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Best Northern Italian

We are celebrating my oldest daughter's completion of the bar exams in early August. Who has the best Italian fare these days?

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    1. Acquerello (French Influence)



      1. Perbacco (240 California Street, SF) is very, very good. It features the food of Piemonte & Liguria.

        1. I would go for Perbacco for the best Northern Italian fare (to me, the best Italian period!). Everything on the menu is pretty good, but don't pass on the Agnolotti dal Plin and the braised meats.
          Cheaper and less formal is Ristorante Milano in Russian Hill.

          1. Depends on what you mean by "northern Italian." Sometimes in the US people use it to mean anyplace that serves fresh pasta or that's not red-sauce Italian-American.

            Assuming you're talking about places that serve regional dishes from Piedmont, Liguria, Lombardy, the Veneto, and Emilia Romagna (and my list would be very different if you aren't):

            Perbacco often features specialties from Piemonte, Liguria, and Venice.

            Pesce and Da Flora are sort of Venetian.

            L'Osteria del Forno is sort of Bolognese but it's not really a celebration-type place.

            Milano changed hands, the current owner is Roman and the menu is more Roman than anything else.

            Acquerello and Quince I'd call Cal-French-Italian.

            6 Replies
            1. re: Robert Lauriston

              Not to change the subject, but when did Milano change hands? I always enjoyed the restaurant and knew one of the owners - not operational type of owner.

              1. re: poulet_roti

                Unless I am mistaken, Milano changed hands at least 5-7 years ago.

                1. re: poulet_roti

                  I'm not sure, but the original menu was definitely northern, as was the woman who handled the front of the house, hence the name.

                  1. re: Robert Lauriston

                    Ristorante Milano has had the same owner / Executive Chef for almost 20 years -- Aldo Blasi. I find it the most consistent true Italian food in the area -- not French or Continental like Aquarello or Quince. Aldo's done a great job consistently with housemade pastas and gnocchi and fresh fish and great veal. Really a wonderful dinner always.

                2. re: Robert Lauriston

                  I agree that defining "Northern Italian" is difficult. I doubt that there are any more "classic" restaurants like Paoli, Doro, Oreste (later Orsi), Ernies because people no longer eat that way. North Beach rest is close, but the food is not top-notch. I've never eaten in an upscale restaurant in Florence, but I would guess they are into many course, small plates, just like us. I think Robert is right...people define No Ital as no dry pasta and no tomato sauce.

                  1. re: OldTimer

                    Many small courses is more a French thing. A really elaborate Italian meal might be:

                    antipasto - appetizer(s)
                    primo - pasta or soup, maybe "assaggi" (tastes) of several pastas
                    secondo - meat or fish
                    with contorni - vegetables, traditionally ordered separately
                    insalata - salad
                    formaggio - cheese
                    dolce - dessert

                    You can drop courses (except primo and secondo), but that's the invariable progression. Incanto, Oliveto, La Ciccia, A16, and Antica Trattoria are some good choices for more or less that sort of traditional meal.

                    SPQR, Dopo, and Pizzaiolo have great food but less traditionally structured menus. Dopo doesn't even have secondi.

                3. Within the conext of the occasion, I'm guessing OP wants a "special occasion" type restaurant... I think Quince and Acquerello are the two best for that purpose but, as I said, especially Acquerello has French influence. And I agree with the CA influence, too.

                  1. I just had dinner at Farina last night, and I was awestruck. Terrific meal, everything was delicious- even took there two Ligurian friends visiting from Italy (why would I take them there, you might ask, when they have that food everyday at home? Good question, but in brief, I wanted to try it and make sure I had a good second opinion!) and they were impressed by the focaccia di recco, the salame (that's my specialty, being from Emilia Romagna), and the pasta al pesto- all was stunningly great!

                    BTW, when I asked about the salame di Felino they served us, the server told me they import it. I was pretty sure salame is one of those things that can't be imported at all- does anyone know if it is possible?


                    1. Wow! I just signed up when I heard about this thread and boy, this is a knowledgeable discussion!

                      Disclosure: After eating at Ristorante Milano a couple of hundred times, I became Aldo Blasi's silent minority partner seven years ago. But there's been no change in ownership. Aldo was and still is the owner and has been for about 20 years, and the menu has not changed or become more Roman in that time. Although Aldo is indeed Roman, his experience growing up was in helping his father, who was a butcher who supplied many of Rome's finest trattorias and restaurants, and hanging out in those restaurants.

                      I like the choice of Perbacco, which is excellent, though - as someone noted - considerably more expensive than Milano. Milano is smaller and more intimate.

                      I also like Quince and Delfina a lot, but like others who posted, I wouldn't consider either to be an Italian restaurant. Delfina is more Californian to me, and Quince more French with a Californian influence.

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: Richard the Eater

                        Prices at Milano and Perbacco are fairly similar: appetizers $9-12, pastas $15-17, Perbacco's main courses and dessert are slightly higher at $21-29 and $5-9 vs. Milano's $19-28 and $6.50.


                        1. re: Richard the Eater

                          The change in ownership was a long time ago. The original owners were from the north. That's how a Roman (Blasi started there as a waiter, right?) happens to own a restaurant named Milano.

                          This is only tangentially relevant, my point is that despite the name the menu is pan-regional Italian. Penne alla puttanesca, for example, is as Roman as it gets.