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Chiaroscuro, San Francisco

Pasta. Italian restaurants in the States can have difficulty making and serving exceptional pasta dishes on a consistent basis. The North Beach neighborhood is well known for its generous bowls of pasta. But generous portions and low prices should never be an excuse for poor execution. Too much sauce, garlic, and cheese defile each noble shape of pasta. A dark area of the culinary world.

Of course there are fine examples of pasta reverence. I recall having a sensational carbonara at Tarry Lodge in Port Chester, New York. Lucio’s in Santa Cruz is obviously a favorite of mine, with the original Capitola location showing Lucio’s best representation of true Italian cooking. I'm looking forward to my next trip to Osteria in Philadelphia. Dino at Diavola in Geyserville, offers another great spot for a classic bowl of pasta. Barbacco’s pacchieri is wonderful.

So when my brother suggested we try Chiaroscuro in San Francisco, I knew it was serious matter. My expectations were high for the pasta feast. Chiaroscuro serves more than just pasta, my brother had a veal burger for lunch recently and loved it. But pasta was the focus of the afternoon. I was a bit surprised when doing some background research on Chiaroscuro, that the food critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, Michael Bauer, hasn’t reviewed this restaurant. Stunning. I thought he reviewed every Italian restaurant? 

Across from a San Francisco landmark the Transamerica Building, Chiaroscuro’s interior carries through with the angular, industrial feel of its architectural neighbor. I wouldn’t consider the interior of Chiaroscuro as warm or cozy, but more functional, modern, and almost cold. The banquettes on each wall are poured form concrete with large white pillows to sit on. White pillows in any restaurant scare me a bit. Soiled pillows could be a reflection on the restaurant. There are also more standard four-top tables and chairs in the center of the room. The décor is perhaps the cold, hard contrast of Chiaroscuro.

However, true to its name, Chiaroscuro’s light shines on its pasta; with precise execution and measured inspiration.

Spaghetti alla chitarra amatriciana or spaghetti with chili pepper, imported guanciale, in a San Marzano tomato sauce. This pasta felt more like home than the others we ate that day, probably because growing up, red sauce pasta gravy was the standard at our Italian American house. Make no mistake, this was not my mother’s gravy (I don't want the wrath of my mother upon me). That’s a much different sauce. The addition of chili pepper added a nice bite, but different than the heat from the black pepper in the cacio e pepe. The sauce had a satisfying mouth-feel and not a bit acidic. Great red sauce, great interpretation of a sauce that everyone has eaten at some point in their life. Traditional yet original and executed well.

Gnocchetti Verdi con asparagi e stracchino or the arugula gnocchi with pork sausage, cipollini onions, asparagus, with stracchino cheese and a drizzle of chili jam was by far the most inspired dish of the meal. It’s the unexpected addition of chili jam that made the dish fun. The drizzle of chili jam was not connected to the pasta, simply applied next to the main pasta. It was additive rather than a distraction, but may offend pasta purists. As we know from the first dish, the use of chili pepper is often used in Southern Italy. However, the chili jam adds a sweetness in addition to heat. Playful and inventive.

Cacio e Pepe or Pecorino Romano with fresh black pepper. Nice pop of black pepper, a beautiful nest of twirled pasta kept the pasta warm and slightly creamy. If this pasta sat at the pass for more than a couple minutes, it would have seized up into a pasta ball. This pasta was served fresh and had wonderful mouth feel. This was the perfect example of classic execution, rather than interpretation or inspiration.

Tagliolini alla carbonara of the four pastas was akin to being last by a tenth of a second against three world class sprinters. Not because it was poorly prepared, but that day, that meal, the amatriciana was just plain great, the gnocchi inspired, the cacao e pepe perfectly executed. In isolation, the carbonara would have scored high marks, but it fell short. There should be a silkiness to the pasta when properly worked over and over with the raw egg and pasta water. Today’s offering lacked that silkiness and that’s why it fell short. Perhaps next time.

I love pasta. I love attention to detail. I focus on food. A restaurant and rightfully so, is about the total experience; the sum of its parts. Cold interiors, a noisy environment, and the lack of intimacy all weight heavily on the dining experience. The light / dark contrast of Chiaroscuro is the pasta and the interior. I can appreciate the artistic quality of the restaurant’s name and the food it creates. I look forward to another classic pasta with red sauce. I just hope the white pillows on the banquette stay clean.

Chiaroscuro on Urbanspoon

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