Get Across Town: Incanto
By Bill Knutson
When someone suggested getting Italian food for dinner, the first thought that used to cross my mind was heading to North Beach for a family-style platter of pasta. Recently, though, it seems the great Italian restaurants in North Beach are being eclipsed by the tourist traps; it’s just not enjoyable walking past the barkers on Columbus Avenue while looking for the true taste of Italy. Luckily, North Beach is not the only place in town for Italian cuisine. We have the delicate pastas by chef Carlo Middione at Vivande on Fillmore Street, the flavors and traditions of Southern Italy from chef Nate Appleman at A16 on Chestnut Street, and I finally made my way to Incanto in Noe Valley to sample the much-lauded cuisine of executive chef Chris Cosentino.
Cosentino’s approach to Italian food is not to ship ingredients from Italy, but rather to apply traditional cooking methods to the bounty of fresh local ingredients we have here in the Bay Area.
Most of the current culinary buzzwords could be applied to Cosentino’s cooking: local, sustainable, seasonal, slow-cooking movement, organic, humane. In fact on paper he’s almost trendy, but his food is anything but. Every day he practices what he preaches in the kitchen.
These are not new ideas and trends; all have their roots in the Old World. If you lived in a small town in Italy, you wouldn’t be able to run down to your local Safeway for a processed, frozen dinner. You would have to source your meal from your livestock, your garden, the neighboring farms, and anything you had dried or preserved throughout the year.
At Incanto, this tradition of drying and preserving has become an integral part of the menu, and throughout the restaurant there is evidence of this process. Upon entering, you can’t miss the case of dried and cured salumi. There are rows of jars containing preserved fruits on the top shelves behind the bar. Even the restroom potpourri is made of citrus peels dried onsite.
During my first visit, I reveled in the flavor of a preserved summer peach served with a foie gras terrina. It was mid-January, but the taste transported me to a cool summer night in June. On another visit, pastramied goose with chervil, shallots and pickled cherries had a similar effect – the cherries, which tasted like they were just picked, were the perfect accent for the peppery, salty flavors of the thinly sliced, cured goose breast.
The antipasto platter of Boccalone artisan salumi is a representation of the many cured and cooked meats Cosentino produces at his plant in Oakland and sells from his Boccalone store in the Ferry Building. (Boccalone’s salumi is featured in my March “Kitchenless Cook” column.)
Much of Cosentino’s menu is based on his philosophy of not disrespecting an animal that gave its life by just using the high-end cuts. At Incanto, nothing goes to waste. Long before it was a trend in San Francisco restaurants, Cosentino gained a reputation for his whole-pig dinners and offal-laden dishes. I have become a fan of these “nasty bits,” as Anthony Bourdain refers to them, and am always thrilled to find them on a menu. My favorite offal dish at Incanto was the grilled sweetbreads with green walnut salsa – the walnut salsa made an earthy foil for the mineral-rich flavor of the sweetbreads. The cleverly (and aptly) named Chef’s Last Meal consisted of Boccalone sanguinaccio (blood sausage), a sizzled farm egg and oysters, and was a true delight for the taste buds. The flavors of the blood sausage, egg and fried oysters are all strong on their own, but here they married flawlessly with each component complementary, yet distinct.
The bloater paste bruschetta is reminiscent of one of my childhood snacks of canned sardines on saltine crackers, yet without the tinned flavor. Made from the innards of house-smoked fish, the paste is velvety with faint liver overtones. (Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it!)
Not all types of offal make me happy. I usually steer away from tripe, but when my Italian dining companion ordered the spicy trippa napolitano with tomato, red onion and mint, I was pleasantly surprised – the tripe was incredibly tender and the spicy tomato sauce had just the right amount of heat.
Pastas are also a must at Incanto. I was a huge fan of the spaghettini with Sardinian-cured tuna heart, egg yolk and parsley. The egg yolk is nestled in the center of the spaghettini with the parsley and shavings of the tuna heart sprinkled over the top. Breaking the yolk and stirring it into the pasta creates a sauce that binds the tuna and parsley to the pasta. The richness of the yolk melds into the saltiness of the tuna while the fresh parsley adds brightness.
Another favorite, corzetti, beautifully balances sweet and savory with dates, unctuous trotter (meat from the pig’s foot), and decadent foie gras. Coin-shaped corzetti pasta is an old tradition; pressed with the family name and crest, it was given as a wedding gift and then served at the festivities after. (Incanto’s corzetti is stamped with the restaurant’s logo.)
On two different visits, I ordered a dish with Umbrian lentils, which have a more substantial texture than common lentils, and created a perfect backdrop for two wonderful braised dishes: pork shoulder with wild greens, and fresh bacon with Savoy cabbage. In both cases, the fork-tender pork benefited from the consistency of the lentils (otherwise it would have completely melted in my mouth).
If you’re a vegetarian, Incanto probably isn’t for you, but if you eat fish, there are some tasty options. Cosentino honors his Rhode Island roots with sparklingly fresh seafood, including whole roasted sardines with garlic, chili, capers, and parsley. The pleasantly piquant garlic-chili sauce stood up nicely to the hardy sardine. The lone vegetarian entree, chantenay carrot sformato with heirloom carrot-coriander salad creatively presented the many facets of the humble carrot. The sweetness came out in the sformato (a less-airy souffle) while the aromatic roasted heirloom carrots and the crisp salad showcased the savory side.
For dessert, the bay leaf panna cotta with pomegranate was creamy but not overly rich. I was a little leery of the Red Bull cola float until the server explained that it is soda made from 100 percent natural plant extracts. The caffeine is derived from coffee and it has a distinct spiciness to it that paired well with the house-made vanilla ice cream.
The food at Incanto is truly seasonal, so the dishes change frequently – within five days, I found that about 50 percent of the menu had changed. When you visit for dinner, plan for a little longer evening than usual. The food is slow cooked and takes a little more time to prepare, but it is certainly worth the wait.
Wine director Edward Ruiz has created one of the most extensive selections of Italian wines in the City. With over 20 wines available by the glass every day, it’s easy to find pairings, and Ruiz is usually on hand and willing to assist. My favorite discovery was a red sparkling wine, Oltrepò Pavese Viti di Luna 2007 from the Cantine Francesco Montagna in Lombardy. Tannic and dry, the light effervescence matched well with many of the starters.
Ruiz also has a selection of flights including Nebbiolo Three Ways, Exploring Italy and a Mystery Flight. The flavors of the three Nebbiolo wines vary as distinctly as the regions in which they are produced, from the flinty Valtellina Superiore Inferno Riserva 2004 to a beefed up 2004 Barolo. The Exploring Italy flight takes you on a roundtrip through three distinct wine regions from Veneto to Tuscany to Umbria. The Mystery Flight is perhaps the most fun, allowing Ruiz to select three of his favorites paired to your order.
Incanto’s interior has the feel of a monastery, albeit a very modern one. I almost expected to see a baptismal font in the domed entryway. Sixteenth-century Latin parchments separate the dining room from the bar area, yet leaves it open and airy. My favorite touch, however, was the shelf of cookbooks in the men’s room that included a lovingly worn copy of the Betty Crocker cookbook, which, like the Incanto’s menu, symbolizes the importance of getting back to the basics.
Incanto: 1550 Church Street (at Duncan), 415-641-4500, www.incanto.biz. For more information about Boccalone, visit www.boccalone.com.
– B. Knutson