Every region of Italy claims culinary sovereignty. Even villages five miles apart argue that their local dish is the only true version, and completely different from their neighbor’s.
Of course, all roads lead to Rome, which has its own distinctive style. For me, Roman cooking is kind of a mash-up of rich and refined northern and rustic southern Italian, inflected with the mint-scented vegetable cookery of Sephardic Jews and the earthiness of Rome’s original inhabitants, shepherds, who consumed every bit of the animal and preserved its milk as pecorino.
As food journalist Waverly Root sums it up: “Roman cooking is Etruscan cooking.”
Some 3,000 years later, we have Locanda — a California-Roman restaurant from the Delfina folks, who have staked out their own empire in the Mission district. Locanda is but a few blocks from the mothership. Its chef, Anthony Strong, moved over from the pizzerias to head his own kitchen.
He and the team came back from a trip to Rome resolved to cook dishes based on the quinto quarto, the fifth quarter — all the odd internal bits of animals so loved by Romans, and to serve typical pasta, not quite as shockingly al dente as in Rome and points further south, but still pushing the edge of chewiness. Since Locanda happens to be in San Francisco, many dishes are inspired by our local ingredients.
From the quinto quarto, initiates can wet their feet with an accessible fry of tender baby artichokes and sweetbreads ($12) in crunchy corn meal crust.
The adventurous will like thin, cartiladge etched slices of pigs’ ear terrine with ribbons of celery in lemony dressing ($9) and warm shaved lambs’ tongue with herbal greens (called lambs’ quarters) tossed with pickled onions and cooked radishes.
Two huge, luscious oxtails alla vaccinara ($21) have fat-laced flesh that falls off the bone. Though the waitstaff will recommend creamy smoked potato puree ($8), have a nice, clean side of romano beans ($8). Otherwise you might die.
Strong’s linguini tossed with green friarelli peppers, bread crumbs and house-cured anchovies ($18) is perfectly balanced and salted, the flavor of each ingredient distinctive.
Pasta that looks like twisted ropes, casarecci ($16), holds onto a protein-rich sauce of pigs feet and green tomatoes that is deeply porky yet lifted by acid. It’s fantastic.
The Roman classic, tonnarelli cacio e pepe ($14) has lots of pecorino sauce seasoned with unusual long pepper, like black pepper but hotter and more aromatic.
From the charcoal grill, look for a guinea hen leg ($21), boned, stuffed and wrapped in pancetta, presented on tiny lentils and a few wilted dandelion greens, one of this town’s great dishes.
Rome is the only place in Italy that serves mixed green salad, misticanza. Have one at Locanda with 12 different greens, exquisitely dressed ($9).
If you’re serious about eating, and maybe talking while you do it, hope for a postage stamp table in the quieter back of the restaurant, past the seemingly desirable tables in the front windows, past the packed bar and communal table, and past the open kitchen with a sexy wood fired grill and rotisserie.
While the hard surfaced, retro-moderne Roman decor somehow reminds me of Fellini interiors from the ’60s, Locanda’s Roman cooking strikes me as both very ancient and very new.
Location: 557 Valencia St. (between 16th and 17th streets), San Francisco
Contact: (415) 863-6800, www.locandasf.com
Hours: 5:30 p.m. to midnight daily
Price range: Antipasti $6 to $12; pasta $14 to $18; grills and specials $19 to 26
Recommended dishes: Oxtails, guinea hen leg, linguini with fresh anchovies, casarecce with pigs trotters, poached egg with bottarga, misticanza salad, guinea hen leg, granita
Credit cards: All major
Reservations: Acepted up to three months in advance
Patricia Unterman is the author of many editions of the “San Francisco Food Lovers’ Guide.” Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.