L’Osteria del Forno — restaurant review — California
Posted on May 26, 2008 by Kris Nelson
I have to preface this review by stating that the food at L’Osteria del Forno is incredible; the authenticity (as far as I know, I mean I’m no expert on Italy, but I know this ain’t Ragu), the fresher than fresh ingredients, the overall pristine presentation — basically what you look for in a restaurant of the most popular, palatable and recognizable cuisine on the planet. However, the other major part of dining out has to be the ambiance and service, which you’ll see I go back and forth about.
While probably better than sitting out on the main floor of this tiny boutique eatery and bumping elbows with neighboring patrons, the waitresses always motion us to the window tables, er, window alcoves: imagine eating in a bay window on a school desk with an obtrusive possibly shin-splitting bench on one side, boxing you in. You’re surrounded by windows facing the busy sidewalk (Columbus) and for a moment, you feel like a zoo monkey at feeding time with all the gawkers staring in at you and your meal.
But if you manage to forget about where you’re sitting and look up, you’ll realize you’re in amore rustica-land. The cute chalkboard scrawl above the cash register, the indoor-picnic-y feeling, the wood everywhere; it’s quaint, so quaint. But quaint is just another word for “small and old”, isn’t it? No, but that totally fits the homemade yumminess cuisine served here. So get over the decor already. Besides, there’s one blaring difference that will distract any reference to home.
The “good-cop, bad-cop” wait-staff pairs an intimidating stoic brunette with a bubbly blonde every single time we go. They can be different people but always with the same disposition. And the unfortunate thing is they work as a team so you are forced onto the personality see-saw. The militant brunette barely speaks, barely smiles, looks down her nose at you while you mispronounce everything on the menu. The blonde comes around with frequent water refills, grinning and cajoling. She even patiently awaits your response when she asks if you are enjoying your meal. Maybe because she is such a welcome shot of change from Ms. Snobbypants, you actually believe she cares, or you hope someone cares and isn’t in the back spitting on your food. The other kind of creepy thing about this place is that the cooking staff will peer out as you are being seated, as if to size you up. I can’t for the life of me think of why else the chefs would come out to the front to stare, so if you know, please tell me so I can sleep tonight.
Here I have to warn you that if you’re into pretentious grub, you might hate L’Osteria del Forno, heck, you’ll probably say it’s bland. Good food doesn’t have to mean your tastebuds have been lassoed and held hostage and kicked in the rubber parts, and L’Osteria excels in subtlety. Their specialties are pretty much baked (hence the “del Forno” = from the oven” and a tiny one at that) and of Varese and Bologna cuisine.
Everything we’ve tried here is delicious beyond belief. The best Insalata Caprese I’ve had in the City, even when tomatoes are out of season, they serve firm ripe slices with just a welcome hint of acidity. They flitter just the right amount of freshly mandolin-ed basil to offset and compliment, not overpower. The mozzarella is not salty at all; you will be amazed at what fresh mozzarella is like if you’ve always had processed pouches or string cheese. You could almost fall out of your chair if the wall wasn’t there boxing you in. Even their capers are amazing, perfect firm texture, puckeringly vinegary with a blast of citrus-like green tartness when you bite into them. Same goes for their green olives. Who goes “wow!” over a green olive right?… but I do here.
Their pillowy pumpkin ravioli is mind-numbingly scrumptious. I say “mind-numbingly” because it makes so much sense to keep things simple, let the natural flavors of the food speak for themselves. Their pizzas are light and crispy, their pasta is perfect, desserts decadent and creamy. Their divine silky chocolate Pots de Crème (pictured right) will linger like a dreamlover’s first kiss.
The food at L’Osteria del Forno keeps me coming back. Paranoia and lack of parking keeps me from frequent returns.
**NOTE: cash only, long dinner queues
L’Osteria del Forno
519 Columbus Avenue – San Francisco, CA
Mon, Wed, Thurs, Sun11:30am-10pm
Fri & Sat11:30am-10:30pm