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Tosca, reviewed

TOSCA CAFE

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Bloomfield and Friedman have shifted lately into empire-building mode. They’re actively looking for another space in New York (with some recent hitches) beyond the four Manhattan restaurants they already run, and there were brief rumors about the duo opening their first venture in Los Angeles. Their western expansion already began early last year when the two took over Tosca Cafe, an almost 95-year-old bar in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood. The smoke-stained joint hadn’t served food since the 1950s, and its signature drink, popular during Prohibition, was the coffee-less “house cappuccino”—Ghirardelli chocolate and steamed milk with a shot of brandy. Bloomfield and Friedman shelled out $1.5 million to build out a kitchen, restore the old-timey murals, and replace red vinyl booths and stools with crimson leather.

Tosca’s clientele had dwindled before Bloomfield and Friedman came in, but Tosca relaunched in October and the two-hour-plus wait last Saturday night—a week after my meal at the Spotted Pig—felt mighty familiar. (Jostled schedules compelled me there that evening; I’ve otherwise learned my lesson.) Four of us wedged into the slinky, 45-seat bar before dinner. The new team reinvented the “house cappuccino,” now a concoction with Armagnac (a hot ingredient in cocktails this year, I’m noticing), bourbon, ganache made from local small-batch producers Dandelion Chocolate, and organic milk. Fun, though I preferred the herbal-earthy Choke Hold with tequila, Cynar, Carpano Antica Formula vermouth, and Maraschino.

toscacafe_caesar.jpgCaesar salad

Bloomfield’s menu, in keeping with the North Beach’s Italian heritage, looks to the Boot for inspiration. The cuisine isn’t a leap for her. She learned her craft at London’s River Cafe and spent time in the kitchen of Berkeley’s Chez Panisse; both of those restaurants draw heavily from the Italian repertoire. But the first plate to hit our table, cubes of gelatinous oxtail terrine topped with a handful of parsley salad, was pure Bloomfield food: unctuous, saline, acidic, balanced, potent. Sliced red chilies and a flurry of pecorino took the tired Caesar in feisty new directions. The kitchen also gave grilled polenta a fresh look, searing firm chunks until the edges were dark and smoky and tossing them among meaty mushrooms, blobs of mascarpone, and grated Parmesan.

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toscacafe_lambribs.jpgBucatini; Lamb ribs

The three pastas on offer showed unusual restraint. A bowl of linguine with asparagus and green garlic was all springtime and simplicity. Bucatini didn’t go overboard with the guanciale and chiles tangled into its tomato sauce. A variation on cacio e pepe with twisty gemelli pasta arrived a bit gummy, though the straightforward flavors of pecorino and black pepper kept our forks returning to the plate. We didn’t order the much-discussed roast chicken for two, nestled on toast smeared with ricotta (it takes an hour to prepare); we finished the meal instead by gnawing down herb-speckled lamb ribs and then sharing a square of tiramisu lightened by a finishing douse of grated orange zest.

San Franciscans famously reject outside restaurateurs. Bloomfield and Friedman are rare exceptions.

 

Like the Spotted Pig, Tosca Cafe is a neighborhood restaurant elevated to a sensation by gutsy cooking and the staff’s canny professionalism. San Franciscans often famously reject outside restaurateurs. Bloomfield and Friedman are rare exceptions, and they’re running with it: For their next California project, the pair will transform a recently closed strip club called the Lusty Lady (which happens to share a back wall with Tosca Cafe) into a bar. San Francisco has a long history of entwining sexual and gustatory pleasures—the city’s nineteenth century brothels sometimes spread out lunch or dinner buffets to tempt clients—so the transition from peep show parlor to see-and-be-seen cocktail haven doesn’t really seem that farfetched.

 

Dancers from the Lusty Lady in San Francisco, ...

Dancers from the Lusty Lady in San Francisco, the only unionized strip club in the United States, participating at the 2008 Pride Parade on Market Street in San Francisco.

The Lusty Lady peep show in San Francisco.

The Lusty Lady 

 

Tosca Cafe
242 Columbus Avenue, San Francisco
415-986-9651
website
Open Tuesday-Sunday, 5 p.m.-2 a.m.
How do get in?: The restaurant doesn’t take reservations. Go during the week for shorter waits. On a recent Saturday, four of us checked in with the hostess at 6:45 and we weren’t seated until 9:15.
What to order: oxtail terrine, Caesar salad, grilled polenta, bucatini tossed in tomato sauce with guanciale and chiles, roast chicken for two, tiramisu.
What to drink: Zingy concoctions like the Zamboanga Cocktail (Armagnac, pineapple, Maraschino, lime and bitters), wine from the Italian heavy list, an impressive list of amari/digestivi, especially popular in San Francisco.
Bonus tip: Tosca just began “Red Sauce Sundays,” an Italian-American feast of pasta with meatballs, Caesar salad, garlic knots, and tiramisu for $55 per person. The best part? The restaurant takes reservations for it: Emailevents@toscacafesf.com.


Email Bill at bill@eater.com and follow him at @BillAddison.

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