Last night, we had dinner at Palatino on Cortland Ave in Bernal Heights. "We" meant eight people (two families, each with two young teenage girls). It turned out to be a very good choice.
Although Palatino takes no reservations, when we called them at 5 pm, they set up several tables together and they were waiting for us when we walked in at 6:30 pm. Quite convenient. The restaurant is small; about 15 tables (I think) in a large room, part of which is a semi-open kitchen. Simple decor with some paintings and mirrors. The tables have copper tops. Cool. Chairs are comfortable.
I went to Palatino about a year ago when it first opened. At the time it was very crowded but had good food and friendly service. So this time, when we wanted to go to a neighborhood Italian restaurant, we came back.
At 6:30 pm it was half-empty. About an hour later it got full but never crowded. The service was good and unhurried. Water and wine glasses got refilled promptly.
When we sat down (adults at one end, girls at the other, of course), they brought out some chewy tortilla-like bread and some kind of a smoked eggplant tapenade. Quite tasty. The menu seems to specialize in Southern Italian, or maybe I should say there were more dishes using tomato sauces than cream/butter sauces. For a small place, the menu was pretty extensive. The wine list had about 20 choices and it was about 2/3 Italian and 1/3 Californian. The Italian wines were representative of the different major regions of Italy, including Campania. Prices were reasonable, between $20 and $70 (for the expensive stuff like Amarone, Barolo and Barbaresco) but the average was probably around $35. We wanted to drink specific wine so we brought our own two bottles (corkage is $12/bottle), but we would have been happy with the wine menu.
With all those food choices we ordered a lot of stuff. Too much, it turned out. First we ordered 4 antipasti ($6 per order) which the menu described as "small plates of various appetizers." The plates were bruschette with roasted peppers, pickled sardines, sauteed fennel, deep-fried risotto croquettes, and eggplant parmesan. All the apps tasted great, but they weren't small; each one could have been an full app elsewhere.
While we were eating the apps, we ordered the rest. To give our waitress credit, she did ask me after I ordered a pasta *and* an entree: "Are you really hungry?" I should have listened to that, but curiosity (and gluttony) prevailed. Well, if there is a downside to Palatino, then it's the size of its portions, which are enormous. We wound up taking about half of the food home. It looked like we came out of a Chinese take-out joint with several pounds of food in cardboard boxes. And we weren't alone; I noticed that most customers left with packages also.
As a primo, I ordered an oxtail rigatoni ($12.50) which would have been enough for two people. It came on two plates, one of them being the pasta and some meat, the other a huge oxtail bone with lots of meat on it and covered by a tomato sauce. Way too much food because I had to keep some room for the entree of braised lamb shank ($13.50) also in a tomato sauce and lentils. Very tasty, with the meat falling off the bone. My wife had a pappardelle (wide egg noodles) with chicken livers and mushrooms ($12.50), which, similar to my pasta dish, was well executed but too much of. Her entree was rabbit braised in wine and served with polenta ($16.50). Another nice dish with the firm rabbit flesh absorbing the wine sauce and the polenta acting as a counterpoint for the "drunken" meat.
The other couple was more level-headed. They split a gnocchi ($12.50) with mushrooms and pancetta (I tasted some of it; it was rich and the gnocchi were firm; well made), and then they each had the special fish of the day, ahi ($16.50), which I didn't try but they said was good.
The older girls split a bucatini pasta with pancetta and onions ($10.50). The younger girls split a farfalle pasta with roasted peppers ($9.50). As a reporter, I had to taste both (I liked them). Then, the older girls split a grilled rib-eye ($16.50) and the younger girls split a plain pizza ($11, I think). I tried the pizza (as good as I've had at Pauline's) but not the rib-eye. It must have been good because the girls devoured it quickly.
With all that food and wine, we did not have deserts (all $5.50), although their descriptions on the desert menu looked good. Instead, we took a much-needed walk around the neighborhood and drove to Mitchell's for mango and oreo ice cream (hey, we had kids with us).
Overall, the restaurant was very good. The quality was uniformly high. Prices were reasonable, especially considering portion sizes. Palatino is a casual neighborhood restaurant that, in its own quiet way, appears to deliver consistently good food.