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Jun 1, 2012 07:34 PM

Marcella's Lasagneria chowdown report [Dogpatch, San Francisco]

Melanie Wong organized a scouting trip to Marcella's Lasagneria in the Dogpatch just off 22nd Street. (Thank you, Melanie!) Five hungry hounds met there today for lunch to sample their wares. The restaurant is named for Chef Massimo's daughter and is a family business. Currently it's open weekdays for lunch. Chef Massimo spent a fair amount of time talking with our little group, explaining his culinary background and food philosophy. We were able to eat in the quiet upstairs room and were apparently the first group to do so. Seating is available downstairs and on the side walk. All seating is white metal two-tops with metal chairs.

We decided to try every lasagna available along with a couple of slices of pizza. In particular order, we had the butternut squash, bolognese, wild mushroom, spicy eggplant, and spinach lasagne. The pizza slices we ordered were the Margherita and the Mediterranea. As I didn't have much of either pizza, I'll mostly withhold comments, but my thoughts on each lasagna follows:

Butternut squash - pretty subtle and not overly sweet. Perhaps too subtle as I didn't really get much of the butternut squash taste from the dish. It's not spiced liked baked butternut squash might be, so it's somewhat subdued.

Bolognese - this lasagna should be available most days while the others will rotate. Chef Massimo makes a particularly thin lasagna noodle in house and this lasagna really shows it off beautifully. He claims the thinness of the noodle comes down to a special pasta machine and his technique. The noodles aren't heavy in gluten either, so the cut nicely and you get many layers. The sauce itself was well-balanced and not highly acidic. It's also not too heavy on the beef. Portions for this and the other lasagne were about 14 ounces and represent 1/6 of a pan.

Wild mushroom - this was the clear winner in my book. The earthy wild mushroom flavor shown through fetchingly. I'd order a pan of this any day! :-) The red wine sauce complemented the mushrooms perfectly. I've got to stop thinking about this one, otherwise I'll start drooling on my keyboard.

Spicy Sicilian eggplant - I will willingly admit that I'm not an eggplant fan. I hate it in moussaka. In this preparation, it was delightful. I'd rate this one my second favorite, surprising myself. It was not too spicy and it wasn't too "eggplanty". Like every lasagna here, the named filling is mixed with bechamel and sauce in each layer and the whole is also topped with the unadulterated filling for each identification and an extra zing.

Spinach - the lasagna was covered in a mellow green layer of pureed spinach filling. From the look of it, I initially thought it was a basil pesto, which I would have really loved. That's all right, however, as the spinach (and ricotta cheese) shown through nicely. The spinach had a bright, natural cooked spinach flavor. I'd rate this one my third favorite.

As for the pizza, well the lasagna's the thing. I mostly ate thin pieces made mostly of crust owing to my poor abilities at dividing the rectangular slices into fifths. The crust is not too chewy and sort of "bready", but it's not baked in a wood-fired oven for 90 seconds either. We did try to get a slice of the white pie, the Rustica Bianca, but it was sold out.

We didn't have the opportunity to try any of the hot or cold sandwiches offered, but I'd certainly like to. I'm definitely going back to try out other lasagnas as they make it into the rotation. Initially, Chef Massimo had planned on having only two lasagne available per day, but he determined that that made it difficult for customers to try different ones, so he'll usually have bolognese and a selection of others available daily. Marcella's also offers soups, but again, we didn't get to try any of those. They supply Whole Foods and Molly Stones with those soups as well, so it should be relatively easy to get them even when the restaurant is closed.

All in all, a splendid time eating was had. I'll leave it to my fellow hounds to add their comments below.

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  1. Yes, whoever thought of lasagna as delicate? The bolognese was subtle rather than hearty. Such thin sheets of pasta had us all dreaming of what we would do with them.

    I did really enjoy the spinach and ricotta, which was softer than the others, once I got over realizing it wasn't pesto.

    I look forward to trying their soups, perhaps for takeout. Great to see so many new options in the Dogpatch, although this business has apparently been at this location as a caterer for many years.

    1. I too was one of the lucky hounds who had a great meal.

      The standout was the thin noodles maybe a one fifth the width of normal sheets. So more layers per lasagnas. Loved the eggplant and wild mushrooms. Would have love more meat in the meat sauce but one can not have everything. The spinach was something that could grow on me quickly but not the butternut squash.

      As someone who loves lots of toppings I found the pizza too light for my taste. For a newly open place it was outstanding.

      but the most important thing that will get me back is the passion of the chef. His desire to serve the very best came through.

      Was told that they will begin the expanding the menu.

      1. As my fellow hounds have noted, the ultra-thin pasta with very thin layers of filling made the lasagna an unusual and surprisingly sublime experience. It almost seems like a different dish. I really liked it but when I’m in the mood for something really hearty I’d probably prefer the cruder versions I’m used to. My favorite was the wild mushroom, followed by the spinach and ricotta. The thin style worked better for me with the vegetarian versions than with the bolognese, but I am eager to try the spicy sausage version which was not available today.

        The pizza was not as exciting. Our slices had a very thin crust that was not at all crisp and my bit of the Mediterrane slice sagged and seemed a little soggy. Like yimster I prefer more toppings but the thin pizza was certainly stylistically consistent with the thin pasta lasagna. We each got a very small amount of each slice so it might it come across better with a full serving.

        Chef Massimo was even more entertaining than the food. He is a barrel of energy and loves to share his experiences. He regaled us with stories from his 47 years in many aspects of the food business in different venues around the world. In addition to emphasizing his passionate commitment to using quality natural ingredients and making everything from scratch he had some interesting stories of some of the business challenges he has faced. For instance what do you do when you’re supplying a specialty product to your biggest retail customer at a certain price point and suddenly the price of the special mushrooms that are its major component goes up from $12 per lb. to $20?

        The main business at this location has been producing specialty food items for retailers like Whole Foods. That work is completed in the morning and then they open for lunch. One reason for adding the restaurant function was to allow for full-time hours for the staff. Future plans include opening for dinner and expanding the menu to include entrees like fish dishes.

        I like the casual feel of the place. When you go upstairs or to the restroom you get to walk by the kitchen and see what is going on while smiling employees help you find your way.

        It was a very pleasing lunch and I look forward to another visit.

        1. Thank you, Peter, for teeing up the details.

          I concur with the others that pizza is not a strength. While I don’t need a lot of topping, the crust was the problem here for me. When I first saw the thick-ish crust, I hoped that it might be as tasty as Golden Boy’s. But with the pale color and not drenched in tasty olive oil, nothing at all like it. Too bready, doughy and overly wet in some parts, and not much character at all to this crust. Without its own personality, the crust seemed to water down the other flavors. On the positive side, the slices are not loaded down with cheap cheese or grease.

          On to the lasagnas --- sometimes these things just work out. Five eaters at the table, five different lasagnas available. Here’s the group photo. Not of my dining companions, but a shot of our whole order on the table. We had leftovers!

          Besides the thinness of the pasta sheets, the other notable characteristics of the house-style are the absence of a shellacked layer of mozzarella on top and the relatively grease and oil-free lightness of the ingredients. The vegetable flavors are not submerged in dairy and speak pretty clearly.

          "Wild mushroom" lasagna was described on the menu as red wine, crimini and portabellos. The woodsy aroma was great and the taste even better. This was my favorite as well.

          Also liked the Spicy Sicilian eggplant lasagna as well. The color was none too appetizing, but the texture was interesting with the eggplant just soft enough and maintained its integrity as a fine dice. Not mushy nor fibrous, the eggplant hit that sweet spot in flavor and texture.

          The green lasagna threw me initially. Some caterers will include spinach for color in basil pesto, and as I tasted this, I thought, “Hmm, they’ve put too much spinach in this.” Once I learned that this was not intended to be pesto, I could like it more. The extra density and richness of the ricotta filled in the dairy void and provided a nice contrast.

          The butternut squash lasagna missed the mark. The squash was undercooked. While not hard, this wasn’t roasted enough to develop the sugars and full flavor. And it was also undersalted. Chef told us that he tastes everything . . . this one slipped past, I think.

          The Bolognese was a tomato sauce with a little bit of meat instead of a seriously meaty ragu that I would prefer. So this one fell out for me as well. That said, it was the chance to get a good handle on the quality of the tomato sauce here. In fact, I asked the chef what kind of tomatoes he used. The flavor was fuller than San Marzanos, yet brighter and not as jammy as domestic brands like 6-in-1. He said he uses San Benito brand, organic tomatoes from California. I want to try cooking with them myself.

          This shot of my lunch plate with a portion of each item shows the profile of the lasagna with its many layers of pasta.

          Chef joined us three or four times at our upstairs perch to tell us about himself and his philosophy. I had a chance to ask him if he made up the term, “lasagneria”. He said he did to have a catchy name, and added that one could say it that way in Italian and Italians would understand it. I also found it amusing to hear his wife call up to him, “Let these people eat their lunch.” Or, “We need change! There’s only two pennies.” When he told us he was now 60 and had been cooking for 47 years, I asked him why expand when most people would be thinking about retiring. He said that he loves cooking, and added, “An artist dies on the stage.” Later he shared that his grandfather spent his career in hotels and died on the job of a massive stroke. Obviously, his role model.

          I regret not buying some sauce or soup from the display case to take home for a quick meal. I’ll definitely be back to try more. Next week might be a good time, as a porcini lasagna is in the works. Chef said he has many vegan/vegetarian choices, and he’s also working on a low calorie line.

          Reduced calories could become the order of the day, as Marcella’s is only a block away from Mr & Mrs Miscellaneous. Part II of our chowdown continued with ice cream for dessert.

          All photos from Marcella’s

          2 Replies
          1. re: Melanie Wong

            Melanie, I am on a quest to find the San Benito tomatoes (better than San Marzanos, according to Diavolo's pizzaiolo). Any 411 on where they can be found? I'm only finding #10 size cans.

            1. re: maria lorraine

              The website linked in my post (earthlygoods) says San Benito tomatoes are a food service product and only available in #10 cans. One of the affiliated websites lists the items as 10 lbs. Maybe that's so, but a #10 can is about 12 cups worth and probably doesn't weigh 10 lbs. if that's what's holding you back.

              You'd get a better response posting on the General board where ingredient questions are asked using an appropriate title, instead of burying it in this thread about lasagna in San Francisco

          2. Haven't had a chance to return yet. But if I were in City today, I'd be ordering today's special, "Fresh, handmade Pappardelle Al Tartufo di Norcia, imported black truffles from Umbria for $11.50".