My usual beat on the food circuit–new openings and funky food trends–has one very distinct disadvantage: I rarely haunt tried and true restaurants with proven menus. And while bacon on a trapeze and opening nights clearly have cache and appeal, its hard to describe the relief of sitting down at a nearly decade-old spot like San Francisco’s Delfina and just knowing that the food’s going to be spot-on and jitter-free.
Located in San Francisco’s revitalizing Mission district, Delfina has been wowing neighborhood locals, as well as the national food media with its trattoria-style Cal-Italian since 1998. On weekend nights, crowds still overflow onto the sidewalk and into the romantic back patio. You’ll be hard-pressed to get in before 10pm unless you’ve made reservations or are willing to sit at the bar--which frankly I recommend highly. With an up-close and personal view of the kitchen, you can see the kind of serious intensity that makes the food so consistently good here. I mean eye-rolling, pounding-on-the-table and embarrassing your friends kind of good.
The menu changes up daily, but Saturday night’s fresh-stretched mozzarella ($11) was the best I’ve had since Italy, with soft, fresh garden tomatoes and basil oil. Grilled calamari with white bean salad ($9.25) is a house specialty (and almost always on the menu), but don’t miss the chance to nibble on skewered San Joaquin Valley snails ($11) if you have the chance.
Though salads and pastas sound almost impossibly simple (lettuce with radishes, gorgonzola, egg and lemon vinaigrette; bitter greens with pancetta and walnuts; spaghetti with plum tomatoes, garlic and olive oil; spaghetti in squid ink with zucchini and butter), Chef Craig Stoll’s well-known fastidiousness about ingredients raises even the humblest dishes to star-caliber. Simple fries get a sprinkling of fried basil; rosemary pumps up the flavor of un-messed with flatiron steak ($22); roast chicken ($18, and another house specialty that rivals Zuni Café’s) sports a crispy jacket, but stays impossibly moist inside.
Barista-chic is the norm with serving staff, which only adds to the neighborhood vibe. Solid knowledge of the mostly Italian wine list and thoughtful pairing suggestions, however, quickly allay any concerns about uneven service. They’ll also explain menu puzzlers like snail spiedini and suga di pomodorini and without snickering at your abysmal Italian. There’s a solid by-the-glass list with several daily additions on the board for those that like a little beverage diversity with their meal. Corkage is a steep $18.
Save room for dessert. The buttermilk panna cotta ($8) with lemon caramel and raspberries is another house specialty.
Benchmark Italian dining on a bistro budget. And after nearly ten years, only getting better.
Delfina, 3621 18th Street, San Francisco, 415.552.4055.
If you go: SF’s revitalizing Mission area can still be a bit, er, colorful. The blocks around Delfina tend to be bustling with well-heeled diners, but wandering too far off the beaten path can get a little sketchy. Parking can be a real hassle, so leave plenty of time to look for a spot. Cab service is frequent around the restaurant if you want to leave your car elsewhere.