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L’Osteria del Forno, North Beach, San Francisco

March 27, 2007

There are so many Italian restaurants in North Beach that it seems somewhat silly to point out just one, but daunting to attempt any kind of complete tour. Many of them, including most of those on Columbus between Broadway and Green, are geared towards tourists while others seem content to put out merely barely acceptable cuisine using canned sauces and frozen pastas. I’ve spent quite a bit of time working in North Beach and I would say that your chance of getting your value in hospitality that’s worth the cost of admission is pretty slim in lots of these places. That’s not to throw the green beans out with the blanching water mind you, because there are always exceptional exceptions to the rules.
osteria entry
osteria inside
L’Osteria del Forno is a bit more than just a diamond in the rough. Perhaps it’s the best Italian fare you’ll get anywhere in North Beach. It’s also tiny and sandwiched between a handful of other eateries whose names need not be spoken here, or at least not today anyways. Now I’d be a monkey’s uncle if there were more than 12 or 15 seats in the place, so expect service to be a bit brisk when they have a wait. They depend on turnover to pay the bills, so behave yourselves and respect the needs of the staff. There’s plenty of places around the ‘hood that are excellent for lounging over your macchiatos, and they’d appreciated your business too. All of that being said of course, and now on to the review!

I was dining at L’Osteria with a couple of famous designer friends of mine who paid me to refer to them as such, and this particular lunch was on them. Next one, presumably, will be on me, and if they’re reading…PM and EKR, I owe you one!. The Osteria has a basic trattoria menu with a handful of nice touches. There are always special soups and roasts of the day and a handful of other rotating specials to boot, including pastas, raviolis and the like, and they also have pannino and traditional entrees. Cheap table wines are available and change often as well. They were pouring a nice and easy but eminently forgettable Barbarello when I was there, and even though it was lunch during a workday, I couldn’t help myself! One glass never hurt anyone’s work performance did it? At least not mine anyways. I like to think that a bit of vino in the afternoon is the key to unlocking a life of leisure, and who can argue with that?

One of the things I really appreciate about their menu is that they are one of the very few genuine Itailan places in the neighborhood where you can get a slice of pizza. In my estimation that’s pretty cool.

I chose two apps for my *light* lunch including a tuna salad with white beans and also a brasaola with porcini mushrooms and truffles. Anyone who knows me knows that I have a longstanding love affair with white beans. Ever since Vic, one of many college roomates, and his Italian mom would provide our whole house with unbelievable white bean and escarole soup, or pasta faggiole with red pepper, or aglio olio when we were all broke, I have had a soft spot for the ‘ol legume. What can I say? Honestly after ten years spent toiling away in top kitchens I still can not recreate that soup. Why oh why?!?

Sorry – back to the lunch. The tuna was potentially from a can which doesn’t bother me too much because there are LOTS of italian imports of cured tuna in a can that are splendid. This was one of them. Not exactly tonno al olio di oliva, but not chicken of the sea either. It’s alright when used appropriately, and I gotta say, this was alright, if a little lacking in salt. The dish was about as simple as my reviews are boring – flaked tuna with lots of white beans, a few chopped pieces of celery and a couple of slices of red onion. That and the generous helping of extra virgin olive oil made for a tasty salad. They also serve some of the nicest focaccia in all of North Beach, toasted and warm, as it should be.
osteria tuna app
My dining compatriots had chosen wisely as well. PM had the roasted beets which were surprisingly served warm. I almost never see anyone serving a roasted beet salad warm. It’s like, counter-intuitive to serve it that way for some reason, but there it was…warm and steamy. Obviously fresh from the ‘nuker, it was brightly colored and fairly pleasing, if a little lacking in salt. The vegetarian in our lunchtime conviviality was pretty happy with her white bean soup, though it too was just a little lacking in salt. I’m noticing a trend here.
osteria beets

On to the next course! They both got really boring on me (oh the horror) and ordered pizza. I know, I was just extolling the virtues of pizza by the slice, but not when one of your dining partners is writing a review for god’s sake. For real, people. WTF? In actuality though, the sausage pie is pretty good. They use what I can only surmise was finnochiona considering how fennel’y it tasted, which is totally kosher in my book. I love me some finnochiona.
osteria pizza al finnochiona
My second course, however, was the obvious show stopper. Who else would have ordered it but me? Right? Of course.

The air cured brasaola with porcini mushrooms and truffle oil was definitely the winner of the day. The porcinis were dried and reconstituted which is fine; they’re not in season here right now anyway, and the truffle oil was generous. Here’s my caveat to the dish though…the porcinis were a tiny bit sandy, and the truffle oil was, gosh, a little too generous. I’ve always had a sensitivity to truffle oil. So easy to overdo, and so painful the consequences when you do. But for some reason, it worked well with the saltiness of the meat and the earthy, sandiness of the funghi. I actually described the dish to my friends as tasting “like really good dirt.” Strange I know, but that’s a compliment in this sense.
osteria best dish of the day
We skipped dessert and headed across the street to Caffe Roma for some of North Beach’s most expensive drip coffee. It’s quite good and the beans are roasted daily on site, but a little pricey too. Tell Tony I said Buon giorno if you go.

The truth about L’Osteria del Forno is that it’s a really good little trattoria that I definitely recommend for the neighborhood. Expect a wait during dinner time, and although you will not find gastronomical nirvana here, the tab is quite reasonable and all else being equal, it’s one of the best in North Beach.

Buon Appetito!

L’Osteria del Forno
Closed on Tuesdays
519 Columbus Street
San Francisco, CA

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