I can’t say that Acquerello is the best Italian restaurant in San Francisco, because I haven’t been to them all. I can say that it is the best Italian restaurant that I’ve been to though.
The combination of my wife’s birthday and the not-often-enough visit of an old, good friend occasioned someplace special, so it was the perfect opportunity to make a reservation. My previous visit, courtesy of the Iversons, had been truly memorable, and I knew my wife would love the place, so we ended up there on a Wednesday night.
First, Acquerello is quietly, serenely and gently beautiful. A former small chapel on Sacramento between Polk and Van Ness, the restaurant is a tranquil, peaceful Italianate haven, with pastel stucco walls, steeply arched painted beam ceilings, Murano glass fixtures and exquisitely tasteful watercolors (Acquerello is Italian for watercolor) adorning the walls.
Also quiet and serene (and I’m certain the ladies might consider him beautiful) is the elegant and urbane GianCarlo, host and co-owner and Italian wine expert extraordinaire. Gian Carlo and his staff are a marvel of silent, polite efficiency, very much in the European manner. They are never rushed or hurried, never flustered or taken aback, for to be so would be less than professional, and would give less than perfect hospitality.
The wine list, when delivered, is a delight to wander through, obviously constructed by someone who not only knows what he is doing, but has invested his passion and vision as well. The California section is tasteful and balanced. But the Italian wines---magnificent in its variety and scope, a remarkable vinous representation of the wonderful symphony of cultures and flavors that makes Italy irresistible.
So what do I choose to start? A Slovenian wine. Well, one could argue that it is Italo-Slovenian, I suppose, since it is from Brda, which is the part of Slovenia that borders on, and is in many ways comparable to the Friuli Venezia-Giulia of Italy, since both Friuli and Slovenia were part of the sprawling and disparate Austro-Hungarian Empire until as late as the end of World War I. But my friend had never had a Slovenian wine before, so I ordered the Movia Sauvignon Blanc Brda 2002 to accompany Acquerello’s signature appetizer, a delicate mousse-like Parmesan Budino topped with greens. The saliva-generating squirt of mingled grapefruit, lemon and lime in the Sauvignon is the perfect acidic and fruit counterpoint to the delicately intense parmesan, yet ties together with the greens garnish and balances out perfectly. It’s the kind of wine and food pairing that makes you smile, and hum a bit with happiness, and tuck in for the next bite and sip. The finish of the Sauvignon is clean and sharp and as bright as the sun and seems to stay forever, but not long enough.
The restaurant, never hurried, never rising above a murmur, is busy, but it seems nonetheless to be our refuge for the evening, and we are allowed, even encouraged, to linger over our wine (the food, being long gone, we cannot linger over) and renew our ourselves with each other. But it is time to choose another wine and move on to the secondi piatti. Once again, I marvel at the selection, but am inexorably drawn back to a singular wine, the ‘Na Vota Cascina Sant’Agata Ruché 1999 from Scurzolengo d’Asti in the Piedmont. From an almost extinct and now revived indigenous variety, Ruché, this is a fascinating wine. Intensely red-purple-black in the wide-bottomed decanter (GianCarlo decants all the red wines, and he is a pleasure to watch in the process for his economy of motion married with his natural elegance), the wine is medium-bodied, and sharp with fresh, bright, tart red cherries, then phases into a slight charry-tarry note (quite intriguing too), and ends with the most curiously delightful oomph of a Campari-like bitterness that’s hard to describe. It’s sort of like…oh, if you managed to cross Corvina and Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo and pull elements of each, and then accentuated the bitterness in the back of the palate that signals the Corvina. Whatever it is, we all love it (GianCarlo says it just about perfect right now because it’s a 1999 and it is aged just about right for maximum development)!
And with the food, the Ruche is nothing short of revelatory, because it pulls off the amazing feat of first matching up to a gnocchi in a heavy meat sauce, then adapting without a hitch to a quintessentially fresh out of the ocean and delicately cooked halibut fillet! The second course was a parsnip gnocchi nestled into a sinfully rich Bolognese style ragu of Kobe beef, and it was great…although honors went to my wife’s selection of an artichoke pasta, where apparently the leaves were used in the pasta but the hearts were concealed within the teardrop shapes of the pasta. Artfully conceived and artfully prepared, it was a moment of perfection on the plate and in the mouth.
Having done well with the rich ragu and gnocchi, the Ruche shifted over to a lightly sautéed and totally tender halibut resting gently on a double-layered bed of red tomato sauce and a green sauce of capers and olives and topped with butterflied caperberries for effect. Here is another genius of Italian cucina, for I firmly believe that no one else is so perfectly capable of marrying white-fleshed fish and seafood with red wine. An amazing combination.
Throughout the meal Chef Suzette Gresham’s sensibility of food clearly emerges: absolutely pure, absolutely fresh, cleanly prepared, elegantly presented, allowing the essence of natural flavor to emerge, each distinct and intense and unmasked, all contributing to the harmonious whole.
We were done, but nonetheless managed to talk ourselves into sharing a dessert, for I told friend and wife about the house-made gelato with balsamico Modena slowly and patiently dribbled over the mounded gelato and allowed to ooze down the sides!!! Purity, freshness, simplicity, intensity of flavor: Acquerello.