San Francisco is a town for foodies. And every neighborhood hides at least one gem worthy of you stepping away from your chosen neighborhood. In the financial district, Palio d' Asti is that gem you should search out for a taste of Italy and for a venue that encourages you to visit with friends and family.
When it comes to Italian restaurants, as an Italian-American I'm a harsh critic. My lens is filtered through my mom's cooking. I have a certain flavor profile that I expect and that my taste buds crave. So walking into Palio d' Asti to meet Emily, the Jetsetting Fashionista, my expectations were high. Leaving the restaurant later after a filling late lunch, my expectations exceeded, I knew I would return.
A Taste of Italy
Palio d' Asti is nestled in the Financial District, and brings the best of Italian cuisine to the neighborhood and to the city. (If you're not familiar with San Francisco, we have Italian restaurants throughout the city not just in North Beach. North Beach has a higher concentration of tourist traps where the rest of the city has family-run establishments focused on food and service not glitz.)
Many associate Italian cuisine with spaghetti, noodles tossed with marinara and maybe a meatball or two; this is an artifact of the mass immigration of Italians to America between 1860 and 1917. (My maternal great grandmother immigrated from Sassoferrato which is located in the province of Ancona in the Marche region of Italy (Central Italy) and nestled to the east of the Apennines mountain ranges.) The "Italians" immigrating lacked a common language as well as a national cuisine, but they shared one common foodstuff: pasta made from soft wheat flour, water, and salt. This commonality would be forever associated with Italian in Americans minds. In actually, Italian cuisine is regional and lets the season and local proteins guide what goes onto the plate.
Palio d' Asti delivers true Italian cuisine. Which region of Italy the restaurant features changes according to season: Piemonte, Emilia Romagna and Tuscany are showcased in the fall and winter, Rome and Umbria in the spring, and Sicily and Naples in the summer. Their menu utilizes locally sourced and organic produce from small family farms as well as sustainable meats, poultry and fish.
In California right now, tomatoes and peppers are at their peak. When the owner, Martino Grande, mentioned they had padron peppers from the garden of his chef as a seasonal appetizer, I knew I had to have them. As Martino was quick to point out padron peppers are not Italian, but they emphasize the restaurant's commitment to showcasing the bounty of local gardens. They had a nice crunch, not overcooked. The olive oil was light and the salt balanced the sweetness of the peppers nicely. Eating padron peppers is like a game of Russian roulette, every once in awhile you'll get one that packs a punch. While I was lucky enough to only find the sweet peppers, Emily's first pick set her mouth on fire.
A Taste of Sicily and Naples: Summer Menu
Emily and I had a typical Italian meal, starting with Antipasti, following with Insalata, Primi Piatti, Secondi Piatti, and finishing with dessert. As I do at any Italian restaurant I dine at we ate family style sharing all of the plates between us. Growing up Italian, I've also learned to sample each dish no matter how much you may love it as the food just keeps coming and coming.
For our antipasti course, Emily and I selected the Fritto Misto (fried Calamari, shrimp, and summer squashes, with fennel and lemon and Calabrese chili aioli), a dish recommended both by Martino and Martin, our waiter who has been with Palio d' Asti for over 18 years. Good comfort food, such as fried calamari, needs to be made with care and with heart. At Palio d' Asti it is. The batter was crispy and the calamari cooked to perfection. At many restaurants you get an offering that tastes of oil, a sign that the oil wasn't hot enough (and why I don't cook fried foods as it's not yet a skill I've mastered). The ratio of batter to protein and vegetable was just right, especially important with the summer squash, a delicatedly flavored vegetable whose flavor can easily get lost in a dish. The Calabrese chili aioli added a little sweetness with a touch of heat to the dish. (If you get your leftovers boxed up, they include a container of the aioli--a nice touch as many places don't do this. Gates thoroughly enjoyed her sampling of leftovers, wanting more calamari and eating all of it before cubes could get a bite.)
We followed the Fritto Misto, with the Insalata Caprese (Heirloom tomatoes with Mozzarella di Bufala, Basil, mixed olives, and Basil oil), another dish recommended by both Martino and Martin, but one I'd wanted walking in the door as tomatoes are at their peak. The chef let the ingredients shine going light with the basil oil dressing. If you're dining with a little one, you'll want to plate the salad for them without the olives and pit the olives for them. (This is easier to do with leftovers in your own kitchen.)
For our pasta course, we chose the Fedelini con Granchio, spaghettini with Dungeness Crab in tomato sauce with Calabrese Chilies and Oregano. When I read the description of the dish I was expecting a flavor profile closer to that of a Cioppino, heavy on the tomato and oregano. In this preparation, the local Dungeness crab is the hero, as it should be. Overall the dish was light, a great dish for a multi-course Italian meal. If just eating alone as your main course, I'd recommend getting a hearty soup to start.
One thing I've learned when dining out is to put aside preconceived notions. For me with Italian cuisine, it's the idea that Eggplant Parmigiana will be a heavy, greasy concoction with overcooked mushy eggplant that I'll have to choke down. As I'd enjoyed our first courses, I was happy to give Martino's suggestion of the Melanzane Parmigiana a try. One of their house specialties and an item that was originally on the menu when he took over in 2008 and left untouched. (The two other items with that honor are the Insalata Romana which we did not have and the Tiramisu.)
The Melanzane Parmigiana should be on every diner's table (as long as you're not allergic to eggplant and then I'd recommend skipping it). Their presentation differs from most. They emphasize ricotta over mozzarella giving the dish a much lighter feel. They prepare theirs in a wood-fired oven and the eggplant picks up wonderful smokey notes.
Even though Emily and I had shared every course and packed up left overs, we were almost too full for dessert. But, we went for it any way. Their Tiramisu is one of three dishes Martino left as is when he took over in 2008. And, trust me, it's not your stereotypical Italian dessert. The Tiramisu is lady fingers soaked in espresso layered with rum zabaglione and mascarpone cheese. Unfortunately, the photo does not convey the astonishment or bliss my tastebuds were in when the first bite and the second came their way.
As figs are at the peak of their flavor in the bay area, I also ordered the Crostata del Giorno (tart of the day). The fig tart was served chilled with Vanilla Gelato and a Balsamic vinegar reduction. I was so stuffed I could only eat two bites. (My family had it the following day as dessert after our breakfast and it was still amazing. We had to encourage Gates to share as she wanted all of it.)
Your Happy Hour Destination and Special Events Venue
Wherever you are located in the city, you should add Palio d' Asti to your list of spots for Happy Hour (4 to 7 pm Monday through Friday) and special events. During happy hour, for every two drinks (beer, wine, spirits) you can get a full-sized pizza for $1. And, if you have a group you can reserve a table! Who's tired of having to jostle for bar space and juggle a plate of food precariously during a happy hour? I sure am.
Palio d' Asti should also be on your list of spots for special events. Unlike many places in the city, Palio d' Asti does not charge a room rental fee and has private dining rooms with bars in the back of the restaurant that comfortably seat 20 to 50 people, the front dining area where we ate lunch that seats 40, and the main dining room which seats 120 with food and beverage minimums starting at $500 depending on the time of year.
Credits: All layouts designed by and images taken by Eden Hensley Silverstein for The Road to the Good Life.
DISCLOSURE: Both Emily of the Jetsetting Fashionista and I received complimentary lunches. I was not paid to write this post. I feature products that I own or services or establishments that I am considering purchasing or frequenting. All opinions presented are my own.