It's the only new place that tastes right," Carol Field, a novelist and writer of authoritative books on Italian food, told me one late-August morning at the Saturday San Francisco farmers' market—foodie central in a food-crazed city. "Right" is foodie code for "really good," so I made sure to dine at Delfina twice on that trip. I saw why Field, a longtime friend, thought it could be mentioned in the same breath as our Bay Area trinity of Chez Panisse, Oliveto, and Zuni Café: Delfina has their simplicity, basic Italian vocabulary, and desire to show off what's local and freshest. It also has the low prices that those restaurants had before they became landmarks.
Delfina now occupies two storefronts (it expanded last February) on a neat block in the Mission District that retains some 1960s Haight funk even as it undergoes the transformation that has revived the adjoining area known as South of Market. It's next door to the Lady Baltimore Cake Co., an unreconstructed 1960s bakery whose high layer cakes might well have inspired the artist Wayne Thiebaud, and near the Bi-Rite Market, a combination general and grocery store whose second-generation owner has restored it to its streamlined 1940s splendor.
The decor of the restaurant is industrial modern on a budget, with wooden benches, brushed-steel tabletops, and light-yellow walls exhibiting changing displays of art. The hard surfaces and continual crowds make for loud dining, especially in the original half, which has a pleasant bar near the open kitchen; the second storefront, which doubled the seating capacity to seventy, has the audial if not visual blessing of industrial gray quilting along the top of one wall. The best place to sit is at the long counter in the new room, which offers views of the other diners and what they're eating and also, by means of a tilted mirror under the quilt, a good view of kitchen activities.
Other friends warned me of long waits and indifferent service—the price of Delfina's great popularity since it opened, three years ago. Before each of my dinners there I called in the afternoon and got a (late) reservation. I found the young, informal staff members, who sport the tattoos and body ornaments typical of the neighborhood, to be friendly, knowledgeable, and free of the arrogance that often typifies a hot-ticket place.
Delfina's menu is short and printed daily, sparing everyone the recitation of specials. It changed substantially over the three August nights I was in San Francisco, demonstrating the chef's close attention to what comes available each morning. But several dishes never go off the menu, and when I tasted them, I understood why. One is an appetizer of grilled fresh calamari with warm white-bean salad, a common enough dish but unusually good in this case—less for the fresh squid (I live in Boston, where it's easy to come by) than for the white beans, seasoned with local sage and garlic. I liked the homemade lamb sausage with pickled onions, too—especially for the tiny flageolet beans to the side, celadon-green Chiclets shapes with the delicate flavor of baby limas. Another standard is roast chicken (served with mashed Yukon gold potatoes and shiitake mushrooms), a contender, together with Zuni's version, for the city's best, and for similar reasons—good locally raised chicken, heavy use of herbs, and expert roasting. Then there's the price: $12.00.
The menu fixture I would happily eat every night is a salad of bitter greens, pancetta, walnuts, and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. The peppery greens are maroon-accented with shredded radicchio, the toasted walnuts are almost as meaty as the locally cured pancetta, and the balsamic vinaigrette is as creamy as an old-fashioned boiled dressing. I would also take a chance on any pasta dish, given the full, immediate flavor of the two I tried: soft fresh tagliarini tossed with summer squash and squash blossoms, and al dente spaghetti with plum tomatoes, garlic, and chili flakes.
The wines, most of them Californian or Italian, are reasonably priced, with a good selection by the glass. I considered it part of experiencing the local culture to try the Cold Heaven viognier, from the Edna Valley, which offers the full, fruity body people want in Chardonnay without the boring oak. A better match with most of the menu, though, is the spicy Schuetz Oles zinfandel, from the Napa Valley. The desserts are plain and very tempting: a buttermilk panna cotta, for example, and a lattice-topped plum tart with deep-purple juices bubbling over dark strips of pastry.
Many chefs try dishes like these, but they don't have the skill of Delfina's chef, Craig Stoll, who worked for a time in Italy but trained mostly in Bay Area restaurants. One of the tricks he took from Italy is sautéing pasta for a minute or two with its sauce and final ingredients before sending it out (those mirrors give a very good view of the stoves). He naturally absorbed the Bay Area ethos of buying from local farms—an ethos that emanated from Chez Panisse and that I wish pervaded the entire country, not just a few enlightened pockets.
Delfina's success has already been a local inspiration. Stoll and his partner and wife, Anne Stoll, opened their restaurant "on credit cards," a talented young chef named Tasha Prysi told me during my stay, with a starry, I-can-do-it-too light in her eyes. I hope she does follow their example, soon—and in a less blessed city.
Delfina, 3621 Eighteenth Street, San Francisco, 415-552-4055. Dinner 5:30-10:00 Sunday through Thursday and until 11:00 Friday and Saturday. Reservations and Visa and MasterCard accepted.