If the world associates Dungeness crab, sourdough and chardonnay with San Francisco, actual residents consider salad, pizza and a glass of pinot as the real iconic meal. Piccino executes the latter with conviction.
Every salad shines. Bright green asparagus, sliced into ribbons, is woven into peppery wild arugula in a fluffy salad made savory with microscopic bits of crisp bacon and shavings of Parmesan ($9).
Baby romaine leaves ($8.50) confetti-ed with Meyer lemon zest, toasted walnuts and dabs of creamy Bellwether ricotta come off clean yet exciting.
Spiky wild arugula again (it’s the season) comes with sugary baby beets, shaved fennel and dots of goat cheese in a tart dressing delicately scented with coriander ($9), an inspired touch.
While few would cross town for a salad (except me and maybe Alice Waters), many travel the world to find their favorite pizza. The T-Third might just get them there. A Piccino pizza has a sexy, crisp, thin crust and restrained toppings that balance flavor and texture in proper proportion. It serves one to two.
My favorite, salciccia ($12.50), is a white pizza paved with creamy mozzarella, blobs of moist housemade Italian sausage and thick, juicy rings of caramelized onion — rich and savory yet light.
For tomato-sauce lovers, the classic pizza margherita ($9.50) is the test. The eloquent crust is paved with flagstones of creamy mozzarella on a surface of tomato sauce subtly seasoned with savory and maybe a little coriander. Whatever magic Piccino practices on the sauce, it convinced me. With a sprinkling of hot red chile flakes, this classic margherita satisfied deeply.
The simple menu offers a handful of other dishes, like a bland warm pasta salad ($8.50) — I have never met one I liked — at lunch; and, at dinner, braised lamb shoulder ($18) with fregola (round, couscous balls) and pickled grapes which add a level of excitement.
But the reason to come here is for pizza and salad. Add a glass of Italian or French wine; a Montepulciano from Abruzzo at $6 a glass works just fine. To end, try an impeccable espresso made with Blue Bottle coffee.
The design of this cool little place extends from the structure to the table top. Almost half of the space is dedicated to an open kitchen and a coffee bar. Patrons sit at six copper-topped tables pushed very close together along a wooden banquette in the window. Wine comes in thick tumblers, food on hand-crafted asymmetrical slabs of glazed clay, each different and quirky; water, in a Straus milk bottle.
However, the choice seats on a pleasant afternoon are outside on the Dogpatch sidewalk, once a district of meat cutters and stray dogs, and now the newest San Francisco retreat.
Patricia Unterman is author of the “San Francisco Food Lovers’ Pocket Guide” and a newsletter, “Unterman on Food.” Contact her at email@example.com.
Location: 801 22nd St., San Francisco
Contact: (415) 824-4224 or www.piccinocafe.com
Hours: Tuesday-Friday from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sunday from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.; closed Monday
Price range: $6.50 to $9 for soup and salad; $9.50 to $13 for pizza
Recommended dishes: Romaine with almonds and ricotta; arugula, beet and goat cheese salad; asparagus salad; individual pizza
Credit cards: MasterCard, Visa
Reservations: Not accepted