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Little Italy

By Josh Sens, photographs by Craig Lee | April 26, 2011 | Story

In a ranking of the city's toughest gets, a reservation at Cotogna would land high, somewhere between a rush-hour seat on the N Judah and tickets to a Giants playoff game.

The degree of difficulty is partly a reflection of the loyal following enjoyed by Cotogna's parent restaurant, Quince. But it also speaks of changes in our dining scene. The same forethought long needed to guarantee a table at the French Laundry is now often required at places that serve pizza and pappardelle.

Cotogna offers both, along with salads and roasts, in a well-run room next door to Quince that is meant to be an offshoot, not an annex. Though a hallway in back allows staff to shuttle between the restaurants, a clear divide separates the two. Quince, under chef Michael Tusk, has grown more formal and refined over the years, with a heightened sensitivity to French influences; Cotogna has its roots in Italy, right down to its name—the Italian word for quince.

In every respect, the restaurant looks and acts its relaxed part. The atmosphere is all hearth and Heath, with wood fires glowing in the open kitchen and wood tables topped with ruddy-colored plates, a universal symbol of rustic chic. It's a small, beautiful space, a room that wraps you in its cozy coils without feeling like a cliché from a catalog. The walls are brick. The floor is stone. A communal table runs beside a kitchen bar. Both are saved for walk-ins. If you show up at 5:30, like a Florida retiree, you've got an outside chance of nabbing a seat.

The food you'll find here is homespun but of high breeding—a match, in other words, for its surroundings. I know this sounds as rote as a prep-school recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, but the kitchen lets components stand on their own merits. In many dishes—grilled Monterey squid with puntarelle and grapefruit; roasted sunchokes with cipollini—you can count the ingredients on one hand.

At its best, this kind of cooking makes you wonder why you'd ever eat any other way. Warm ricotta, baked in a mini cast-iron pot beneath a cover of trumpet mushrooms, tastes at once indulgent and elemental, the mushrooms' intense character enhanced by the contrast with the mild cheese. A sformato (savory custard) of English peas is a sweet expression of the peas' garden-y essence. It's countered by a spooning of pecorino fonduta, which spills like warm white frosting over the sformato, giving the round flavors a sharper edge.

Pastas, as at Quince, span the earthy and the artful. Among them: pappardelle with braised-rabbit ragù, and delicate beet-and-chard tortelloni, translucent purses that expose the purple contents at their heart. A dusting of poppy seeds lends a light and nutty crunch.

Roasts, meanwhile, play plainly to primal urges. Straightforward flank steak, with artichokes and arugula, strives successfully enough for simple satisfaction, though it pales beside the lamb chops with black olives, which leave you gnawing at the bones like a wolf. Perhaps it's not surprising that in its celebration of unceremonious eating, Cotogna also reveals the pitfalls of restraint. On one of my visits, I was struck by the blandness of the fusilli with spicy rockfish sugo, which was spicy in name only, and the boredom brought on by a pizza bianca with sliced asparagus and spring onion. A fainthearted flatbread, it begged for something—lemon zest, maybe—to bring it to life.

Yet in those moments, it occurred to me that my own expectations might also be to blame. The buzz around Cotogna, I believe, has built the restaurant up to improbable dimensions. Or at least beyond the scale of what the place was meant to be. One evening at the bar, I sat next to a woman for whom restaurants are a hobby. She dines out, she told me, far more than she dines in. She had read the advance press, the blogs, the tweets, and come to Cotogna anticipating something of a spiritual excursion. Instead, she told me, she was wowed by the gnocchi with Dungeness crab, in a cream-thickened sauce brightened with English peas (my reaction to this dish was the same), but unimpressed by a sausage pizza. Good, she said, but not transcendent. It occurred to me: Is it fair to expect rapture from a wood-fired pie?

What is fair to expect from an evening at Cotogna is a smart, seasonal menu stocked with mostly delicious dishes along with the rare one or two that call for something more. It's also fair to count on attentive service and a superb Italian wine list, priced to relieve you of any pressure. Since all bottles are $40 and all glasses are $10, there's no chance you'll feel guilty for engaging your waiter in a lengthy consultation and then ordering the cheapest label on the list.

On my own future visits, I'll expect less from desserts. So far, they have included a flimsy apple crostata, which lacked enough tart fruit to offset the sweetness of the caramel sauce around it, and a milquetoast milk-chocolate budino, a puzzling pudding as passionless as a lazy shrug. And yet I'll still brace for a battle on OpenTable. Cotogna, though a testament to a trend, is more substantive than a fleeting fashion. It's a restaurant bound to disprove Yogi Berra's maxim: It will never get so crowded that no one goes there anymore. Cotogna: 490 Pacific Ave. (at Montgomery St.), S.F., 415-775-8508, Reservations Recommended, Valet Parking, Wheelchair Accessible, $$$, two and a half stars


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