Location: San Francisco
Favorite Restaurant: La Ciccia
Reviewed La Ciccia: Friday, April 23, 2010
La Ciccia really is my go-to place for Italian food in San Francisco. Here’s the rub: it’s not really what we would consider Italian food, either north or south. Sardinia is an island situated about 125 miles from mainland Italy and has a cuisine entirely its own, which shares very little with common Italian food.
The feeling of Sardinia comes through in every meal at La Ciccia. Sardinia is known not only for its great seafood, but also has vast farmland that raises boar, sheep, lamb, and goat. The sheep’s milk is used to make their trademark cheese, pecorino, which can be found on almost every dish at La Ciccia. They are also known for both their red and white wines such as Vermintino, Cannonau, and Carignano. On our latest visit, our favorite server, Aleeka, recommended a great Sardinian wine, Argiolas Perdera, which had a fruity nose with an earthly palate feel and a complex finish.
Chef Massimo Conti and his wife Lorella Degan transport you to Sardinia every time you walk in the door. Lorella is always there with a hug and a smile, and Massimo is in the kitchen cooking up amazing dishes. On our most recent visit, he had roasted a porchetta, then chilled and thinly sliced it for the salume of the day. Paired with olive oil and their fresh baked bread, it was an amazing, if simple, dish. Our table also chose to share the baby octopus stew and the pan-roasted calamari with basil oil.
The baby octopus stew is excellent and is one of the most unique dishes on the menu. It’s baby octopus stewed in a homemade tomato ragu, which makes the octopus fork tender and gives the tomato ragu a delicious earthy taste that screams out for sopping up with the house bread. The pan sautéed calamari is simply whole calamari, seasoned and sautéed with basil oil. The simple preparation highlights the freshness of the calamari and shows that it doesn’t have to be deep fried to be enjoyable.
The second course shared by the table were three pastas – the spaghetti with bottarga; spicy fregola with fresh Dungeness crab; and a special rigatoni with a goat and veal ragu. Bottarga, known as “poor man’s caviar,” is the roe of the grey mullet. Imported from Sardinia, this roe has a rich, creamy texture that pairs well with the spicy oil that it’s cooked in and has little actual fish taste. Instead, it gives the dish a richness that you can usually only find by using butter or cream. Fregola is a small pea-shaped pasta similar to couscous, and it’s prepared at La Ciccia with a light tomato sauce and Dungeness crab, giving it a fresh, light taste. Finally, the special rigatoni is another great example of the sauces that Massimo makes on a daily basis. Rich with veal, goat, and a deep tomato flavor, it’s really unlike any average tomato sauce.
For entrees, we split the pan-seared ahi tuna topped with a Sardinian olive sugo, the lamb tenderloin with cooked grape must, and the pizza bianca. The ahi, just barely seared on the outside, pairs wonderfully with the olive sugo. The saltiness of the olives comes through just enough to offset the meatiness of the tuna. Served over cabbage, it’s another dish that appears simple, yet has an incredibly complex flavor. The lamb tenderloin is cooked perfectly and topped with a slightly sweet sauce that finishes savory and balances out the slight gaminess of the lamb. Finally, the pizza bianca is a classic take on a more Italian dish with sopresaeta, radicchio, pecorino, and ricotta cheese baked on a thin crust.
La Ciccia continues to be one of my favorite restaurants in the city. Lorella and Massimo make it hard to not love the restaurant, and the service is always phenomenal. If you happen to be in the area, I highly recommend that you check it out, but make sure to make reservations — it’s generally impossible to find a seat without one.
Occupation: Online Candy Store Owner
Favorite Restaurant: Babalou’s Mediterranean Restaurant
Reviewed La Ciccia: Friday, April 23, 2010
The second my fiancé and I entered La Ciccia, we were enveloped by the incredible smell of fresh pasta, warm tomatoes, and savory spices. An impressive number of tables were packed into the small restaurant, and every one was full. As we waited to be seated, I was tempted by each dish that passed us. The lively crowd drowned out any music that was playing, but the chain curtains hanging from the kitchen doorways made their own sort of music as the waiters passed through them. Not long after we arrived, our table was ready.
Our waiter told us the specials and left us to look over the menu. My fiancé quickly decided that everything looked delicious and left the decision-making up to me. Everything did look delicious, and I was still having a hard time deciding on what to order when our waiter came back. It seems that whenever we have a male waiter from Italy, they only address my fiancé even though I am clearly the person who is ordering. If we hadn’t encountered this before, I probably would have been more annoyed than amused when our waiter directed his attention to my fiancé as he made recommendations and answered my questions.
I finally decided on the baked calamari appetizer, Tonnu in Padella Cun Olia Sarda (ahi tuna), and a rigatoni with lamb ragu special. I was completely overwhelmed by the massive wine list, so I asked our waiter to bring me a glass of red that would go with our order. We munched on fresh, dense white bread and continued to shamelessly stare at other diners’ food. Our calamari appetizer didn’t take long to arrive. Five or six whole squids were lined up on the plate. Baby organic greens complemented the tender calamari, and the whole plate was covered in a spicy olive oil sauce. We savored every bite, and I was glad that I had branched out from my recent sardine obsession. (Although, the plump sardines at the table next to us did look tasty).
Even thought the restaurant was full, we enjoyed a leisurely pace to our meal. I sipped my wine and made a mental note to ask what it was. It paired perfectly with our meal, but I ultimately left without finding out its name. Our main dishes arrived. The perfectly seared tuna rested on a bed of cabbage with tiny grapes and capers. The strip of olive sugo topping the tuna was the perfect texture and wasn’t overly salty. While the tuna was delicious, the cabbage below it was exceptional. It had been cooked just to the point of being sweet but still maintained a savory edge to it. I found myself scooping the cabbage onto my plate by the spoonful. On the other side of the table, my fiancé could hardly get enough of the rigatoni special. The hearty ragu filled the perfectly al dente pasta. I was thankful for the homey warmth of the dish when a gust of wind came in with a couple of new diners.
For dessert, I couldn’t resist the trio of red grape, Meyer lemon, and blackberry sorbets. My fiancé chose to order an espresso and the ricotta and saffron cake with slivered almonds and honey. The sorbets were intensely flavored and the grape and blackberry were almost creamy in texture. The blackberry sorbet had the sweetness of super ripe blackberries and the Meyer lemon tasted like the summer lemons from the tree outside of my childhood house. My fiancé savored every last bite of his airy, rich cake. Overall the focus seemed to be on letting fresh ingredients shine without overworking them. The lighter fare from the Sardinian region of Italy was filling without being heavy.
I loved watching the owner interact with her regular patrons, and she treated us with the same warmth and consideration. While the food at La Ciccia is exceptional, it’s out of my daily budget. I will definitely visit again for a special occasion and look forward to more memorable meals at this inviting restaurant.
Occupation: Program Manager
Location: San Francisco
Favorite Restaurant: Sushi Groove
Reviewed La Ciccia: Sunday, April 25, 2010
I think La Ciccia may be one of the best kept secrets in San Francisco dining. I had never been before but had heard great things and was very excited to give it a try.
Upon entering the restaurant, we were immediately greeted by the exceedingly charming hostess/co-owner of the restaurant, who seated us right away. The smell of garlic and spices were wafting through the air and there was a very comfortable, inviting vibe. Everything about the restaurant was appealing. Simple, tasteful decor with beautiful art on the walls and classic white tablecloths beckoned us to escape to Sardinia for the night.
We started our meal with breaded sardines sautéed in spicy olive oil and parsley. I tend to avoid oily fish (even though they are good for me) and was very pleasantly surprised at how lovely these were! The simple clean flavors of the garlic and EVOO beautifully complemented the fresh, slightly pungent sardines. The breading added another layer of texture to the fish. Excellent!
Next we moved on the pasta, linguine with pecorino and cured tuna heart. I must admit, I felt a little squeamish about the cured tuna heart, but was intrigued and had to at least try it. I am so glad I did! It was positively sublime. The linguine noodles were housemade and cooked to absolute perfection. The pecorino gave the dish a savory bite, and the cured tuna heart, which was grated on top, surprisingly tasted like a cross between anchovies and capers. We were so captivated by the tuna heart that our excellent waiter even brought it out to our table so we could see what it looked like before it went into the dish.
The shrimp with garlic and tomato sauce came out next. Again, simple clean flavors made this dish delicious. The tomato sauce was savory and tangy and had a lovely mild spice. The shrimp were fresh and cooked perfectly in a bath of garlic and oil. My husband had the lamb tenderloin with sapa, which is a syrup made from grape must, which neither of us had ever had before. The sauce was a little too sweet for Brian, but I loved it and thought it was a perfect complement to the seared lamb.
Finally, the desserts — plate of Sardinian goat and sheep’s milk cheeses, accompanied by orange blossom honey, mint infused honey, and sour blueberry jam, and a ricotta-saffron tart with toasted almonds and honey — were both delicious! The cheeses were unique and artfully paired with the different sweet sides. The tart was surprisingly light and fluffy with just a hint of saffron, vaguely resembling a cheesecake. Event though it was a generous portion, I felt like I could have eaten another one!
Throughout the night, our service was notably excellent. Our waiter was attentive and informative, and the chef came out to our table to ask how our meal was at the end of the evening. It’s very clear that La Ciccia cares deeply about their patrons and goes out of its way to make guests feel special.
In summary, La Ciccia is a charming establishment with lovely staff and excellent food that focuses on simple, clean flavors. A true San Francisco treasure!