April Bloomfield’s rich, big flavored, Brit-style Italian cooking works uncannily well at Tosca, the iconic North Beach joint she and her partner Ken Friedman took over last year. Bloomfield and Friedman became the darlings of the New York food world ten years ago with their first restaurant, an Italian/British gastropub called The Spotted Pig, and went on to open two others. But Bloomfield’s stage at Chez Panisse–and training at the London’s River Cafe–gave her an idea of the way San Franciscans want to eat, especially in historic North Beach.
Changing everything–and nothing–Bloomfield and Friedman carefully and cleverly refinished every interior surface so that the long bar, the red vinyl booths, the Formica tables, the high walls, the murals, the floors, the rebuilt kitchen, all glow with the patina of enhanced memory. When I lived in North Beach for 18 years, I saw plenty of resonant old-timers disappear and I thought Tosca was doomed when barkeep Jeanette Etheridge sold it. Somehow she found the right operators–or maybe they found her. The legendary old Tosca has been reinvigorated and now it serves food.
When the new Tosca first opened to endless media coverage and a no reservation policy, going there was exciting but too much work. Now the place feels like North Beach again. I like to hang at the bar with a perfect negroni (served in a tumbler with one huge clear ice cube) ($12) and a little dish of provocatively salty moscardini ($10), marinated octopus; or giardiniera ($5), olive oil-rich marinated vegetables; or crispy/chewy fried pig tails ($9); or meaty oxtail terrine ($11). These all go with Tosca’s conscientiously measured cocktails. I feel very comfortable at the bar alone, making a whole meal of these appetizers, but with a reservation and some company, the move to a table for bigger dishes is even more fun. Tosca’s generous portions of calorie unconscious food need to be shared.
Late one August night, a photogenic melange of melon, figs, prosciutto-thin slices of speck, pistachios and dabs of ricotta ($15) thrillingly juggled sweet, juicy, salty and proteinaceous.
Whole leaves of butter lettuce tossed with crisp little gem lettuces in an emulsified tarragon-infused dressing ($14) came off more like an antipasto than a salad. A fritto of anchovies and lemon slices would have worked better if the fried fish had been smaller or these big ones cleaned and boned ($12).
No quibbles about the pasta dishes, however. They’re voluptuous and irresistible. Al dente rigatoni come slathered in sage-infused cream with velvety hunks of sauteed chicken liver and bright green favas ($17). The cooks skillfully manipulate guanciale, or cured pork jowl, with chili and tomatoes to produce a plate of spicy-hot, porky, al dente bucatini ($18), a masterpiece of its kind.
If you’re eating family style, you’ll be able handle a main course or two. I always surrender to the siren call of tongue. Here thick slices are grilled, cut in hunks and tossed with braised carrots in a vinegary, horseradish and breadcrumb mayonnaise strongly seasoned with tarragon. Described as dragoncello on the menu (I had to look it up), the thick sauce distracts a bit from the seductive umami of this tastiest of organs. I would have preferred it on the side.
Everyone loves Tosca’s roasted chicken for two ($42). (Order it first thing because it takes an hour.) The cut-up chicken comes in a mouthwatering pile. Sharp, curled claws still attached to the drumsticks proudly advertise the local provenance of the birds. The crisp bronze skin and just-out-of-the-oven juiciness of these small, dark-fleshed birds also speak to expert cooking technique. The luscious marsala sauce, enriched with the pan juices, can be mopped up with the ricotta and pine nut stuffing. This is a piece of food worth waiting for.
No matter what, you have to order at least a couple of the amazing vegetable dishes from the bottom of the menu. Bloomfield recently published a whole cookbook on vegetables–A Girl and Her Greens–revealing her secrets. Her crispy potatoes ($7) cooked in pork fat, garlic and rosemary have melting centers and crackling crust, a textural miracle. Zucchini are smashed with chile, whole cloves of garlic, basil and lots of olive oil. Beets and their greens are roasted whole until they get crusty on the outside and super sweet inside. Polenta is swirled with kale pesto and mascarpone. Her vegetables are as satisfying as meat.
If you indulge in Tosca’s front-loaded menu of cocktails and antipasti and then have three courses, you won’t have much room for dessert. Bloomfield must know that so she offers only house-made ice creams and sorbets in appealing, seasonal flavors; a pouffy, boozy tiramisu; and filled-to-order cannoli; all fitting endings for an exceptional old school/new school North Beach evening.
242 Columbus (south of Broadway), San Francisco 415 986-9651
Open daily from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m.