U.S. Restaurant co-owners Benjamin Ruiz (left) and Gaspare Guidice
present one of many Sicilian pasta dishes from their extensive menu
photo: Iris Rowlee
If you dine out regularly – and who in San Francisco does not – it may be fair to say that restaurants are 75 percent appreciation of what’s on your plate, 15 percent your dining partner, and 10 percent pure theater. Work out your own math on the percentages.
As to my 10 percent example, restaurants frequently provide theatrical experiences. Sometimes this theatricality is heavy on drama – Gary Danko on North Point comes to mind. And that’s fine. Gary Danko is a magnificent restaurant, sophisticated and contemporary.
At times dining out can provide comedic overtones with hints of slapstick. I’m thinking here of, say, a place like Caffé Sport on Green Street – fine, too, for a meal with friends and some laughs. Kitsch is good.
Sometimes it’s farce – sorry, but I’m thinking here of molecular gastronomy. Could it be that the emperor really has no clothes, and that the liquid essence of a great olive enveloped in a skin of itself and nursed along with liquid nitrogen is not really a great olive?
Let’s add commedia dell’arte
– Italian improvised theater – to this already stretched metaphor.
Consider our subject for this month’s “Hungry Palate” review, U.S. Restaurant on Columbus Avenue – always a drama, in this case commedia dell’arte,
and the curtain is about to go up.
The Joe business
I try to make it into U.S. Restaurant for lunch at least once a week where I usually sit at the counter. That’s where the action is. And that’s where I renew my commitment to lusty Italian food with a Sicilian bite – or to what I call “the spirit of the Joes” – the original, the new, the little, and the just plain. Yes, these Italian open-kitchen restaurants are all over the country. I once found one in Ft. Worth, Texas and, as you know, many of them are called “Joe’s.” Historically what happened was that somebody’s “Joe’s” begat somebody else’s “Joe’s” begat yet another “Joe’s,” etc. Herb Caen once said, “There’s no business like Joe business.” And by natural selection U.S. Restaurant has mutated for me into the essence of the Joe business.
The flavors of Sicily
Its business card, which depicts the Sicilian flag, or Trinacria, shows a winged head of the Greek goddess Medusa and three bent legs representing the three points of the triangular shape of this Italian island. It also states that U.S. Restaurant is a Ristorante Italiano serving Sapori di Sicily, the flavors of Sicily, and proclaims the owners as the Trinacria Brothers Inc. But Benjamin Ruiz and Gaspare Giudice are not brothers. True, Gaspare is a Sicilian from Trapani, a small fishing port on the Sicilian west coast where his family owned a pasticceria. Also true, the executive chef behind the success of U.S. Restaurant is not a “Joe.” He’s a Benjamin and he’s not even Sicilian. He’s Mexican. A Mexican genius with a Sicilian soul, and he speaks Italian. And finally to continue these contradictions, U.S. Restaurant does not serve traditional United States-style cuisine, but more about that misnomer later.
In the evening, the U.S. Restaurant converts into a white tablecloth, intimate and casual dinner house. The counter is not used and personally I think that’s a pity, but never mind. The lunch and dinner menu is a syllabus of Italian Sicilian dining, which absorbed the foods of many cultures over its more than 2,000-year history.
A good way to sample Sicilian cooking is to try the caponata Siciliana ($7), one of several antipasti on the menu. Onions, eggplant, capers, black olives, and anchovies, in a light tomato sauce. Smear it on chunks of sourdough as a starter. Or perhaps arancine ($8), deep-fried risotto balls coated with bread crumbs. Panelle ($6), Sicilian garbanzo bean fritters, are light and easy to take.
Please try the tripe
One runs into a lot of Italian friends at U.S. Restaurant. One day at lunch – at the counter, of course – my buddies Tom and Phil sat down next to me. It was a Wednesday and on the special I had selected the Trippa ($12), tripe stewed in a tomato sauce served with polenta. It was tender yet chewy and highly satisfying. I don’t know why tripe gets a bad rap. I no sooner finished it when on the counter in front of Tom and Phil was a large platter of pappardelle boscaiola ($15.95) and a plate of spinach sautéed in olive oil and laced with a bit of chopped garlic ($6). U.S. Restaurant makes its own pappardelle and it is silky and, with the boscaiola sauce (bacon, onions and mushrooms in a tomato cream sauce), earthy and fragrant. My friends invited me to taste. Obviously, I had to have another glass of red and then I dug in.
Flipping your order
But for me, no matter what I order at U.S. Restaurant, it’s the action sequence – the drama – that I love. Grand scenes are played out over the gas-burnered stove and the nearby deep pots of bubbling sauces. Front row, center, where white-jacketed Ben, or one of his line cooks, assembles the ingredients for your order in those shallow round pans, flipping them stylishly to turn over the contents. It’s a quick, forward, up-thrust movement that terrifies some home cooks.
I’d like you to consider the hamburger sandwich North Beach style – a neighborhood mainstay we all loved at the long gone Vanessi’s. Ben and company whack off an eight-inch hunk of crusty sourdough, split it down the middle, hollow out the bread on each side and then slap in the still-pink long burger and push the entire thing together until it resembles a locomotive without the wheels. Generations of San Franciscans have scraped the roofs of their mouths engineering their way into this classic offering that U.S. Restaurant has aced.
Ben also creates excellent soups. If you’re lucky you’ll be there on a day when he has made red clam chowder ($4 a bowl, $3 a cup). Get a bowl – an unctuous, but authoritative tomato-based soup with potatoes, onions, celery and, of course, clams. Beef and barley is another fine soup choice.
There’s a wine list obviously heavy on Sicilian reds.
‘Unione Sportiva Italiano’
Alberto Cippolina, an amateur North Beach neighborhood historian, spent much of his life as the proprietor and chef for U.S. Restaurant in one of its reincarnations. Recently, over a simple Sicilian-style petrale sole (lightly breaded, grilled and dressed with a bit of lemon), he related the history of U.S. Restaurant as he remembers it. It dates back to 1919 when two Croatian brothers opened it, and it never was a U.S. or United States restaurant in any sense of the term. The name U.S. Restaurant was a contraction for Unione Sportiva Italiana, an Italian sports club that was located at the corner of Columbus and Stockton where the present Bank of America stands. The club was headquarters for young Italian immigrants who wanted to box, fence or play soccer.
In the mid-fifties, relatives of Alberto’s wife, Ana, took over the place. It was at 431 Columbus with a second entrance at 1364 Stockton, right across the street from BofA and the original Unione Sportiva Italiano. Alberto and Ana became the owners in 1962. He remembers that they served such standards as veal sauté, rabbit, roast lamb, osso buco, and fried calamari. In 1997 they sold U.S. Restaurant and moved to the present location, 515 Columbus, fewer than 100 yards down the street from the old place. They operated it successfully until thoughts of retiring took over when they sold it to Ben and Gaspare in 2004, and that brings us full circle.
Isn’t it good to talk about classic restaurants that are still with us? No need to mourn in this case. But, here are a few North Beach Italian restaurants we should continue to mourn: Vanessi’s, New Joe’s, the Gold Spike, Green Valley, La Felce, La Pantera, Little Joe’s, Basta Pasta, New Pisa, and Enrico Banducci’s.
U.S. Restaurant: 515 Columbus Avenue (between Union and Green), lunch Monday–Sunday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; dinner Monday–Thursday 3 p.m. to 9 p.m., Friday–Saturday 3 p.m. to 10:30 p.m., Sunday 3 p.m. to 9 p.m.; 415-397-5200
While some prefer the drama and bustle of daytime dining, the white tablecloth evenings provide that wonderful North Beach Italian feeling.
Moderate chatter of diners and staff, plus recorded Italian opera and pop in the evening, does not interfere with the experience.
Bright and cheerful during the day and adequately lit by candles and an Italian chandelier at night.
NOT TO MISS DISHES
The hamburger sandwich on sourdough, caponata Siciliana, pappardelle boscaiola, trippa, osso buco with risotto.
WHAT THE DIAMONDS MEAN
Ratings range from zero to four diamonds and reflect food, atmosphere and service, taking price range and type of restaurant into consideration.
OUR REVIEW POLICY
We conduct multiple visits anonymously and pay our own tab.