At 6 p.m. on a recent freezing cold Tuesday in perhaps The City's foggiest neighborhood, one restaurant was already quoting a 45-minute wait and the buzz inside was palpable. An extraverted, well-dressed host with a thick Italian accent greeted patrons with shouts of "buono sera!" that sounded so genuine one might think he was reuniting with long lost relatives.
Behind the pizza counter, the straight from central casting, dark-maned, sexy pizzaiolo, from Naples of course, oversaw an equally sexy, red-tiled domed pizza oven. After years of being a culinary wasteland, West Portal finally has its destination restaurant and its name is Trattoria Da Vittorio.
Those looking for Cal-Italian cuisine or named-checked ingredients may be disappointed here. Trattoria Da Vittorio's strengths are in classic Italian-American dishes that, for reasons unbeknownst to me, have become harder and harder to find in our city.
A thick hunk of multilayered lasagna, bathed in a hearty meat sauce, was surprisingly light and, like all good lasagnas should, left a mess of cheese and brilliant red streaks on my daughter's face.
Also more delicate than its appearance was an equally huge brick of eggplant parmigiana in which the chef thankfully showed proper restraint with the cheese, allowing the flavor of the faintly fried eggplant to shine through.
Not into red sauce? Order the housemade scialatielli, a thin, hollowed out pasta (think bucatini) tossed with a dozen or so clams in the shell and in-season cherry tomatoes. Again, the ingredients were allowed to speak for themselves in this classic combination, as it wasn't oil slicked like many versions found in East Coast pasta houses.
The kitchen was a tad liberal with its pesto, which completely blanketed a plate of whole-wheat ravioli stuffed with artichokes. However, the sauce was so creamy and subtle that our table asked for more bread and sopped it all up as an impromptu side course.
On each of my visits I recognized other diners from previous meals and the servers seemed to recognize returning patrons as well, offering handshakes and gentle backslaps. Though the crowd is a mix of younger families and West Portal stalwarts, the vibe is that of a rollicking dinner party, so much so that I was told wall insulation is on the way to try to tamper down the noise a bit.
Turns out the good-looking pizza man and his oven weren't just for show. A well-blistered margherita piecrust was all crackle and pop under a gentle slather of sweet tomato sauce and a few melted moons of fresh mozzarella. Almost every table had one.
Heartier was a calzone filled with salami and ricotta that suffered only from uneven ingredient distribution so that the edges were pure crust. This resulted in a tense round of rock, paper, scissors to see who got the good stuff (the perils of bringing my kids on a review meal.)
Only an organic beet salad appeared completely out of place on the menu and felt thrown together to appease the type of diner who would never eat here in the first place. A substantial serving of fried calamari rings and tentacles made for a much better starter.
It's rare that a restaurant re-energizes a neighborhood but Trattoria Da Vittorio seems to have done just that. I suggest that you head into the fog.
Trattoria Da Vittorio
Location: 150 West Portal Ave., S.F.
Contact: (415)-742-0300, trattoriadavittorio.com
Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays: 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays; closed Mondays
Price range: $8 to $24
Recommended dishes: Lasagna ($16), whole-wheat artichoke ravioli with pesto ($17), eggplant parmigiana ($15), scialatielli with clams ($17), margherita pizza ($14)
Credit cards: All major
Reservations: Not accepted