San Francisco’s Acquerello is a place you dine for a special occasion.
Or readily make up an occasion on the fly just to justify indulging in the sumptuous experience you’re afforded here.
That’s how memorable it is.
With the economy still stuck in neutral, this 22-year-old restaurant is a throwback to the days of gilded dining, when burgers and pizza didn’t rule our dining-out budget. Inside this former chapel, with its vaulted wood-beamed ceiling adorned with ornate wrought iron, you’ll be seated in a dining room bathed in a rosy glow from copper sconces. Upholstered stools provide a resting place by each table for ladies’ purses. A glass-enclosed cheese cart makes its way to tables just before another cart, laden with all manner of homemade chocolates, cookies and candies. Resistance is futile, of course.
Sit back, as you’re in good hands here, as I can verify from a recent experience when I was invited to dine as a guest of this landmark Italian restaurant.
Choose from tasting menu options that range in price from $70 to $135 and touch on classic dishes that have become signatures over the years, as well as more seasonal offerings.
Chef-Owner Suzette Gresham-Tognetti oversees the kitchen as always, but now also has the assistance of talented Chef de Cuisine Mark Pensa, who is all of 28 years old. We put ourselves in their hands, letting them create a menu that spanned the best of past and present.
First, a liquid amuse of orange juice and bitters to awaken the palate. Then, tiny arancini, so warm and crisp, alongside ricotta puffs with a creamy center.
A soup of bacalao and potatoes arrives in a bowl presented beautifully with a wreath of dill fronds cradling it.
Parmesan budino, a creamy custard, was paired wonderfully with sweet fresh peas of the season.
Raviolo of pear and foie gras torchon was made even more luxurious by truffles, which show up in quite a few dishes here.
Next, a refined surf ‘n’ earth: red abalone and cabbage in a warm, intense porcini broth that was poured at the table.
New Zealand farmed sushi-grade salmon known as Saiku was crusted with herb pesto, then got a dab of fresh horseradish to cut its unctuousness. I wanted to eat every morsel — even though it was my companion’s dish.
Pasta doesn’t get short shrift here, as you can imagine. It comes in many forms, too, including a dish of mussels, clams, prawns and bay scallops over tarragon “maccheroni alla chittara,” noodles rolled over guitar strings to provide a roughened texture for the seafood stock-infused sauce to cling to.
Then, there’s the playful and delicious “baked potato” gnocchi, perfect spheres of potato puree adorned with chive creme fraiche, pancetta and dehydrated potato skins. Close your eyes, take a bite and think you’re eating a ginormous, loaded steakhouse baked potato — only concentrated into one bite.
Tortellini, filled with veal and truffled mortadella, then finished in Bolognesi with shaved black truffles takes this Italian Sunday-supper standby to another stratosphere.
My favorite pasta dish, though, is not long for availability, not with the July 1 California foie gras ban set to take effect. A signature dish, ridged pasta is enveloped in foie gras sauce with more black truffles and the sweetness of Marsala. Every nook and cranny is lusciously coated so that biting into one little tube of pasta just about gives you shivers all over. With a glass of Sauternes, it’s unbelievable. It’s a dish that you never want to end.
That’s a hard act to follow, but Guinea hen breast, cooked sous vide to retain its plumpness, does the job. Sunchokes and purple buffalo barley round out the dish.
American Kobe filet is beyond tender and amped up with spring’s bold green garlic and ramps.
Chicken breast never had it so good as when it’s stuffed with truffles, then served with decadent potato gratin and leek custard. The chicken gets a shower of shaved creminis on top. At first you think they might be white truffles, but they’re an inspired substitute instead.
We take a breath just as the cheese cart rolls up. My companion chooses a few to try, along with house-made fruit relishes and candied nuts.
I get a plated cheese course instead: Pungent gorgonzola with little fried potatoes and caramelized onions.
Next, a dainty glass of apple and carrot juices with vanilla foam to echo the amuse and clear the palate for the sweet finale to come.
It starts with sorbet that is the pure essence of cucumber. It’s made even more bracing with mint granita and strawberry consomme. Just the tiniest sprinkle of sea salt adds a dazzling touch.
That’s followed by Amaretto-crusted ricotta cake with candied citrus. It’s like a slightly airier version of a cheesecake. Earthy saffron gelato strikes a balance so that nothing is too sweet.
Next, chocolate “Pane di Genoa” almond cake whose nuttiness is echoed in almond milk gelato.
We protest we’re spent, but the candy cart comes by and we can’t resist taking a taste of a mini strawberry gelee parfait topped with white chocolate pearls and crushed pistachios.
Four hours — and we’re finally getting up from the table to bid adieu.
But not without small boxes of house-made almond biscotti that are handed to us to take home, the last parting treat in an evening filled with wonders to gush about.
More Italian Restaurants in San Francisco: Quince
And: Flour + Water