Trattoria and Restaurant in San Francisco

Review in the San Francisco Chronicle
April 29, 2005

Amanda Berne, Chronicle Staff Critic

A Noe Valley place that knows where it's at

Any restaurant can tout itself as a neighborhood place, but so many lack that necessary neighborhood vibe. That doesn't mean a lot of bells and whistles; it does mean friendly service, good food, cozy interior and reasonable prices. Many places just don't get it.

Lupa, in Noe Valley, gets it. The food is good, the menu isn't intimidating, and it's a good value for the quality of ingredients.

The fireplace-heated room with dark wood interior looks like a cozy trattoria, despite its split-level spaciousness. The server, Italian through and through, welcomes each customer as if it were his own home. When a basket of bread brought to our table didn't look as fresh as he'd like, he casually brought it back to the kitchen, where it was quickly replaced with warm, crusty homemade bread to go with the bright, fruity olive oil on the table.

The server was equally gracious about the wine selection. After recommending a Sardinian wine we hadn't heard of, he promised that if we didn't like it, we could keep tasting wines until we found one we did enjoy. We didn't need to; the 2002 Costera Argiolas was a great suggestion.

The menu is filled with ingredients common to Roman-style cooking, but it is by no means purist. Asparagus, artichokes and fava beans would satisfy any craving for spring greens, and pair up well with mild cheeses, prosciutto and green onions.

The starters all sounded good, but the bruschetta with fava beans ($7.75) caught our attention. It sounded simple but was deceptively complex -- full of garlic and spring onion flavor, but not so much as to overwhelm the sweetness of the creamy pureed favas. A thick slice of caciotta, a fresh sheep's milk cheese from Italy, lay on top with just a drizzle of truffle oil.

It was hard to tear our attention away to dig into the fennel and artichoke salad ($7.75), but that, too, was captivating. Long fennel strands and thin pieces of artichoke tangle with a light lemon dressing punched up with mint.

Some of the pastas listed under primi piatti work better as main courses becauase they can be quite rich; the kitchen rarely skimps on the cheese, meat or butter.

Pleasantly chewy dough wraps around a meaty filling in tortelloni ($12), but the little dumplings are really just carriers for the thin, creamy mascarpone sauce with nibbles of asparagus and peas and leaves of prosciutto. The dish, while nice, was so filling that the portion seemed too large.

The more moderately portioned duck entree ($16.50) brought a well- seasoned breast sliced over nutty farro, an ancient grain cultivated by the Romans, and too-salty greens. The duck had great flavor, but we were disappointed with its rubbery skin.

Desserts stray a bit from the Roman theme to include profiteroles ($6.50), cream puffs commonly found on French menus. Here the golf-ball-size rounds are filled with custard and topped with a dark chocolate sauce, but the puffs' flavor is too strong. The creamy lemon tart ($6.50) is better. The bright slice looks like a mountain peak with the flurry of white chocolate shaved on top.

The server stopped by to chat at the end of the meal, which can sometimes be invasive, but wasn't here. He could have sat down and kicked off his shoes, and it still would have felt right.

That's just it -- Lupa feels like dinner at a friend's house, and it's a friend who I hope would invite me back.

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