As the saying goes: The more things change, the more they stay the same.
In the case of San Francisco’s A16, that’s a very good thing. The restaurant, which specializes in the cuisine of Campania, has weathered quite a few chef changes over its eight years. But you’d never know it. The narrow restaurant is always packed. And the food is consistently stellar, especially the pizzas and pastas.
That was the case on my most recent visit there last month, when I was invited in as a guest of the restaurant.
Executive Chef Christopher Thompson took over the helm earlier this summer. He also journeyed to Naples this year, where he became a certified pizzaiolo in Neapolitan-style pizza.
Of course, we had to have one of those pies. We opted for the Margherita ($15) with tomato, mozzarella, Grana Padano, basil and a splash of olive oil. The blistered crust was crisp, even holding up well enough in the center to the milky mozzarella that had melted delightfully to become one with the sweet tomato sauce. You can tell the sign of a great crust in that it should have a developed flavor all on its own. This one does. It also had plentiful air bubbles to create a wonderful chewy texture in parts.
We added prosciutto di Parma ($4) to the pizza. It was laid over the top after the pizza was baked. Rightly so to keep the soft, drapey prosciutto from toughening from the heat. What I also appreciated was that the prosciutto was cut a hair thicker than normal, so that the slices held up under the residual heat from the pizza, remaining silky. You can tell a restaurant takes its pizza seriously when it takes that kind of extra step.
We also shared a starter of marinated local sardines with frisee, Pippin apples and pine nuts ($10). The sardines were tangy and nearly spreadable from the pickling process. I would have preferred a little more chew to it, but the flavors were bright and balanced.
Tender braised octopus ($14) with creamy fingerling potatoes, romano beans, roasted garlic and Italian Senise pepper made for a satisfying, rustic dish.
Before becoming executive chef, Thompson oversaw A16’s salumi program. Get a taste with the house-cured salumi plate with pickles and grissini ($16/$26). You’ll be swooning when a board laden with lardo, sopressata, bresaola, and pork terrine arrives. The lardo (cured pork fat) is served at room temperature, so the minute it hits the warmth of your mouth, it starts to melt. Heaven.
A restaurant known for its “Meatball Mondays” definitely knows its way with these orbs of ground meat. Chicken meatballs were super moist and flavored with a profusion of herbs while rabbit meatballs were fluffy in texture, had a great crust on them, and were served with addicting pickled grapes.
A side of piquant eggplant and gypsy peppers had just a kick of spice and made for a nice accompaniment to the rest of the dishes.
If nettle cavatelli ($12) is offered as a special as it was the night we were there, be sure to order it. Nettle leaves, which have a taste sort of like spinach crossed with cucumber, are actually incorporated into the pasta, creating little shells with a luminous pale green color. They are wonderfully chewy, too. Tossed with housemade chicken sausage, it’s a dish you won’t be able to stop eating.
Squid ink fettuccini ($11/$19) is a study in colors with the coal-hued noodles a backdrop for bright red cherry tomatoes, fennel, and golden fried breadcrumbs. The fruity acidity of the tomatoes and the crunch of the crumbs make this dish a favorite.
When my husband took his first bite of the maccaronara with chunky pork ragu ($10/$18) and house-made ricotta salata, he remarked on the pasta’s uncanny resemblance to chow mein noodles. Indeed, the long strands did have the very soft texture of those familiar Chinese noodles. That’s not necessarily a bad characteristic, but the dish did pale in comparison to the preceding pasta dishes.
For dessert, I couldn’t pass up the crostata ($9) filled with pears from the Philo Apple Farm, which I’d visited on assignment a few years ago. The pastry crust was buttery and flaky. A scoop of ginger gelato added the perfect autumn compliment.
For chocoholics, it doesn’t get better than the chocolate budino tart ($9). The fluffy chocolate pudding arrives on a crisp cookie crust with a nice touch of sea salt. A drizzle of olive oil ensures added richness and a slightly savory quality.
A16 is named for the highway that runs from Naples to Canosa, Puglia. If the restaurant is any indication, it’s one pleasurable journey.
A Visit to A16’s Sister Restaurant: SPQR in San Francisco
And: A16’s Meatballs