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Apr 7, 2007 04:21 PM

La Ciccia -- more thumbs up!

When I belatedly remembered Melanie's birthday was this week, I dropped her a line and asked if she was available for dinner, and if so, where she wanted to go. She sent me a list, with La Ciccia at the top. Great minds thinks alike -- it had been at the top of mine, too!

I called Tuesday asking for a Thursday reservation and expected them to laugh at me, but no, what time do you want to come, 7:30, great. Reservation in hand, Melanie and I recruited a couple more people for what turned out to be a fabulous evening.

When Jim Leff talks about what it means to be a "chowhound" he talks about people who have passion for what they do and integrity in the way they do it. La Ciccia is the most chowhoundy place I've been in ages. The owner's passion for the food shines in every dish, and every bite feels "true." Nothing is on the menu because it's trendy or might appeal to Michael Bauer.

The four of us managed -- with the help of our wonderful server whose enthusiasm made it hard to pass anything up -- to make the supreme sacrifice of ordering waaaaay too much food.

First, she enticed us with rapturous descriptions of rough-cut house-cured prosciutto. Who could have resisted that? It was fabulous -- very different from the sweet, tender proscuitto at Perbacco a couple of weeks ago, it was chewy (especially the thicker end bits) and salty around the edges. We also had a couple of other house-cured meats that were also excellent (better than Perbacco, I thought).

Grazing over our salumi and sipping a minerally (as described by our server) Vermentino, we debated what to have next. The debated was fueled by the fact that, sitting near the kitchen, we were inundated with fabulous smells as food came out -- at one point later in the evening, conversation came to a halt as all our noses came to attention. What was that? Finally, one of our party got up, followed the smell to the table it had ended up on, and asked what it was.

But with the help of our server, we settled on the Inzalaredda de mari (seafood salad). The seafood salad was not this hounds cup of tea, but the lemony dressing had me dipping my bread into it. She then coursed the four pastas we'd chosen -- the first pair of pastas were more seafood: a special of pasta in a cuttlefish ink sauce, and fresh spaghetti with cauliflower and bottarga. Fabulous pasta that I think really made me understand "al dente" for the first time. I preferred the milder bottarga to the brinier cuttlefish; both were a perfect combination of gutsy, rustic flavors and professional technique.

Our second pasta course was the gnochetti with pork meats sugo and the saffron fregula with artichokes (both with pecorino). I'd never had fregula before, and this was a delicious introduction. The gnocchetti, on the other hand, evoked a sense of recognition -- that "ah ha, that's what this kind of dish is supposed to taste like" sensation.

Although we hadn't planned to order pizza, the pizzas coming out of the kitchen looked and smelled too good to pass up -- what's one more thing when you're already pigging out, right? We finally settled on the pizza a sa Sarda, a simple pie of tomato sauce, mozzarella, pecorino, capers, oregano and olive oil. Simple though it was, it was one of the best I've ever had, with a perfect balance of thin crust, sauce and toppings and that classic combination of the sweet/tangy tomato, rich cheese and pungent oregano that really defines pizza for me.

Finally, the secondi. The dish we had chased across the dining room was the wild boar stew -- good thing, as we had already put it on the "must have" list. We asked our server for another recommendation, and she suggested the lamb chops. Melanie was a bit dubious -- what's so Sardinian about lamb chops? I pointed out that Sardinia really had a sheep-based agricultural system (witness all the famous Sardinian sheep's milk cheeses), and our server concurred, saying that lamb was at the heart of Sardinian cooking. Good thing she convinced us, because the thick, medium-rare chops were tender and delicious, and the fine herb sauce, athough it resembed the ubiquitous Genoa pesto, was actually a blend of herbs (oregano, rosemary, sage, etc.) that did indeed make it feel Sardinian. The wild boar stew was a "hunter style" with clove, juniper berries and other strong seasonings that were a bit too heavy for the end of this rich meal but delicious nonetheless.

By this time we'd gone through another bottle of Vermentino (a more full-bodied one, again well-chosen by our server when Melanie asked for one in a different style than the first) that went shockingly well with the herbal sauce on the lamb, and started in on a bottle of sangiovese. We'd also, with our leisurely ordering style and coursing, closed down the restaurant. Still, we couldn't resist dessert (besides, we needed a little time to ... ahem ... clear our heads). Since, again, we couldn't decide, we ordered two desserts and the cheese plate. The winner between the desserts was the ricotta and saffron cake served with candied fruits -- another strong recommendation from our server. Light, fluffy, and not very sweet, especially with the hint of bitterness from the jewel-like candied citrus, it was a perfect ending to the meal. The semifreddo was just okay, in comparison. Again, I might have liked it more if I hadn't been quite so stuffed, but at that point it took something exceptional to tantalize my tastebuds. The three Sardinian cheeses (two sheeps and a goat) were all excellent. One of the sheeps had a nice bite of red pepper, and one of the others (the other sheep?) had an interesting lemony note (much easier to appreciate when I had the leftovers for lunch the next day).

So the food was very good -- some of it exceptionally good -- but what really made this chowhoundy was the people. Our wonderful server; the chef who stopped by our table a couple of times and then had a long chat with us as we were leaving, even though it was by then almost an hour and a half past closing; the charming hostess (owner? chef's wife?); even the busser. It all felt warm and personal -- the perfect neighborhood restaurant that happens to have great food.

For two salumi plates, one appetizer, four primi-sized pastas, a pizza, two secundi, three desserts, two bottles of wine (we brought the sangiovese -- I don't think they charged us corkage but I wouldn't swear to it) and three bottles of mineral water the tab came to $260 after tax but before tip. The consensus seemed to be that it was an excellent value for the quality of the food and the experience.

Curtis took pictures, which I'm sure he'll post soon.

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  1. wow great post, I must go now.. well not tonight since we are making homemade pasta and bolognese sauce.. your post has me hungry.

    Happy Birthday Melanie!!

    1. Thank you, Lori. Go, it's as good, maybe better, than everyone says.

      I almost hate to add any comments for fear of sullying the purity of Ruth's description of the experience.

      I thoroughly enjoyed the prosciutto and the salumi: intense fennel-y, hard salame and a well-marbled lomo. The calamari in the seafood salad was a touch rubbery but the tiny mussels were tender and sweet. And, as the honoree, I scored the delicious poached prawn garnishing the top of the serving and sucked all the goodies out of the head. The lemon dressing intermingled with the seafood juices and good olive oil with this was so beautifully balanced and delicious, I abandoned the dense, unsalted bread and used a spoon to sip it on its own.

      Of the pastas, the cauliflower and bottarga (made with gray mullet roe) and the fregula with artichokes stood out for me. The baby artichokes were tender and springy, and the Vermentino's matched so well with what's usually a wine-killer. I liked the style of the pork ragu here better than Incanto's . . . more expression of tomato, not as concentrated or gamey, fresher lilt to it.

      The pizza sa Sarda was better than I expected. That bit of caper and oregano in the saucing added a delicious nuance against the stronger pecorino cheese for a unique taste. While thin, I found the crust a bit tough and didn't finish it.

      The wild boar stew had an interesting flavor profile, familiar elements combined in a new way for me that made this more exotic. Lamb chop with "fines herbes" on the menu, sound terribly Sardinian to you? But I'm glad we ordered it, and the part I took home made a fine dinner spot tonight.

      Our Vermentinos di Sardegna were both 2005s. The first one --- minerally, citrusy, crisp and refreshing --- was the "Terre Finicie" Sardus Pater and just lovely with our cured meats and seafood pastas. The second --- more aromatic and floral, oily textured, richly fruited, heavy-bodied and alcoholic --- was the "Costamalino" from Argiolas, and stood up to the meats very well, especially with the green herbs of the lamb. Lorella picked the Argiolas, from the south end of the island, for the greatest contrast with our first wine. I think they were both $28. Vermentino is the same grape variety known as Rolle in Provence. Kermit Lynch has planted some in his property in France and recommends it with grilled lamb. I loved the wine program at La Ciccia and can't wait to go back to try more.

      The service and hospitality were the most welcoming I've had in San Francisco in ages. When I mentioned to Lorella that we felt fortunate to be here on a less busy night when we could keep our table, she assured me that they try to have it that way, at the customer's pace. I asked the chef/owner if he has found it difficult to educate the eating public about his native cuisine. He said that it is a continuing process and he's learned to work with those who say he's not serving "Italian" food.

      The restaurant has some special Monday night dinners coming up. Any experience with these?

      4 Replies
      1. re: Melanie Wong

        I've been to one of the Monday night dinners, and can't wait to go back. In fact, will be going to the next one :-) The service is family style, with the tables pushed together to make three or so big tables, and the set menu served family style, along with the chosen paired wines. Quality of the food was as good as on the regular menu (I particularly remember a truly lovely dish of baby octopus in a tomato sauce that was absolutely addictive, even though I normally don't even eat octopus), wine pairings were great, and the pours are pretty much unlimited. Lots of fun, a great value, probably best not to plan on driving home afterwards....(how lucky am I that I live four blocks away!).

        p.s. Happy Birthday Melanie!

        1. re: susancinsf

          Thank you, Susan. I know how you feel about cramped restaurants, and I imagine that this one butts up against your comfort level. Originally we had a table for six and ended up with just four. However, we were glad we had the smaller number as the table size was the same and the food wouldn't have fit for six! Also, with four, we could still converse in normal tones over the considerable background noise.

          We'd all had challenging days. I had a 2-hour drive back to the City and was riding on empty the last 10 miles because I didn't have time to stop for gas, nestorius had left update messages that he might have to cancel to stay late at the office, Curtis commuted down and back to LA, and Ruth had a late start too. It was such a huge relief to find parking close by and not have to go through the usual 30-minute SF parking hunt. Then having the luxury of time to wind down with the first glass of wine and some salumi while we figured out our order was a true gift here.

          1. re: Melanie Wong

            Indeed, it does push my comfort level. Somehow I think Lorella senses that; at least she always seems to have a relatively well spaced table for us (yes, I admit that we have reached 'regulars' status here)...but even if she didn't, I would make an exception for La Ciccia, thanks to the wonderful hospitality and great food. It truly is hard to continue to feel stressed, however petty or serious the reason, when dining here!

          2. re: susancinsf

            I just got an email with the menu for the next special dinner on April 30th: suckling pig! yummm:

            Antipasteddusu the terra
            (Assorted Home cured Salumi with Home Pickled Vegetables)
            Costisceddasa the Proccu a su Zaffaranu (Pork short ribs in Saffron and Tomato Juice)
            Malloreddus a sa Campidanese (Sardinian Gnochetti served with pork meats sauce) Proceddu Arrustiu e Birdura a sa Sarda (Roasted Suckling pig served with fresh seasonal vegetables Sardinian style)
            Trutta de Arescottu cun Mebi a su Zaffanau (Ricotta Cake served with Saffron Honey) Is Binus (Wines) Vermentino di Sardegna and Cannonau di Sardegna

        2. How thin was the crust? The pizza we had was thicker than A16's. Not bad but not in the same league with their La Ciccia's other dishes.

          Costamolino goes well with just about anything. With the lamb, personally I'd go with the classic pairing, a good cannonau (grenache). La Ciccia has some excellent older vintages. They also have Argiolas's high-end vermentino, Is Argiolas, which I haven't seen anywhere else.

          Lorella Degan and her husband Massimiliano Conti, the chef, are co-owners.

          5 Replies
          1. re: Robert Lauriston

            The crust was not as thin as A16's, but seemed thinner to me than P. Delfina's, but not scorched. It seemed a bit overworked to me, making it tough I also liked the sauce much better than P. Delfina's candied taste.

            1. re: Melanie Wong

              I'm pretty sure Delfina's "sauce" is simple pureed San Marzanos, just like A16 (and virtually every pizzeria in Italy).

              1. re: Robert Lauriston

                It tastes like it has some tomato paste in it to me. One friend who prefers it to typical Italian pizza agrees with me, but I don't know for sure.

                  1. re: Robert Lauriston

                    "Cooking with local ingredients is more in the spirit of Italian food than importing Italian ingredients. I’m not using San Marzano tomatoes, I’m using California tomatoes –- they’re great. It’s not a conscious angle on the place, it’s just the way we cook already [at Delfina]."

                    Good sleuthing! Now to find out which brand, as I'd like to use them myself in other applications.

          2. Anyone care to divulge the location of this restaurant for us non-au courant types?

            2 Replies
              1. re: Gary Soup

                End of Church Street, at 30th, San Francisco. Right on the J Church muni line.

              2. Sounds wonderful. They are lovely people, and it's a welcoming place without any pretensions, very different from most of the Noe offerings in both soulfulness and the quality of the food.

                I noticed they're advertising pizza for takeout in the latest Noe Valley Voice. We really liked the pizza the one time I tried it. If I had one criticism of La Ciccia's menu, it would be the need for a lighter course in between pizza and pastas and faro with saba. There aren't a lot of salads or sides of vegetables on the menu, and every time I've left, I've been begging for mercy.

                I went to the first special dinner in November with susancinsf and cynsa. It was excellent, despite the health issues I was contending with that night. Festive, like a wedding but without interruptions. All items were on the regular menu.

                4 Replies
                1. re: Windy

                  I agree about the need for some side vegetables. Both of our meat courses came with sauteed mushrooms and I would have really liked some greens instead.

                  1. re: Melanie Wong

                    Now, wait just a second. I counted three asparagus tips with the salumi plate and two more spears with the boar :) (not to mention the artichokes with the Fregula)

                    1. re: Curtis

                      That's right, and I invoked honoree privileges to scarf two from the salumi, one from the boar, and as much artichokes as I could from the pasta!

                  2. re: Windy

                    Yes, I was just looking at the menu online and noticed that the octopus is indeed there. I have personal issues with eating octopus (nothing political or any such, it is just that, well, I dive with them and consider them my best ocean friends) that is probably why I've never paid much attention to it on the menu. But when it is put in front of me as part of a set menu, and looked so irresistable...well, I couldn't resist!

                    One item that is not on the regular menu which I think we had at the special dinner (? lots of wine that night), were the large grilled prawns. They are sometimes available as a special, and are well-worth ordering: perfectly, skillfully cooked. I have to remember to ask where they are from and what type they are: these guys are *huge*.

                    Though I am not a pizza fan, La Ciccia is one place I will permit hubby to go to get takeout pizza when we just don't want to cook or get delivery whatever Asian....part of that is probably just my desire to support a great operation, but it is good (for pizza). Had two of the pizza margheritas recently when daughter and her hubby showed up unexpectedly for a visit from LA the night before we were leaving town on a trip: a great last minute entertaining menu!