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Only One Oven

November 3, 2011

Mrs. Fussy is traveling for the next few days. In case you were wondering, she’s in Cleveland. Don’t laugh. Cleveland is a bigger city than Albany, and I’m actually really quite jealous of some of the meals she has planned.

I mention this for two reasons.

First, without her keen eye to go over my words, you should expect to see some run-on sentences and commas in strange places. Second, one of the restaurants she’s going to visit specializes in Northern Italian cuisine.

It just so happens, I had this regional Italian fare on my mind. Mostly because I was thinking about where I liked to go for great Italian food that was reasonably priced. It’s a harder question to answer than I expected. There’s a lot of good Italian American food that’s reasonably priced. But the better stuff can get pretty expensive, pretty quickly.

Now don’t get too excited, because this place isn’t terribly close to Albany. But I think there are some lessons to be learned about what it means to be a great restaurant, and how this place can do what it does when it presumably has to pay a silly amount of rent. But it is even more remarkable that they do it all in one oven.

The place is called L’osteria del Forno and it’s in the heart of San Francisco’s North Beach. That’s the city’s Little Italy. Like it’s NYC counterpart, the neighborhood is filled with hawkers who are hustling pedestrians into their restaurants. There is a lot of over-priced food for tourists on the strip of Columbus Avenue where this restaurant happens to reside.

But L’osteria operates out of a sliver of a building. They do not have a hawker. But they do have a line. With fewer than a dozen tables and none that seat more than four comfortably, if you want good reasonably priced food, you have to wait. They do not take reservations.

That would require additional manpower, and this place runs lean.

This is not to say it’s bare bones. It’s not. The place is warm and cozy, with a welcoming sunny glow coming from the deep yellow of the walls. The gorgeous smells wafting out of the oven don’t hurt either. Service isn’t rushed. Once you are sitting down, you are treated to a very civilized meal of modest portions at reasonable prices.

Long before it was trendy L’osteria was serving plates of cured meats. After all, with only an oven to work with, speck and bresaola helped them to fill out their menu.

The menu is simple, but not limited.

There are twelve items under Insalate e Antipasti but only a third of them require any cooked elements ($5-9). Six entrees come from the oven ($10-16). One is the roast of the day ($14) but they generally have two since their milk-braised pork roast is legendary and almost always available. The roast is also available as a focaccia sandwich ($7) and there are seven other sandwich selections ($6-7) that utilize ingredients largely available elsewhere on the menu.

The most expensive thing on the menu is the 17-inch Italian porcini mushroom pizza ($19) that is suggested to feed three to four people. They do also have daily specials that often includes their killer Ravioli Di Zucca, which are hand made pumpkin filled ravioli served with clarified butter and sage.

Now you may be thinking, “Wait, do they cook the ravioli in the oven too?”

And it would be a fair thought. But I lied. They don’t do everything out of one oven. They also have a single coil burner they use to keep a pot of pasta water boiling. But besides pasta, everything else does indeed get cooked in the oven.

The thing is that unless you knew about their tiny kitchen and their feats of daring-do in cooking with a limited amount of equipment, you would never be able to guess. The menu is focused. It’s simple. It’s classic. And they are able to produce great food, in a warm setting, for a simply amazing price.

As a result, there is always a line out the door. It’s a winning combination no matter where you live. Presumably it must be hard to run a restaurant like this, otherwise there would be more of them everywhere. But given its longevity and obvious success, it is kind of amazing that more restaurants don’t take a page out of their book.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Elyse permalink
    November 3, 2011 10:10 am

    I would rather pay an extra 20$ than stand in line for any amount of time.

    I guess I belong in Albany

  2. November 3, 2011 11:38 am

    If Dr. Fussy gets a chance, she should go to Lola in Cleveland. It’s amazing. More than a year later, I still drool over our experience there.

  3. Darren Shupe permalink
    November 5, 2011 9:55 am

    L’Osteria del Forno is amazing… so is Oliveto over in Oakland. (I mention that because I love the place and think it doesn’t get a lot of love because of its location. I actually put Paul Bertolli salamis into my luggage when I fly back every couple of months from where I grew up in NorCal.)

    Since I’ve moved here to Albany, I’ve faced many of the same issues that you’ve seemed to have to confront since you’ve moved here and started this blog. I agree with you 99% of the time, which is why I very seldom feel compelled to comment. But I suppose my take this morning is that sometimes we simply appreciate the bounty that our region gives us, and enjoy other places when we’re there. Seems obvious, but I know that I get pissed off that I can’t get good dry San Francisco salami in my local Price Chopper, but then when I get to California I wonder where the decent half-sours are. I want Cowgirl Creamery cheese from one place, but Katz’s pastrami from the other. What this all means is that unless I want to run up a ridiculous shipping bill, I have to accept certain limitations that go with the location in which I have chosen to live.

    I often find local compensations. For example, I’ve come to really like Kayem hot dogs, and I think I go to Rolf’s Pork Store about once a week. At the same time, when I fly back to visit relatives, I haunt ramen shops, which aren’t really the same here. (Ichiban does a decent ramen bowl, but it’s not the ones off food trucks in CA.)

    Sorry for the rant. I really do love L’Osteria del Forno, and I’m sure we could have a lengthy discussion about the North Beach (or Western Addition) Italian(-style) restaurants we like, and wish had counterparts here. Thanks for a useful and very readable post.

  4. Darren Shupe permalink
    November 5, 2011 10:04 am

    Couldn’t seem to edit this to reflect that, of course, Bertolli hasn’t been at Oliveto for a while, but it’s still a great place. Fra’ Mani salumi is still available throughout the region, and you can get it at farmers’ markets and decent stores. Not that this is relevant… just wanted to correct myself. Thanks.

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