Newly Notable: Colosseo Ristorante & Bar Italiano
By Ernest Beyl
In addition to sidewalk tables, Colosseo
also has a heated back patio
Many years ago Stanton Delaplane, Pulitzer Prize-winning humorist and my Telegraph Hill friend who died in 1988, told me Coit Tower was really a huge drum full of Italian red sauce that was pumped down to North Beach restaurants as needed. That may have had some validity when Delaplane was a youthful reporter and columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle. But he would have to eat his words these days.
The fact is North Beach not only still has simple but tasty red sauce trattorias with a lot of attitude, but also distinguished Italian restaurants with sophisticated and nuanced offerings from many parts of the homeland.
A case in point is the four-month-old Colosseo Ristorante & Bar Italiano. It opened in May and serves classic cucina romana. Certainly Roman in style and appearance – one wall features a huge mural of Rome’s Colosseum, and two larger-than-life plaster statues of Roman gladiators peer down and defy you not to enjoy the Colosseo experience. It’s OK to be a voluptuary they suggest.
Dining at Colosseo can be an extraordinary feast, just as is the city of Rome itself, with interesting specialties from several Italian regions. Proprietor Salvatore Nevigato, who was in banking for many years but comes from a strong Italian food and restaurant background, was born in a small village in Calabria. If you visualize a map of Italy, Calabria is down in the toe of the Italian boot. As a youngster, Salvatore was lucky enough to wolf down his grandmother’s home cooking. Something clicked because he has crafted a lofty menu that moves from antipasti and on to zuppe e insalate, risotto, pasta e vegetale, pasta frutti di mare, pasta di carne, frutti di mare, pollo, carne, and pizze. No need to worry if all this Italian erudition draws a blank with you, Salvatore (let’s just call him Sal) provides English for everything. His wine list too is impressive with some outstanding regional Italian vintages as well as a few nice grappas that will definitely clean your palate. And if diners insist on loyalty to the eighth largest economy in the world, there’s a classic selection of California wines as well. Sal even has an Italian vodka, and he will gladly pour you a taste.
At Colosseo several dishes from Sal’s Calabria are prominent but diners will also find offerings from other regions including Venice, Florence, Tuscany and Sicily – but always with Roman flair.
Sal has a highly talented chef at Colosseo, and that’s an interesting story by itself. He is Juan Angel Hernandez and he’s from El Salvador. Yes, El Salvador. And let’s risk offending here by noting that this Central American country is not usually ranked as one of the world’s gourmet capitals. But Juan, a skilled and sensitive man, is certainly Italian in spirit. In his 25 years behind the pots and pans he has studied under four Italian master chefs – Valentino Luchin from Venice, Giovanni Perticone from Rome, Vicenzo Cucco from Sicily, and Mario Luigi from Florence.
So let’s take a look at what Colosseo offers. To get in the mood it’s a good idea to start with the antipasti. For example, Fritto Misto, fried calamari with prawns and vegetables, is presented Sicilian style and is light but nevertheless assertive. Or Suppli alla Romana, succulent Italian rice balls stuffed with bits of beef, mushrooms and fresh mozzarella that is styled cucina romana. A third and very popular beginning for the meal to come is from Naples – Burrata con Prosciutto e Parma, creamy burrata, a silky Italian cheese of mozzarella and cream, and paper thin slices of prosciutto on a bed of arugula with a touch of balsamic vinegar.
Sal says the Insalate Barbabietole e Lenticchie, golden and red beets served with Italian green lentils, reminds him of the salads his Calabrian grandmother liked to serve.
Now it would be well to move ahead confidently with Orecchiette alla Cime di Rapa, little pasta shaped like a baby’s ears, with broccoli rabe and bits of spicy Italian sausage. It’s dressed with a good olive oil and sprinkled with a few breadcrumbs. As an alternative – or have them both, who’s to care – the Gnocchi alla Zafferano e Gamberi would be an inspired choice. Venetian in style, it’s composed of gnocchi, those feather-light potato dumplings, with prawns, asparagus, peas, and a suggestion of tomatoes with basil, and real saffron of course.
It may be difficult to turn away Pappardelle al Cinghiale, wide pappardelle pasta with roasted wild boar and a scent of rosemary. I say go for it. The dish is rich, unctuous and as dramatic as Pavarotti singing Puccini’s La Boheme.
At this point the sensible diner may wish to ease back, have one of those grappas and settle in for the last act – say a generous slice of made-in-the-house tiramisu.
We like the way Sal and chef Juan pay tribute to the classics of Italian cookery – with devotion and no pretense.
Dining at Colesseo is not inexpensive – “competitively-priced” is probably a better descriptor – but there’s no need to seek a government bailout to satisfy your appetite.
Colosseo Ristorante & Bar Italiano: 414 Columbus Avenue (between Vallejo and the intersection of Stockton and Green Streets), lunch daily 11 a.m.–4 p.m., dinner Monday–Friday 4 p.m.–11 p.m., dinner Saturday–Sunday 4 p.m.–midnight, 415-398-1300, www.colosseo.com.
Ernest Beyl says he’s a red sauce man with a Roman heart who loves both the simple and bold as well as the grand and sumptuous. He maintains that Italy’s Leaning Tower of Pisa is filled with marinara sauce. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org