Bucatini with smoked pancetta, mussels, tomato, coriander
Day One: April Bloomfield's Tosca Cafe
By Carolyn Alburger
October 14, 2013
The reopening of Tosca in North Beach means two things. San Francisco has one of its most beloved iconic barrooms back. And April Bloomfield of New York’s Spotted Pig is officially bi-coastal. Not only is she the executive chef and co-owner (with Ken Friedman) in the kitchen at Tosca, but she’s gotten an apartment on Bay Area soil. We braved the crowds over the weekend to see if the early hype for the new old Tosca is warranted, and took the homey Italian menu for a test drive.
The Vibe: While the back room at the old Tosca was like a black hole, the new Tosca feels like a Kodachrome version of the original. Its signature red booths are now prime seating in the dining room, reimagined with new blood-red leather. The murals and terra-cotta-tinged walls are now softly underlit with museum-style lighting, and former owner Jeannette Etheredge’s office has been completely gutted and transformed into a state-of-the-art kitchen, befitting one of the country’s most celebrated chefs. Although Tosca groupies feared the restaurant would lose its lived-in, bar-of-the-people feel, it seems that the new version has reinvigorated the bustle that characterized its glory days.
The Crowd: Longtime North Beach denizens in wide-brimmed fedoras elbow up to young thirtysomething locals. All weekend long, the long 40-seat bar was packed with an eclectic mixture of locals knocking back red wine and stiff cocktails as they endured the consistent hour-and-a-half-long waits. Smaller parties of two had better luck settling in for the long haul at the bar, where the full menu is available. Unlike every other restaurant in North Beach, Tosca isn’t drawing a gaggle of tourists. Presumably there’s still time for that.
The Food: The menu reads humbly and doesn’t seem to reinvent the wheel at first glance. It’s divided into six sections: antipasti ($5 for marintated olives; $22 for cured meats), first ($7-$13), second ($16-$17), third ($29-$42), vegetables ($7-$9) and dessert ($7-$18). Its simple descriptions belie refined execution. Pastas are all made in-house and cooked to a toothsome al dente. Californian-Italian standbys come with a shock of nuance: as in roasted chicken for two with ricotta and bread stuffing, and liver spiedini with a bright salsa verde. Order bucatini with pancetta-steeped sauce and de-shelled mussels, or roasted cauliflower with the holy trinity of sweet, salty and hot, via tomatoes, capers and a hit of chile. Bloomfield follows her new Bay Area lead with local ingredients like pale-pink McFarland Springs California Trout, deftly prepared with frizzled broccoli di ciccio and an heirloom radicchio salad dotted with Point Reyes blue cheese. She seems to be in her element, even in the early going.
The Drinks: Bar manager Isaac Shumway wants to be known for his Negroni, a drink he first fell in love with at The Alembic and would later refine while working there with former bar manager Daniel Hyatt. Cocktails are mostly tweaked versions of classic originals. All are priced at $12. As with Comstock Saloon across the street, you can order the Dealer’s Choice and have the bartender make something on the fly according to your specifications. There’s also a satisfying list of California and Italian wines to choose from, including several from co-wine director Randall Graham’s Bonny Doon Vineyard.
The Noise Level: All the old wood surfaces absorb the clatter and chatter that come with a crowded restaurant, which makes for a nice, inviting hum inside. Even at the bar you can have a conversation without straining your vocal chords.