Barbacco’s Italian fare has California sensibility

News,Entertainment,Patricia Unterman

Two ambitious Italian wine bars opened in San Francisco almost at the same time, Ristobar on Chestnut Street and Barbacco, the sister operation of Perbacco, in the Financial District.

Both are exciting destinations for eating as well as drinking. While Gary Rulli’s Ristobar strikes me as ultra-Italian and European, a California sensibility sneaks into Barbacco.

Its chef/co-owner, Steffan Terje, a man besotted by the culinaria of the entire Italian peninsula from top to bottom, is equally devoted to our local farmers and producers. He wheels his trolley around the stalls at the nearby Ferry Plaza farmers market three times a week, and what he finds turns up in his own dizzying long list of small Italian bites.

With its low ceiling, table-height marble and stainless steel bar that runs the length of the narrow room, and a regiment of rectangular wooden tables that  accommodate two, four or six depending on how they are set, Barbacco feels at once intimate and spontaneous.

Many seats are left open for walk-ins. Only a few tables are reserved every night.

You can eat big or small, opt for 3-ounce tastes or full bottles of wine; watch Bloomberg (at lunch) or sports (at dinner) on two huge flat-screen televisions, which disappear if you sit at a table.

Look at the top of the long, skinny menu for arancini ($3 each), deep-fried risotto balls that ooze with mozzarella and spicy pork sugo. After one of these, you know that the kitchen can handle such a large list of foods.

There are a dozen housemade salumi. Testa arrotolata ($5), elegantly thin slices of pork head cheese with threads of pickled onion, came off like a salad, juicy and arresting.

Fine-textured mortadella ($5) with warm, sweet spices is another triumph.

Toasts mounted with house-cured sardines and shredded watermelon radish ($3 each) in piquant dressing are sparkly on the tongue.

Burrata ($6), a super-soft  creamy mozzarella, splashed with olive oil and served with grilled bread is impeccably fresh, just the way it should be — and often is not.

Terje’s brilliant cotechino ($12), loose-grained, fresh sausage laced with aromatic spices, is poached, sliced and served with red and white beans, frisee and celery. Sharp, hot, mustard fruit conserva accompanies. This dish is not to be missed.

From the farmers market come brussels sprouts fried with capers and anchovies ($4) and cauliflower ($4) broken into tiny florets and roasted with prosciutto that becomes crisp.

Desserts stay true to the small-portion format. Each scoop of house-made ice cream ($2) gets its own square bowl. You might want two bowls of butterscotch-chocolate crunch.

Vanilla ice cream, slathered with local strawberries roasted with thyme ($5), embodies spring. Strong espresso flavored panna cotta ($5) works after a meal of rich little bites.

At dinner, the meal comes in courses and waiters are vigilant about empty glasses and bringing new wines.

At lunch, however, everything comes at once. You must specify if you want courses, but we were warned that the wait may be long between courses.

To take advantage of all the pleasures at Barbacco, spend an evening.  A meal of many tastes, unified by a common pantry and Terje’s inspired cooking, do add up to a big, luscious whole.

Patricia Unterman is the author of the second edition of the “San Francisco Food Lovers’ Pocket Guide.” Contact her at

220 California St., San Francisco
Contact: (415) 955-1919;
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday for lunch; 5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday for dinner
Price range: $3 to $14
Recommended dishes: Arancini, sardine bruschetta; ribollita; cotechino; house-made salumi; vanilla gelato with roasted strawberries
Credit cards: All major
Reservations: Online only

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