242 Columbus Ave, SF, CA | 415.986.9651 | website
Hours: Tues-Sun 5 pm – 2 am
Last week I met friends Ben and Tara for dinner at Tosca Cafe, the legendary bar which was recently renovated by Ken Friedman and April Bloomfield of New York’s Spotted Pig and the John Dory Oyster Bar among others. I watched the PBS show Mind of a Chef as they prepared to open the restaurant, drooled over her cookbook a Girl with her Pig and was really looking forward to dinner. I’ve walked by this iconic sign countless times, it is smack in the middle of all the cool cats in North Beach, across from Vesuvio’s, City Lights bookstore and diagonally across from the Condor Club. The old school vintage interior is burnished and glowing, apparently they spent a fortune to make it look like they didn’t do anything, so it retains the feeling of its colorful past.
The restaurant doesn’t take reservations and doesn’t seat you until your entire party is present, so Tara and I sat at the bar and watched the bartenders crafting Isaac Shumway-curated cocktails while we waited for Ben.
It really feels like you are transported back to a bygone era until you get a look into the brilliantly lit kitchen which helps illuminate the dark dining room.
We got the best seat in the house, directly in front of the pass-through window where we watched chef Bloomfield and staff in the kitchen. There were a multitude of bottles lined along the marble counter that were drizzled over the plates before being whisked off to the tables.
We negotiated our way through the menu that reflects Bloomfield’s head-to-tail approach to cooking. I was so glad that Tara was open to fried foods so I didn’t have to eat it all myself… We shared the magnificent Crispy Pig Tails ($8), which were not the curlycues I imagined, but thick chunky pieces that fell apart when you bit through the crackly crust filled with wondrous layers of tender flesh and pork custard amongst ethereal puffs of crunchy bits that we gnawed off the bones.
We had a bright salad made with dungeness crab that was both elegant and rustic, full of fine flavors and textures.
I couldn’t resist ordering the much talked about Meatballs ($15) from the daily special’s menu, made from a combination of beef, pork, and guanciale. They were rich and decadent, swimming in spicy tomato sauce – pricey at $5 a ball, but so tasty…
Ben was feeling under the weather and wanted to order the Bucatini ($18), made with tomato and guanciale, which at first I was averse to thinking that tomato sauce can be so boring. I’m glad we ordered it because it was a totally indulgent and incredibly delicious! Bucatini are hollow tubes of pasta and these were cooked to a just tender spider webby aldente and coated with a rich slick of the tomato sauce that was made flavorful from the thin slices of salty guanciale.
I had read that the Roasted Chicken for 2 with ricotta, pine nuts and marsala ($42) was worth ordering. We watched Chef Bloomfield finish our dish.
The succulent chicken was served on thick slices of toast dipped in the juices and spread with a rich ricotta and pine nut mixture, swimming in a gorgeous rich sauce and topped with vibrantly dressed greens. On the other end of the plate were the feet that I didn’t see, but are visible in Tara’s photo here
And then we inhaled the Crispy Potatoes ($7), roasted with garlic and rosemary then cooked in pork fat until they develop an incredible crisped exterior overlaying a tender creamy interior. I loved these dragged through the puddle of rich marsala sauce from the chicken.
We enjoyed the super rich Broccoli Gratin made with Fingerling Potatoes, Taleggio, Parsley Breadcrumbs ($13). Underneath the broccoli were thick slices of potato infused with a decadent and savory cream sauce.
For dessert, we split the Buttermilk Gelati, which was tart and slightly sweet and coated my tongue with the frothy flavor of buttermilk.
I took this photo through the front window of the space age espresso machine at the bar, which produces their famous House Cappuccino 1919, made since the Prohibition-era that has been updated and is now made from Marie Duffau Bas Armagnac, Buffalo Trace Bourbon, Dandelion Chocolate Ganache, and organic milk. Sounds like a delicious nightcap. It looks magical in there!