Gary Rulli, the master pastry chef behind the proto-Italian Emporio Gran Caffes in Larkspur and the Marina, started edging toward the savory when he called on his friend Angelo Auriana, to consult at the Chestnut Street shop.
Though Auriana — formerly executive chef of Valentino in Los Angeles, and one of the finest Italian chefs in California — flitted in and out of the kitchen for 2½ years, he always cooked on Tuesday nights, and these dinners became legendary.
Then they instituted Friday wine events staged by Italian wine ace Liberata Torlontano. Finally, Rulli just shut down the cafe, took out the pastry counters and redesigned the space as a chic Milanese-style wine bar and restaurant which he renamed Ristobar.
Ever since Ristobar opened a month ago, its sleek wooden tables, leather and aluminum chairs and long marble wine bar have been full. The shift from daytime cafe — in which dinner service felt tacked on — to a sophisticated night time-only destination for small bites or full meals, seemed effortless.
Anyone who has stood in front of the Larkspur cafe’s overflowing counters of Italian cookies, cakes, budino, pastries, breads, gelati, panini and chocolates cannot accuse Rulli of not giving his customers choice.
Ristobar asks you to make a confounding number of them with 26 wines hooked up to a Cruvinet that dispenses 3-ounce tastes up to 16-ounce decanters; 28 beers on tap and in bottle; 10 Italian cheeses (two for $10); 10 Italian cured meats (two for $10); plus pizza, pasta, fish, poultry, meat, salads, vegetables and little bites.
All you can do is dive in, but I don’t think you can go wrong. Everything works together and the place is so happening that everything stays fresh. The kitchen and the wine tenders know how to handle and keep product; these are no amateurs.
With a glass of, say, unusually buttery pinot grigio ($10), nibble on hot, crunchy crochettes ($4) — creamy-centered chicken fritters; or a little plate of Auriana’s refined caponata ($4) — silky eggplant gently pickled with vinegar, sweetened with raisins and salted with capers.
Don’t miss the tortino di cardi ($11), a pale green cardoon custard that charmingly captures the subtle, artichoke-like flavor of this stalky vegetable.
Long-stemmed broccollini ($8), with hot red pepper, garlic and olive oil is crisp and literally sensational. A plate of quickly sautéed greens, verdura al’agro ($6), tastes like a garden.
Pair vegetables with a pan roasted quail ($18) — rare, juicy and golden skinned with a clean, citrusy sauce, propped up by two demure squares of polenta.
Exceptional polpettine ($12), small, mild, lamb meatballs, have a sublime texture.
Auriana’s pasta dishes can be unusual, yet perfectly balanced. Cavatelli ($15) — ridged shells of al dente noodle — grab and hold a sparkly yellow pepper puree dotted with crawfish tails that resonates with shellfish reduction. The sauce is refined, the pasta toothsome and rustic, the interplay compelling.
The eclectic crowd reminds me just a tad of the original Vanessi’s. People from all parts of The City mingle: Italians from Italy and San Francisco, ballet dancers, solo diners at the bar, Rulli devotees from Marin, the serious food crowd. Lots of hair, black T-shirts under sport coats, jewelry, cleavage. You look around and it could be cosmopolitan Broadway, right there on Chestnut Street.
Gary Rulli has a winner.
Patricia Unterman is author of the second edition of the “San Francisco Food Lovers’ Pocket Guide.” Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Location: 2300 Chestnut St., San Francisco
Contact: (415) 923-6464; www.ristobarsf.com
Hours: 5 to 10 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays; 5 to 11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays
Price range: $3 to $18
Recommended dishes: Quail; lamb meatballs; cardoon timbale; cavatelli; boards of prosciutto, mortadella, robiola; caponata
Credit cards: All major