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The new guard of Italian restaurants

In a red sauce malaise? Fiorella and Barzotto make the old seem new again.

By James Stolich

Can a city like San Francisco have too many Italian restaurants?

Given the plethora of Italian food in our fair city—think North Beach—it is actually quite difficult to find very good pastas and regional Italian cuisine prepared well. We give thanks to iconic establishments such as Delfina, Locanda, Cotogna and lesser-known spots such as Nostra Spaghetteria.

But just when we thought there couldn’t possibly be room for another Italian joint, we encounter two unique gems: Fiorella in the Outer Richmond promises to be a lively and social gathering spot, particularly with its outdoor patio. And Barzotto on Valencia continues the recent trend of the “fine casual” establishments that offer pristine cuisine at fair prices, with an elevated sense of hospitality.

FIORELLA A recently opened, mostly under-the-radar restaurant in the Outer Richmond has quietly established itself as both a beloved neighborhood eatery and an up-and-coming dining destination hotspot. Owner Boris Nemchenok (UVA Enoteca in the Lower Haight) has brought on head chef Dante Cecchini (chef de cuisine at Marlowe), who grew up eating his Italian grandmother’s cooking in North Beach to evolve the restaurant’s California Italian menu.

Located at 2339 Clement Street in the former Shimo space, the 40-seat restaurant features a striking wood oven by Italian maker Forni Valoriani. There is also an eight-seat bar overlooking the kitchen and oven as well as a communal table in the front room that can accommodate 10 guests. The interior was reimagined by designer Melinda Turner and has a number of fun and playful elements such as white hex tile, spherical lighting, marble and a

Bay Area icons wallpaper from artist Matt Ritchie with caricatures of Alice Waters, Angela Davis, E-40, Joe Montana and Dennis Richmond of KTVU channel 2. A very exciting development is the opening of the garden patio with plenty of heat lamps to keep diners warm. An array of films will be projected on the back wall during dinner service.

Chef Cecchini has created a menu of Italian classics, many of which are cooked in the wood oven. Start off with the suppli al telefono stuffed with risotto and fior de latte mozzarella, or the zucchini fritelle with house-made ranch dressing. The Iacopi Farm gigante beans with pomodoro, basil and Parmigiano are beautiful in their simplicity and a great accompaniment to any of the main courses.

The octopus—also cooked in the wood oven—has a wonderful soft consistency and comes with sungold tomatoes, pole beans, garlic aioli and olives that add a nice tartness to the dish. The pizzas are classic Neapolitan thin-crust pies and hold their own against the best in the city. Main courses include chef Cecchini’s nonno’s meatballs, a Ligurian fish stew and an outstanding half Mary’s chicken served over a bed of chili and frisée. The smoke from the wood fire transforms the chicken to another level, resulting in an incredibly succulent bird—no easy feat when cooking inside a 900-degree oven.

Fiorella is open daily for dinner and for brunch on weekends.

BARZOTTO The wildly popular Valencia Street corridor has an exciting new “fine casual” addition in Barzotto, an American pasta bar open in the former St. Vincent space at 1270 Valencia St. Owner Mark Sotto (former director of operations for Adriano Paganini’s restaurant group) and chef Michelle Minori (previously executive sous chef of the Ne Timeas Restaurant Group: Flour + Water, Aatxe, Salumeria and Central Kitchen) have created a fun and accessible menu of handmade pastas and an assortment of mains such as roast chicken and porchetta. The former wine tavern has been remodeled to have a lighter and airier modern industrial aesthetic with white tile, wood and marble-topped tables. The best seat in the house is at the chef’s counter with direct views into the open kitchen where one can watch the cooks roll, cut and extrude pasta by hand.

Start off the evening with a glass of Italian rosé and the little gem salad, dressed with a yogurt vinaigrette, pickled cucumbers and radishes. Minori offers a rotating selection of five pastas all made fresh daily on-site. The bucatini with pancetta, tomato, chili and breadcrumbs is delicious in its simplicity and closely resembles the classic pasta all’Matriciana from the Lazio region. Other options include a fazzolleti (handkerchiefs) with slow-braised beef, mushrooms and rosemary as well as cresta di gallo (cock’s comb) with cauliflower, garlic, chili, almond and lemon. A half roast chicken and a crispy-skin porchetta round out the menu.

There are also a couple of fun side dishes such as house-made grissini, turkey meatballs and a giardiniera or pickled vegetables. Desserts are on the simple side, with the likes of a nitro coffee affogato with mint and a salted caramel and dark chocolate gelato.

Barzotto is open daily from 11 a.m. until 10 p.m.

JAMES STOLICH’S cookwithjames.com provides regional Italian and Spanish dishes for all occasions. He has been featured in urbandaddy.com, agencyspy.comand Jenn Garbee’s book Secret Suppers, about rogue chefs and their little known culinary lives.

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