One of Little Italy's newer, more ambitious restaurants

It's Hit and Miss at Battuto 

One of Little Italy's newer, more ambitious restaurants

Battuto can be pleasant dining, depending on your angle. - WALTER  NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • Battuto can be pleasant dining, depending on your angle.
It was a dark and stormy Friday night at Battuto, one of Little Italy's newer, more ambitious restaurants. Outside, the weather wasn't very good, either. Perhaps it was the evening's thunderstorms that had driven an unexpected number of guests into the little shoebox of a dining room, or maybe the restaurant was simply shorthanded. For whatever reason, things were not going well on either side of the front door.

Chef-owners Mark and Giovanna Daverio, whose impressive culinary credentials include stints in some of San Francisco's finest restaurants, have managed to wedge about two dozen tables into a space scarcely larger than some newer master bedrooms -- meaning that eavesdropping on one's neighbors is almost unavoidable -- and it seemed, this night, that every party had a problem. "Is this what I ordered?" the people to our left demanded. "Is this wine supposed to taste like that?" asked the folks to our right. And then there was our own little crowd, abandoned for what seemed like hours, left to contemplate the remains of our long-finished meals, and reduced to begging harried staffers for a glass of water that seemed as if it would never come. ("'Bat-tu-to . . . '" mused a companion at this point. "Is that Italian for 'endless wait'?")

The night's troubles seemed to extend to the kitchen. While our appetizers, with one exception, were good -- and the desserts were delectable -- three of our four entrées revolved around overdone meats or seafood, although it must be said that they were nearly rescued by precisely prepared and delightfully seasoned fresh vegetable accompaniments.

Take the Bistecca Anchoiade, for instance, a handsome 12-ounce strip steak topped with a luscious, tongue-tingling paste of anchovy, lemon juice, and garlic. Beneath its tasty topping, however, the meat -- ordered medium rare -- had been brutally fired to a chewy, sawdusty fare-thee-well. Still, we were loath to call the meal a disaster: A pile of perfectly roasted red-skinned potatoes and a mound of aromatic grilled radicchio, as moist and juicy as the steak was dry, stood in pleasant contrast to the overwrought beef.

Similarly, a spare arrangement of six fragrant, pan-seared scallops, on an artfully fanned bed of paper-thin zucchini slices, looked lovely and had a mouthwatering fragrance. But while the vegetable was sweet and crisp, and had been painted with a playfully light, citrus-butter sauce, the scallops were cooked just past perfection and ended up playing second fiddle to the humble squash.

The kitchen did better with a fat grilled pork chop, loaded with flavor, which more than held its own against delicious portions of brisk and buttery broccoli rabe and creamy au gratin potatoes. We weren't so lucky with a dish of three long-boned lamb chops. Again, although they had been ordered medium-rare, two of the three chops were significantly overdone. The meat was settled on a fine, edible cushion of thickly sliced, marinated-and-grilled eggplant (very good) and was accompanied by a serving of unremarkable herbed couscous (too bad).

The small à la carte menu changes daily and is divided into a handful of antipasti (salads and cold meats), another handful of primi (modestly sized, first-course pasta dishes), and a half-dozen second-course meats and seafood. Because some of the second courses, like the spartan scallop and zucchini dish, are unlikely to satisfy heartier appetites, it's not a bad idea to consider one of the four daily side dishes, like rainbow chard, roasted redskins, and delightfully crisp and chewy pan-fried polenta cakes. Meals come with a bouquet of long-stemmed, housemade grissini (addictive, pretzel-like bread sticks), which helped sustain us through the long wait before the arrival of our appetizers.

Our favorite antipasto selection was an indulgent platter of cold meats -- thinly sliced mortadella, robustly seasoned, fennel-infused salami, and spicy coppa (cured pork shoulder) -- along with marinated olives, dark, balsamic-pickled onions, and wedges of tender grilled flatbread. A salad of crisp romaine lettuce, dressed in a sparkling, lemon-anchovy vinaigrette and drifted with garlic-infused croutons, was also a treat. A little less successful was the smoked trout and crab salad plate -- a spoonful of each, mounded onto two grilled crostini -- served on a bed of roasted, red and yellow beet slices, and topped with a flounce of suitably astringent frisée. Although each individual component was fresh and flavorful, the ingredients never pulled together into anything more than their parts. And we were thoroughly disappointed in a portion of gluey, homemade Cresti di Galli (large, cockscomb-shaped pasta) dominated by stringy, too-bitter, braised dandelion greens and slices of a flavorful but bone-shard-studded Italian sausage.

As might be expected, Battuto's large wine list is filled with mostly Italian selections, including an enticing assortment of Chianti, as well as a handful of Californian, German, and Portuguese wines. Most items are by the bottle, at prices ranging from $18 to $95; a smaller collection of wines by the glass is priced around $4 to $7. With our meal, we enjoyed a bottle of fruity, 1998 Vi-berti Dolcetto d'Alba from the Piedmont region, fairly priced at $28.

Throughout the meal, service was painfully slow and while she was entirely pleasant when she was at our table, we saw our busy waitress much too infrequently; the same can be said of her assistants, who had to be flagged down to fill our water glasses and clear away the soiled plates. Less devoted diners would surely have bolted before subjecting themselves to a further wait for dessert, but we persevered and were richly rewarded for our endurance with various petite but flavor-packed sweets. The exceptional goodies included a goblet of buttery, housemade, espresso gelato that was so good we fought one another for a bite, and a small but mighty chocolate-and-mascarpone tart topped with a dense fog of real whipped cream. Even better were the rustic strawberry tart -- sweet lemon-balm-scented berries sliced onto a warm, free-form crust and sided by a scoop of lemon gelato -- and my enduring favorite, a quivering panna cotta (a snowy white, silken custard) topped with a tiny avalanche of perfect, halved dark cherries. Oversized mugs of steaming, frothy-headed cappuccino made the perfect companions.

Despite the crowded conditions, the tiny restaurant is nicely decorated, with sunny, sponged walls, colorful paintings, and unusual sconces made of glistening copper mesh. We had expected the sconces would throw lacy patterns onto the walls come twilight; unfortunately, the overhead lighting remained so bright throughout the evening that we were never able to confirm our hunch. Tables are set with white linens, a fresh flower, and a little frosted-glass bowl of coarse salt, which we used mostly to perk up the out-of-balance pasta and the lamb chops.

Oh, yes; the real meaning of "battuto" is a mixture of chopped onion, garlic, green pepper, celery, and herbs, sautéed in olive oil and used to season soups, stews, sauces, and meats. Also known as "soffrito," the blend is a fundamental of Italian cooking. Once the Daverios get their kitchen and service fundamentals down pat, their pretty little restaurant can really get cooking, too.

More by Elaine T. Cicora

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