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Il Cane Rosso — A Tiny Spot That Delivers Big

The staff at Il Cane Rosso inside San Francisco’s Ferry Building like to joke that they don’t have a real kitchen or dining room.

But what they’re able to create inside this tiny space that was once a takeout rotisserie is fairly miraculous. Cane Rosso’s open-face, warm egg salad sandwich with anchovy garlic butter is legendary. And its regular $25 three-course dinners have earned loyal fans.

Chef Lauren Kiino, who named the place after her three-legged rescue dog, Cody, opened the restaurant in 2009 in partnership with Chef Daniel Patterson of Coi in San Francisco. When that business relationship fizzled this year, Kiino took complete control of Cane Rosso.

She’s also been scouting locations in the Bay Area and Los Angeles to open another restaurant. Meantime, Cane Rosso has started doing a series of pop-up restaurants, in which the cooks borrow another establishment for a night to do a special prix fixe dinner. May 19 and May 20, they’ll be hosting one seating each night at 7 p.m. in honor of Mariquita Farm in Watsonville, which supplies a lot of Cane Rosso’s produce. Farm owner Andy Griffin will be on hand each night to talk about his farm as Kiino cooks up such dishes as crispy pork belly with Mariquita Farm roasted nettle and fregola salad. Crates of freshly picked strawberries will be available for purchase, too. The dinner, to be held at Coffee Bar in San Francisco, will feature four courses for $40, plus an additional $15 for wine pairings. To reserve a seat, email: info@canerossosf.com.

June 5 , Kiino will take over the Slow Club in San Francisco, for seatings at 6 p.m. and 8:15 p.m. The $55 three-course prix fixe (which includes cocktail pairings) will feature slow-cooked spring lamb with chicories and black olives. For reservations, email: info@canerossosf.com.

A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of being invited as a guest of Cane Rosso to its first wine dinner. The dinner spotlighted Romililly Wines of the Russian River Valley, which was started in 2006 by brothers, Aaron and Jesse Inman. The duo leases land from their uncle, Joe Briggs, who started August Briggs winery in Calistoga, which makes a fabulous Pinot Meunier, which I fell in love with a few years ago.

The name, Romililly, is an amalgamation of the three siblings’ middle names, Jesse (Ro)bert, Aaron (Mi)chael and sister Susan Lilly, who’s still too young to drink legally. The dinner was a chance to taste the creations of newbie winemakers, including an earthy, leathery, rich 2009 Romililly Piinot Noir made from 40-year-old vines.

The dinner is also quite the bargain, too, with four courses and four wines for $55 per person.

You have to possess a sense of adventure at these dinners. Because the restaurant is little more than a takeout kitchen, compact dining tables draped in plain brown paper held down by big metal office clips are set up in the walkway. The tables are close together, so it’s only likely that you’ll start conversing with your neighbors, too. You sit on garden-variety metal chairs and eat as briefcase-carrying businessmen scurry past you, having just disembarked from a ferry.

The friendly staff is eager to please. And winemaker Aaron Inman was on hand to pour his wines at each table and to answer questions.

Dinner started off with an intriguing combination: local sardines with rhubarb. Yes, everybody’s  adored spring pie and cobbler ingredient paired ingeniously with tender sardines in an assertive vinaigrette. The rhubarb added a nice contrast of sweet fruitiness, alongside peppery radishes, fennel and cooling mint.

Next, a flavorful, comforting soup abundant with the season’s finest — fava beans, English peas, snap peas, carrots and dill. Fregula, a tiny Sardinian pasta similar to Israeli couscous, made the soup more hearty. The brodo had been simmered with the rind of Parmigiano, lending it a real depth of savoriness. The soup paired beautifully with the 2009 August Briggs Chardonnay that showed a little toasty quality from new French oak.

The main course was braised Range Brothers pork cheek on a bed of lentils that arrived with an irresistible cap of crusty fat. Imagine the spoon-tender quality of short-ribs, but done with pig instead. Alongside was a crostini topped with sweet yet piquant plum mostardo and heavenly, melty, fatty lardo.

That was followed by a wedge of Valley Ford Cheese Company’s Estero Gold, a young, buttery, Italian farmstead cow’s milk cheese. It was served with strawberries roasted with lavender that tasted so intensely of berries that you wonder why store-bought jam can’t taste like this.

Just when you thought you were done, the server arrives with two final treats: Cane Rosso’s signature caramel corn studded with bits of crunchy bacon, and Pinot Noir chocolate truffles. Of course, you can’t help but polish them off, too.

Yes, all that for $55.

So bring your appetite for rustic food that’s sure to warm your soul.

More: Porky Finds at the Ferry Building

Other Nearby Restaurants: Lafitte on the Embarcadero

And: La Mar Cebicheria