Luxury has lost some luster in San Francisco. Natives now wait in line at itinerant food trucks to eat standing up from cardboard cartons. A mania for street food has swept the City. But the high end restaurant is fighting back. Recently, Acquerello, the distinguished, 21 year old bastion of refined northern Italian food and wine, reconfigured its dining rooms and updated its wine service and menu. I revisited the restaurant six years after my last dinner there.
The restaurant feels complete now. It finally occupies the whole building. At one side of the smart new entryway, an airy private dining room that seats up to eight made me fantasize a guest list. The main dining room has been enlarged and opened up, with flower filled display tables at the center, and dining tables with layers of soft linen around the perimeter. Fabric-covered purse stools nestle between the chairs. (You have to carry a bag to understand the ecstasy.) Under a high vaulted ceiling, the walls glow in Venetian golds and rusts. The pastel watercolors are gone.
The ritual dance of fine dining begins immediately with warm, bite-size profiteroles of truffled ricotta, and then, arancini, golden balls of cheesy risotto, which demand a glass of sparkling wine. Don’t worry. Someone from the sommelier squad has anticipated this and will be at your table with an open bottle just in time.
Co-owner Giancarlo Paterlini’s 25 year old son Gianpaolo, a two year veteran of the Michael Mina sommelier system, but more significantly, at home with the Italian wines so beloved by his father, has crafted an ambitious educational wine program for Acquerello. (Starting at $45 a person, for three courses.)
Chef/partner Suzette Gresham-Tognetti has also taken on assistants, and her menu ($64 for three courses, $78/4, $90/5, $105/ 7 course tasting menu) intersperses new creations with old favorites. One of mine is an intensely flavored parmesan custard with wild mushrooms below and fried ribbons of aged parmigiano on top, an Acquerello classic. A new dish, cloud-like potato gnocchi, magically made without eggs or flour, are bathed in a guinea fowl ragout, a triumph of long cooking and melding that only Italians seem to pull off. Gresham is a master of traditional northern Italian pasta-making and deep rich sauces. Her chef de cuisine, Mark Pensa, brings coagulants and sous vide into the kitchen.
Though I am no fan of sous vide–long, low temperature cooking of foods vacuum packed in plastic–I must say that I loved the Acquerello duck breast with its rare, beef filet-like flesh covered with a slab of divinely crunchy skin, scattered with tart/sweet strawberries and spicy baby turnips. It is a tour de force.
Don’t let that old fashioned cheese cart with soulful Italian cheeses in perfect eating condition wheel past, so expertly curated by Giancarlo Paterlini.
Dessert from pastry chef Theron Marrs, comes in waves, but miniature chocolates that squirt out rosemary-scented caramel bring the meal full circle.
The next morning, as you dunk one of Gresham’s almond biscotti in your caffe latte–a box of them has been sent home with you–you realize that this is exactly what you want after a big night at Acquerello. The restaurant has thought of everything.
Acquerello, 1721 Sacramento Street (between Polk and Van Ness), San Francisco
Contact: 415 567-5432; www.acquerello.com
Recommended dishes: parmesan budino; gnocchi with guinea fowl ragu; potato wrapped cannelloni with braised beef; pasta with foie gras and black truffles; duck breast; Italian cheese cart
Hours: Tuesday through Saturday 5:30 to 9:30 p.m.
Price range: expensive
Credit cards: all major