Hi Chowhounds. Sorry I've been off the SF board for so long. The weekly e-mail subscription is a great new feature, but it also encourages my natural laziness!
I checked the SF board a few weeks ago to check out what Chowhounds had to say about Pesce and a few other restaurants. (Wonkie, thanks for warning us off Ozumo.) I saw that Pesce had been discussed much, save for one lukewarm review that almost scared us off.
Last Saturday night, Amy and I dined at Pesce for the first time. Never having dined on Polk (between Green and Vallejo), we allotted the typical 15 minutes for finding street parking. This was a big mistake. We drove around for 20 minutes without any luck, after which I dropped Amy off at the door to hold our reservation. An hour later, I was still circling the 5 block radius surroung Polk and Green, dazed by hunger and bewildered by my bad luck. Finally, I pulled up to the curb of the restaurant to find Amy and see if we should give up and go someplace else. It was only then that I learned that Pesce had a $6 validated parking deal with the Video City parking lot two blocks south on Polk. (It would have been nice to put a sign up, don't ya think?)
After that kind of parking nightmare, I had every reason in the world to despise my meal at Pesce. To my complete surprise, it was the most oustanding dining experience in recent San Francisco memory.
Pesce is styled like a Venetian chichetteria. Chichetti are like the Venetian equivalenent of tapas -- small plates of seafood to sample and share over a leisurely meal paired with wines by the glass. Amy and I visited Venice last September and dined at several incredible chichetteria. (If you follow the Slow Food movement, it's possible to dine quite well in Italy -- Alle Testierre and Vini da Gigio are the spots to hit in Venice.) Pesce gets the feel of these restaurants just right, probably because Pesce is run by a big burly Venetian chef. The front room is long and narrow with a bar stretching across one wall and small tables for two and four lined up across the other. A small back room seats four more tables, one large enought to accomodate mayabe a party of six. For a detailed description of the decor (including the funky blue, yellow and green glass globe chandelier), check out the recent review in the Chronicle.
Speaking of the Chronicle... I'm usually wary of head food critic Michael Bauer. He gets caught up in the hype of just about any new restaurant (ahem, Redwood Park, R.I.P.). So naturally, when he stated that Pesce serves seafood that competes with the best in the city, I was skeptical. When I looked at the bargain prices on the menu, I was downright incredulous. But for a change, Mr. Bauer is right.
Amy and I began the meal with two small plates (chichetti): the swordfish rolls, which Bauer describes in his review, and the thinly sliced grilled octopus served over celery and sliced yukon gold potatoes with fresh herbs, sea salt and a drizzle of olive oil. I have never enjoyed octopus of this quality in the Bay Area. In fact, I think we've dined on so much chewy, slightly fishy grilled octopus over the years that I forgot what this delicacy is supposed to taste like! Tender and firm (that's firm, not chewy!), with a hint of smoke in the flesh. And a revelation paired with the celery and creamy potatoes. You must try this dish.
For an entree, Amy and I shared the lobster spaghetti in a brandy cream sauce. One bite and we were transported back to Italy. But this time, to Rome, where I fell in love with a similar dish at Settimio all'Arancio. We learned from our server that this dish was featured for the first time on Valentine's Day, and the response was so overwhelming that it's been on the menu ever since. The thick spaghetti noodles and the half lobster served in its shell (no worries, you can pull it whole out of the shell with only a fork) were spot on. The brandy cream sauce was everything you'd hope it would be with none of the weight and just a hint of chili pepper. The basket of fresh breads will help you savor every last drop.
The wine list at Pesce includes wonderful Italian vintages at bargain prices (mostly $6-7 glasses and $20-30 bottles). We particularly enjoyed the processo, a sparling wine very popular with the Romans these days, a delicious Vermentino from Sardegna, and for dessert, the vin santo and a lemony sgroppino. The menu also features passito, a wonderful dessert wine which even K&L Wines has trouble getting in stock.
Desserts are stellar. I don't like tiramisu. I never order tiramisu. But Amy is a sucker for it. They may call this dish tiramisu at Pesce, but I think that's an insult. To Pesce. If you want the real deal (not the cakey joke they serve most places), you'll have to line up behind me. The biscotti were also something to brag about, served bite size and by the handful with a glass of vin santo ($7 for the pair!) and having a lot in common with Jewish kmish bread.
The service at Pesce is attentive but more importantly friendly. We happen to enjoy chatting it up with the staff, getting their takes on the food and whatnot. It was obvious that the staff at Pesce appreciate diners who are there for more than the pretty-people Polk St. scene. We were well taken care of, and treated to sgroppino on the house at the end of the meal. The staff remembered and acknowledged us when we returned last night for an encore performance.
That's right, Amy and I enjoyed Pesce so much that we made a reservation to return as soon as possible. My parents were visiting, and we knew this would be the perfect Sunday meal. Wish I had more time to go into the details, but suffice to say that they too were won over by Pesce. It's one thing to have a meal replete with good dishes and a few great dishes. But to have a meal where you want to shout from the tree tops (or lacking dexterity, post on Chowhound) about every dish -- that's just unfair. Pesce once again distinguished itself with a squid ink rissotto with calamari, and a linguine di mare with muscles, clams and shrimp. Since you're all Chowhounds on this board, I don't need to tell you what to look for in fresh, quality seafood. I only need say that when Michael Bauer says Pesce could compete with the best seafood restaurants in the city, he's not joking. Sample anything on the menu, even the lowly crab cake, and I'm confident you'll feel the same way.
Do you miss Venice? (For those of you who experienced some of the terrible restaurants I remember dining at a decade ago, probably not. But if you've caught on to the hidden gems like those we found last fall, I'm sure you do.) Do you want to sample the cuisine of Venice without the customary hour and a half long wait to settle the bill? Pesce is hopping, so it's not like it needs Chowhound support. But it deserves it.