Pesce, San Francisco

For about 4 years or so, I lived a mere 10 minutes walk from Pesce and, almost religiously, went there weekly for lunch. The casual restaurant on Polk Street is a neighborhood pearl. Walk in, sit wherever you like.

The narrow dining room features about a dozen cast iron foot wood tables topped with white butcher paper and flatware rolled on linen napkins. A long zinc counter with leather-padded stools takes up a good portion of the space.

The warm palette of the wood paneling and amber lights is contrasted only by the bright, white hexagon tile floors and colorful blown glass lamps.

Pesce belongs to the same people behind Beretta in the Mission and Antica Trattoria right down the street. The 3 Italian restaurants share in common a welcoming, unfussy atmosphere and the love for simple, good cuisine. For me, it became synonym with comfort food.

But when I moved cross-town, the 10-minute walk turned into a 30-minute drive plus another 15 to find parking. Two years have passed since my last visit. It was time to go back.

The menu

Pesce is, for the most part, a seafood restaurant. Its Venetian inspired menu has a good selection of “cicchetti”, the Italian version of tapas. But the kitchen won’t leave the sea averse hungry, their meat and pasta dishes are surprisingly good for a restaurant named after the Italian word for fish.

In addition to the printed menu, daily specials are written on a blackboard, they usually include 3 types of oysters in the half shell, whole fish and pastas.

The meal

One of my favorite things to order is the Bellini–the classic Italian cocktail made with prosecco and peach purée. Introduced in the 30s at the now popular Harry’s bar in Venice, it was a favorite among luminaries like Ernest Hemingway and Orson Welles. Having tried the original at Harry’s, I can say with some authority that Pesce’s is not far behind. Even better when ordered with the restaurant’s OYSTER SHOT, Cucumber, cocktail sauce and horseradish.

Among the daily specials this time of the year, try the LOBSTER SPAGHETTI. Made with a creamy marinara sauce finished with butter, basil and zucchini al dente. Topped with a half lobster on the shell. Rich and delicious.

Another good pasta option, on the lighter side, is the LINGUINE, Dungeness crab, garlic, white wine and chili flakes. Even though this is technically a small plate, it can very well be ordered as a main course.

I’ve been to Pesce countless times and remember always eating well. The food is not outstanding but it’s honest. The following dishes unfortunately were a let down. Or at least, not as good as I remembered them.

RISOTTO AI CALAMARI, Squid ink risotto with calamari. Although the rice is prepared well, flavors could be more pronounced. The calamari was also slightly undercooked.

SARDINE, Grilled sardines with spring mix salad, and pickled vegetables. Pesce’s rendition of the classic Venetian dish “Sarde in saor” is lackluster. The fried sardines are somewhat dry and come with bland accompaniments. In Venice they are simply served with caramelized onions and a nice play of sweetness and acidity. Curiously, the sardines at Pesce’s sister restaurant, Beretta, are much better and closer to the original.

POLPO, Braised octopus, potato, celery and garlic lemon vinaigrette
. Not unlike the sardines, there’s a disproportionate amount of accompaniments here. The octopus is also sliced too thin to be fully appreciated. If I didn’t know better, I’d say the cook was trying to make the most out of the only small piece left.

SALSICCIA, Pork sausage with onion, white wine and tomato sauce, with grilled buckwheat polenta. Let’s start with the good news; the tomato sauce is great, especially because its flavor overpowers everything else on the dish. The sausage, on the other hand, is soft and mushy, like those fresh out of the can.

One dish that I didn’t try again but have very fold memories of is the AGNELLO, Merlot braised lamb shank and oregano zucchini. I remember it deliciously tender and flavorful–and that’s how I want it to stay.

To finish, PERE E SALAME, Cinnamon poached pear and nuts-chocolate salami. Despite its somewhat unappealing presentation (not shown are inexplicable piles of ground cinnamon), this is a tasty dessert. The chocolate salami is crunchy and rich while the pear adds a nice freshness to the dish.

Another good dessert is the SGROPPINO, Blended lemon sorbet, prosecco and a touch of vodka. A very refreshing ending for a summer day or a heavier meal.

In short

Comfort food is all about memory. But when it doesn’t live up to it, it can be sadly disappointing. After a 2 years break, what I ate at Pesce wasn’t quite as satisfying as how I remembered it. All in all, the food is still good and honest–some dishes more than others. But when compared to Beretta and Antica, Pesce is in a distant third place. I’d still recommend it for an unpretentious weekend lunch, especially if you have no fond memories to lose.

Pesce is at 2227 Polk St.
Online reservations

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