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1550 Church Street
San Francisco, CA 94131
(415 ) 461-4500
Cuisine: Inventive Italian inspired cooking
Minuses: Not every dish succeeds
Don't Miss: the wines
Appetizers $7 - $10
Entrees $15 - $22
Desserts $5 - $7
Overview: open Dinner only; Wednesday—Monday (closed Tuesday)
This guy (Chris Cosentino) has guts, and he puts them on the menu. Incanto stands out for being a unique Italianate restaurant, not an Italian one. The menu focuses on regional (San Francisco region that is) ingredients presented in a way you might expect to find in Italy, or maybe not. It is an intensely personal menu that changes daily to reflect the changes in the seasons and the whims of the chef. His whims deserve attention; his ideas have caused a stir even if they have not yet spread.
Incanto imposes a mandatory 5% service charge on every bill in order to tip the kitchen staff, an idea not necessarily appreciated unless you have ever worked in a kitchen. And your server isn’t going to ask if you want bottled water or (sneer of disdain) tap. Hetch-Hetchy water from the reservoir is just fine, thank you, and the restaurant employs its own special filtration system dispensing it both still and sparkling as fast as you can drink it. As for that menu, yes that is grilled beef heart garnishing the salad and yes there are brains in that ravioli. And yes, brains were a traditional ingredient in ravioli back in the day when meat was precious. At Incanto, it still is. Meat takes center stage in many dishes including the antipasti platter for two which features a selection of house cured meats. Plenty of other options do exist though for those who prefer to avoid it.
While some of the menu is grounded in Italian tradition, like those brains, other parts are purely modern. A dish of tuna with veal was a twist or a flip of the classic vitello tonato, this time pairing a loin of tuna pounded thin like veal and seared to provide a crisp crust and then topped with a pungent lemon scented garlicky aioli sauce interspersed with a few slender strips of veal. An accompanying salad of fennel, arugula, and chickpeas provided a fresh herbal counterpoint to the fish. Tagliatelle Bolognese, on the other hand, reverted back to the basics. This was ragu as it should be made, intensely meaty with only a hint of tomato, cooked long and slow into a thick sauce that coated the tender noodles. For those who have only experienced the red sauce they call ragu in North Beach this sauce will be a revelation. A similar pork ragu served with handkerchief pasta was nowhere near as remarkable.
Desserts too, alternate between modern and traditional. Panettone bread pudding, that’s modern – and forgettable. Eggplant tart with cocoa, pine nuts, and raisins – that’s actually traditional and surprisingly good, a sweet and sour creation that somehow works despite itself. Best yet is the torrone semifreddo, a frozen mousse like concoction studded with hazelnuts and cloaked in chocolate.
Whether or not you have the guts to try something new in your meal, you should venture into unknown territory on the wine list. Lesser known Italian wines are the focus here and this is the ideal way to try them. You can order a glass, half-glass, half carafe, bottle, or even a flight. You choose the size, you choose the wine; or try the mystery flight where you don’t learn what you’re drinking until you turn over the accompanying ID cards. Luckily with so many fantastic options the restaurant is happy to write down any details of the wine discoveries you have made. I have yet to visit without bringing home a reminder of a delightful wine I encountered.
A visit to Incanto is often full of surprises. A renegade restaurant that goes its own way, some dishes work better than others, but the experience always adds up to a good time and often with a great discovery.