Start with the Margherita.
Sidewalk seating at Farina.
“Authenticity,” that smug buzzword of the modern food wonk, is an irritating term, and not just because its meaning has been muddied. It’s particularly annoying when used to promulgate the bogus notion that culinary expertise trumps personal taste. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard people say that Thai food here is a far cry from what they serve in Bangkok, I’d use them to pay people to shut their traps. Can’t I just enjoy my curry? Must I sing the praises of a middling taqueria just because it has an abuela in the kitchen, whipping up her own abuela’s recipes?
The question of what’s “real”—and whether it matters—comes to mind when considering Farina Pizza & Cucina Italiana in the Mission, the loudly, proudly Italian spin-off of Farina, located just around the corner. Like the original, whose website promises “authentic” Ligurian cuisine, Farina Pizza presents itself as a bridge to the Old World. But rather than connect us to a single region, the new place spans Italy from north to south, with a repertoire of dishes that, we’re told, challenges “our perception of what we thought we knew: in this case, Italian cuisine.”
Here’s one thing I do know about Italian cooking: There’s a fair amount of it around 18th and Valencia streets, where Farina Pizza opened in August. The neighborhood is rich in ragù and thick with thin-crust pies. But not every nearby outpost is like Farina, where experienced pizzaiolos Antonio and Gennaro Langella—a father and son duo freshly transplanted from Naples—work a pizza oven built with sand from Mount Vesuvius. I’ll give them this: Aside from the housemade sausages, which are rubbery and overbearingly salty, the toppings are beautiful, simple, and restrained—from the San Marzano tomatoes that sustain the Marinara pizza to the anchovies that mingle, on the Romano, with mozzarella, oregano, and Romano cheese.
What didn’t suit my fancy was the dough itself, which was more chewy than charred, surprisingly sweet, and so floppy in the middle that my Margherita turned into tomato soup. “This is how they make them in Naples,” a waiter assured me, challenging not only my perceptions, but also my memories of meals in Italy. At any rate, if that’s how they’re doing it in Naples these days, I can save on airfare and get pizza around here that suits my personal penchant for a crisper crust. (For this, Gioia on Polk Street comes to mind.)
My feelings about crust aside, there are a number of things to like about Farina, including the unexpected setting, which is neither a red-checked-tablecloth throwback nor the ubiquitous temple of rustic chic. Instead, the atmosphere is gleamingly modern, with white subway tiles and a wood bar lined with white tufted-leather stools. A mirror-clad ceiling decorated with images of vintage Italian comic book characters adds a nifty element of casual cool.
The menu, too, has sparkling moments. The now-famous pesto is a creamy purée of sweet Ligurian basil tossed over dense potato gnocchi, and a starchy, satisfying timballo di patate stuffed with mozzarella and salame brings to mind a humble twice-baked potato that has spent a semester in Italy.
Compared to its more California-ized competitors, like, say, Pizzeria Delfina, Farina is not a gushing tribute to the seasons. You don’t get the sense that anyone there is rising early to forage through farmers’ markets. Its two salads (one of mixed greens with olives and pecorino, the other a classic tricolore), delicious as they are, star ingredients that are readily available throughout the year. Not that the menu has no West Coast whimsy: One of my favorite entrées, a honking rib eye garnished with arugula and pecorino cheese and laid out on a slab of housemade focaccia, was dreamed up right here in Farina’s kitchen, far from any farmhouse in Tuscany.
That’s somewhat unexpected given the leanings of chef Paolo Laboa, who handles Farina’s non-pizza dishes and is featured in a cookbook (for sale at the restaurant) whose introduction reads like a parody of Mario Puzo with a little Michael Pollan thrown in. In it, we learn that if we squeeze lemon on Paolo’s branzino, we “don’t just insult Paolo.” We also insult his uncle, the fisherman, and his grandmother, the great home cook.
The chef’s branzino wasn’t on the menu, but I did have Paolo’s lamb chops with braised artichokes (which, I hestitate to say, needed salt). But the pasta puttanesca was as appealing as the waitstaff, who never rush you toward the check.
On my final visit, the waiter suggested a sublime dessert, an understated ricotta pastry. He told me its name in Italian, pastiera tradizionale, the words rolling beautifully off his tongue, and I assumed that he hailed from somewhere like Perugia. Imagine my disappointment when I learned that he’d grown up in Peru.
700 Valencia St. (near 18th St.), 415-565-1900, Farina-foods.com
A recommended dinner for two people (before tax and tip).
Menabrea blond beer (2) .....................................$12
Timballo di patate............................................$5
Tricolore salad ..............................................$5
Gnocchi with pesto ..........................................$15
Rib eye with arugula and pecorino on focaccia .......$25
Ricotta pastry ...............................................$5
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