Exquisite Italian Small Plates at Barbacco at San Francisco
Who doesn’t feel fiercely proud when a younger sibling shines?
The chef is Sarah Burchard, who was a protege of Perbacco Executive Chef Staffan Terje for three years. In this day and age of macho men butchering their own animals with major bragging rights, Burchard was right in there with them. Formerly in charge of Perbacco’s salumi program, the petite chef regularly broke down whole pigs just like the guys. And no surprise — the salumi continues to be outstanding at Barbacco.
Opened in January, this sleek Cass Calder Smith-designed restaurant rocks a decidedly New York vibe. The narrow 66-seat restaurant has brushed stainless steel columns, exposed pipes, a brick wall, and seating at a long counter stacked with jars of olives. The bare wood tables are at just-below bar stool-height with chairs that have comfy rests for your feet. A couple of large flat screen TVs add buzz without being too distracting.
The lively restaurant is a perfect spot to stop in for a glass of wine and something to nosh on. At lunch, there are to-go items, with the menu displayed on the TV screen at the front counter. Or take your time at dinner, and wind your way leisurely through the extensive menu of mostly shared plates.
That’s just what we did on a recent evening when I was invited in to dine as a guest. Ever since I first tried fried olives many years ago in Spain, I haven’t been able to resist them. I mean, come on — something oily and rich made even more oily and more rich? What’s not to like?
At Barbacco, they come stuffed with pork. The $5 “ascolane” are large, meaty green olives with a serious crunch on the outside. You know they’re bad for you, but you can’t stop yourself. Not with these.
No way could we pass up the house-made salumi here. We went for the small chef’s selection ($11 or $18, depending upon the size of the platter). Among the standouts was the mortadella, which tastes like the most exquisite, grown-up, gourmet version of baloney you’ll ever eat; and the ‘nduja, a crock of spicy, spreadable smoked Calabrian salame. Dolloped with Calabrian chili peppers, it was creamy, fatty, and mind-blowing good.
Next, a selection of three bruschette (three for $8) that came topped with fluffy, whipped salt cod; smooth duck liver pate with an intense duck flavor; and truffled lardo, thin slivers of cured pork fat that melted on the tongue.
A chilled seafood salad followed, with tender mussels, scallops, and squid tossed in a sprightly, lemony vinaigrette.
I can never resist meatballs, so when I spied “polpette” ($12) on the menu, I had to order them. Unlike fluffier, lighter versions, these Sicilian meatballs were hearty and meaty with pine nuts, raisins and braised chard in a slightly spicy tomato sauce.
Perbacco’s pork sugo pasta sauce is one of my all-time favorites, which I make regularly at home. When I spied a different version of the pork ragu on Barbacco’s menu, I had to see how it compared. While Perbacco’s ragu uses ground pork, Barbacco’s is full of shredded pork instead. Thick, rich, spicy and with that unforgettable cooked-for-hours complexity, the Barbacco ragu tops toothsome paccheri (wide, tubular pasta). Think big pappardelle noodles rolled up into hair curler-size.
Desserts are fairly simple, with a selection of housemade gelato and sorbettos, as well as citrus curd tart and espresso panna cotta.
A scoop of the butterscotch-chocolate crunch ($2) was a fitting finale — sweet, dreamy and memorable.
Although I love working from home most days now, what I wouldn’t give for a job in the Financial District, if only to be able to drop into Barbacco regularly.