Bar Bambino’s off the radar location on 16th Street, just one block east of Mission but seeming miles away from Valencia street action, happens to be a blessing for those of us who frequent the restaurant. We can drop in, even on weekends, and usually find a seat at the communal table in the front window (a beautiful old oak library table), at the wine bar, on the pretty heated patio in the back, or at small tables along a sleek, wood paneled wall. Every time I eat there, I see dapper owner Christopher Losa working the floor, pouring tastes of his favorite Slovenian or Austrian or Friulian wines. His sensibility and pride of ownership informs every detail of Bar Bambino, not the least of which is the food from talented chef Lizzie Binder.
Though the restaurant opened five years ago as an Italian wine bar– heavy on salume boards, cheese plates and bruschetta– the menu has taken a turn towards full dinner and the northeastern-most area of Italy, that borders Slovenia, Croatia, Austria and Hungary. Now Bar Bambino offers dishes you can sink your teeth into.
Even small bites called stuzzichini have substance. Fricco ($8), a molded cup made of fried montasio cheese, shatters at the touch of a fork to become part of a perfectly dressed arugula and shaved porcini salad. Squash blossoms filled with sweet, fresh, herbed Bellwether ricotta ($9) get the most delicate fry. They melt in your mouth. Fried baby artichokes, so brown they have caramelized, turn a pile of lemon and olive oil dressed arugula ($13) into a memorable experience.
Dreamy chilled cucumber soup ($12) looks like a garden, sprinkled with dill and chives, droplets of olive oil and a dollop of tart-sweet beet relish that pulls everything together. Charred baby octopus and grilled radicchio ($12) turn out to be fantastic as a couple, married with resonant balsamico.
With any of these to begin, one Bar Bambino’s savory and unusual pasta dishes can make a meal. Tender poppy seed spaetzle, airy dumplings the size of a thumb nail, are tossed in the saute pan with bits of rapini and smoky ham hock until they develop golden edges. A fried duck egg on top makes a velvety sauce and a lush, integrated dish. Wide, silken egg noodles, pappardelle ($18) enfold long cooked rabbit ragu perfumed with fresh herbs. One of the signature dishes at Bar Bambino, it was on the menu right from the start.
A thick, juicy, hunk of local salmon, bread crumbed and crisp on the outside, creamy inside, with horseradish cream and tiny beets ($28) turned out to be one of the best renditions in a salmon crazed town. Corn pancakes ($18) smothered in peppers and zucchini both delight and satisfy.
For dessert, hope to find a take on Black Forest cake ($9), schwarzwalder, layered in a glass, with poached cherries at the bottom, a pouf of zabaglione in the middle, and two crisp bittersweet wafers on the top.
The menu changes often, as do the surprising wines. Look for light cherry-ish Austrian and German pinot nero and crisp, fragrant whites. This part of Italy draws upon the best from two worlds, and Bar Bambino, by choosing to explore this area, opens up our culinary imagination. Both its location and vision are unusual
2931 16th Street, San Francisco
415 701-8466; barbambino.com
Dinner Monday through Thursday 5:30 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5 p.m. to midnight