After working our way through gridlock around the bar at the Tosca Cafe, my husband and I reached the gatekeeper at the dining room. It was 7:15 on a Wednesday evening, and the wait for a table, we were told, would be “45 minutes to an hour and a half.”
Obviously, the reputation of April Bloomfield, the acclaimed British chef behind the Spotted Pig, John Dory Oyster Bar and Breslin in New York, and her business partner, Ken Friedman, has crossed the continent. They have turned what was a venerable but exhausted 95-year-old North Beach icon — which hasn’t served food for more than 50 of those years — into San Francisco’s restaurant of the moment.
Why San Francisco? “We were offered the opportunity to take over the place and jumped at it,” Friedman told me later. Connections to the Bay Area helped, he added: He went to college in Berkeley and Bloomfield worked at Chez Panisse.
The high-ceilinged dining room is decorated with yellowed paintings of Roman landmarks, including the Castel Sant’Angelo, prominent in the Puccini opera for which the place is named. A bright, open kitchen, where Bloomfield and her team were hard at work, occupies most of one side of the room. Before we got there, though, our wait (an hour and 15 minutes for the record) near the bar was ameliorated by cocktails and a plate of deliciously crackling fried pig tails (typically Bloomfield).
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Her cooking here is Italian-American, modernized and distinguished by invention and, frequently, a lighter touch (no clunky “parms”). Fried artichokes showered with capers were not crisped Roman-style but were delicious all the same. Those, and a special of three meatballs in a spirited tomato sauce, set us up for a pasta course, a modest plate of bucatini with tomato, guanciale and chile (an accomplished take on Amatriciana), and gemelli deftly spiked with black pepper and Pecorino. We then shared a hulking short rib, aggressively blackened from the grill and fit for a paleo diet, adding Romanesco liberally dosed with more capers alongside.
Gelato (burnt orange and toasted almond) and a forgettable cannoli were all we could handle for dessert. The wine list prowls Italy, digging out some unusual bottles. Service was accommodating, never intrusive, and well-paced. The reputations of Bloomfield and Friedman stood the long-distance test.