Joe Lin, the chef and owner of San Francisco’s Pesce e Riso, had no idea that his destiny was to craft Japanese-Italian cuisine. Born and raised in Shanghai, Lin ate the food his mom cooked while he was growing up, but, by his own admission, never cooked a meal for himself until he was sent to Canada to pursue a Western education. As a child and young man, Lin loved painting and drawing and, upon his departure to Vancouver at 18, dreamed of becoming a fashion designer in New York.
To support his fine art habit, Lin took a job at a family friend’s sushi restaurant. He launched his culinary career as a dishwasher but his eyes did not linger on the dirty plates. Instead, he looked to the other side of the kitchen. As he moved up the ranks, Lin became intrigued by the process of how food, in the hands of the trained sushi chefs, transitioned from humble ingredients to a form of culinary art on the plate. In food, he saw fluidity, a type of moving art form. “Like art,” Lin said, “cooking involves the general environment, social change, technology, and the way people are thinking.”
He was hooked. Though it was coincidence that brought Lin to a Canadian sushi restaurant, Lin found Japanese cuisine unconventional and loved the newness of the flavors to his as-yet untrained palate. While in Canada, Lin discovered chefs such as David Chang and Nobu Matsuhisa and savored the cutting-edge approach these and other chefs brought to Chinese and Japanese cuisine. “They were doing brand new things,” said Lin.
After an opportunity to open an Italian restaurant in Shanghai failed to launch, Lin secured an opportunity to live and cook in Tuscany. Again, Lin was hooked. “Italian cooking is like Impressionism,” said Lin, who loved the cuisine’s reliance on the simplicity of the ingredients rather than on mastery of a certain technique. It was while living in Tuscany that the concept of an Italian-Japanese restaurant awoke in him. The cuisines from these two disparate countries, Lin found, had much in common. Not only did Italy and Japan produce amazing beef (Fiorentina and Wagyu, respectively), both countries embraced rice with equal ardor to noodles and were diehard about seafood.
More San Francisco Treats
But where to build this temple to Japitalia? Why the frontier of Asian and Italian cooking—San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood, of course. Located on the corner of Grant and Columbus, Lin’s latest venture, Pesce e Riso, or fish and rice in Italian, is at the crossroads of San Francisco’s historic Chinatown and the Italian neighborhood next door, North Beach. It’s an apt location for Lin’s cooking style which reimagines classic Italian and Japanese dishes with a spoonful of Chinese influences and a nod to San Francisco norms. Say what?
Open since July 2017, Pesce e Riso’s menu changes every four to six weeks to stay in tune with what’s available at the market (so San Francisco) and insanely fresh fish and seafood. Like all of Chef Lin’s imaginings, the new Emilia roll is a Japanese idea vamping as a classic Italian dish, prosciutto e melone. Japanese rice, wrapped in prosciutto de Parma, is itself the wrapper for fresh melon and just-in asparagus. Served up like a sushi roll, the dish gets a pop of color and a hit of umami from a swipe of the pesto sauce with which it is served.
Or take the just-added chazuke, a dish beloved in China and Japan. Known as “overnight rice,” Lin’s chazuke bridges China, Japan, and Italy with local seafood and bok choy alongside Corona beans from Lazio, Sicilian-cured tuna heart, and a subtle, warming Genmaicha tea broth.
There is a refinement to Lin’s cooking that, in this age of Sriracha everything and fermented everything else, may be lost on a palate uninitiated to the quiet intensity and subtle fire of Japanese and Italian flavors. But if you sit still for a moment and savor the experience of this soft-spoken restaurant, you will soon discover its depth of character, its essential soul. This is a restaurant and a chef who is cooking with passion and heart in an intensely personal way. Pesce e Riso belongs exactly where it is, connecting Asia and Europe in a fresh new way in a neighborhood that could do with more of the same. The tourists may find it first but Pesce e Riso is a place for seekers of the one-off, unique San Francisco dining experience, a place that will help this town cement its standing as a welcome home for culinary innovation and great food.