Rose Pistola still blooming in San Francisco after all these years

Rose Pistola Restaurant, San Francisco
Rose Pistola Restaurant, San Francisco

There's no denying that North Beach has to be one of San Francisco's most touristy neighborhoods. But it's also full of enough charm, vivacity and quality Italian food to continue draw locals as well. That's one reason why after 15 years Rose Pistola, a short hop from the Hilton San Francisco Fisherman's Wharf, is still going strong. The Ligurian-inspired restaurant recently got a face-lift with a new, softer color scheme in grey, burgundy and brown. The tile floors have been restored and the rich mahogany gleams.

Last month, I was invited in as a guest of the restaurant to try the updated menu by new Executive Chef Mark Gordon. All around me, tables were full of locals, as well as out-of-towners carbo-loading for the next day's spirited Bay to Breakers race through the streets of San Francisco.

We started with stuffed calamari ($13), tender soft tubular bodies stuffed with seafood mousse, then grilled until smoky.

Next, the simple yet sublime bruschette of chunky, mashed favas and tuna conserva ($12). With a nice glass of wine, you could make a light dinner of these alone. The creamy, sweet favas were a wonderful match to the the rich, silky tuna preserved in olive oil. It'd be a great nosh to make at home, too. Spinach papparadelle ($16) brought a heap of wide, toothsome noodles coated with thick, lamb ragu and a scattering of spring English peas that lent a bit of lightness to the dish.

Pizzas here are formed on very thin crusts abundant with air holes to create a snappy bite. Indeed, the crust reminded me more of a cracker than the usual crisp, yet denser base. We chose one with spicy sausage, rosemary and asparagus ($12) that tasted just as good the next day enjoyed as leftovers for lunch.

Ligurian seafood burrida ($32), which is a lot like boullabaise, proved the only misstep. A veritable cauldron arrived at the table, with an abundance of seafood, including calamari and mussels, in a smoky tomato broth with a slight peppery kick. It was easily enough for two. Because various seafood cook at various times, it's never easy to get a stew like this just right. As it was, the prawns had turned dry and rubbery while the chunks of fish remained nicely moist and plump.

Normally, I'm one for using seasonal ingredients in dishes, but sugar snap peas had been added to the seafood stew for some inexplicable reason. By the time the dish arrived at the table, the pods had turned limp, negating one of the real pleasures of this spring veggie, which is its lively crunch.

The burrida came with crostini topped with Dungeness crab. Tasty, but hard to dip into the broth, which is really what you wanted to do.

When we finished, hot towels with lemon quarters were brought to the table -- a nice touch to tidy up after digging into this dish with your fingers.

For dessert, we enjoyed the sacrapantina ($7), a generous wedge of cake that elicited envious gazes when it was brought to our table. Layers of airy Italian sponge cake are interspersed with creamy zabaglione. Crunchy amaretti crumbs covered the top of the cake and a crisp meringue slab reinforced its side. A tropical coconut panna cotta ($7) was light and refreshing. With a perfectly wiggly texture, it sat in a pool of jade-green mint syrup.

Even after 15 years, Rose Pistola still offers a fun time for soaking up a taste of San Francisco.

-- Carolyn Jung of FoodGal

[Photos: Carolyn Jung]

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