Announced last March, Pesce completed its move in August from its original Polk Street location, where it had been for more than a dozen years, to its new home in the Castro district. Taking over the space of the former 2223 Market restaurant (also very briefly Jakes on Market), Co-Owners Adriano Paganini and Chef Ruggero Gadaldi effectively doubled the number of seats to around 100 and successfully transplanted the Top 100 restaurants stalwart. The duo also own the wildly popular Berretta and Delarosa where Gadaldi also acts as the chef. Paganini’s empire also includes Lolinda, El Techo de Lolinda, Starbelly and the Super Duper Burgers micro-chain.
Pesce specializes in Venetian seafood and cichéti, although a few meaty items are also available. Venetian in origin, cichéti are bite-size nibbles that are similar to the Spanish pintxos in concept, typically consumed with aperitivi before dinner or as a snack between meals. At Pesce, the cichéti are small antipasti, and their intention is to do as the Venetians do, display the pre-made items behind the bar and serve as ordered. We didn’t see them displayed during either one of our visits, but the snacks did come out fairly fast.
With the move, the staff and menu pretty much stayed intact from the Polk St. location, helping service get up to speed fairly quickly. Chef Gadaldi has brought in temporary help: former Top Chef contestant Jen Biesty who, as Executive Chef, was instrumental in making Scala’s Bistro a dining destination despite its touristy location in Union Square. Biesty will oversee the kitchen for a few months while her Oakland restaurant is preparing to open.
Newer items on the menu in this location include pizzette and a fritto misto platter. The menu itself is categorized into six sections, each with about six to eight items listed underneath: Cichéti, Pizzette, Insalata-Contorni, Risotto e Pasta, Pesce and Piatti Grandi. All plates are meant to be shared — similar to a tapas-style restaurant, they suggest two to three dishes per person.
With prices at or under $3 per piece, most of the cichéti are a single crostini with various toppings such as eggplant, anchovies and smoked salmon. Salt cod croquettes and oyster shots (available with a chili-infused vodka upgrade) are the two exceptions. We tried a couple of the crostini: the Mortadella Del Logo served over insalata russa (potato salad) and the Crostini di Alici which featured white anchovies served with aioli, giardiniera pickles and arugula. Both of the crostini were delicious, but we really can’t imagine how they would stay fresh if they were pre-made and on display:
We really liked the perfectly balanced Contessa cocktail (Ransom barrel-aged Old Tom Gin, Dolin Blanc Vermouth, Suze) so much it might just become our regular drink there. The wine list features many Italian wines, and we quickly found the D’Antiche Terre Fiano de Avelino. The fiano grape is prominent in southern Italy, and thankfully has found its way to many San Francisco restaurants. Like most southern Italian whites, it is a great match for seafood:
The Granchio tower came with plenty of dungeness crab meat that was alternately layered with avocado. Cucumber squares added some crunch, and the addition of the tomato represented the last color of the Italian flag. Crab and avocado make such a natural, delicious pairing that this dish was quickly consumed by the table:
The Crudo di Capesante featured thin-sliced raw diver scallops with shards of chives and Castelvetrano olives all drizzled with agrumato (lemon flavored olive oil). The scallops were sashimi-grade fresh and very tasty:
Crudo di Pesce was comprised of Califonia yellowtail fish lightly dressed with white balsamic vinegar. Closer in flavor to a chili than its black cousin, which tends to overpower flavors, the pink peppercorn added the right amount of spice and crunchy texture to the tasty amberjack:
Introduced at the new location, the Fritto Misto was a welcome addition to the menu. Lightly battered and perfectly fried calamari, shrimp, fennel and green beans were served with a slightly spicy marinara sauce. Our only minor complaint about this dish is that the ratio of good fried stuff to the dinky cup of marinara sauce was too large — we’ll make a note of asking for more sauce next time:
The Sardine dish included grilled filets served over salad greens and pickled vegetables. We asked for more bread and made our own crostini, which helped to temper the inherent fishy (but good) flavor of the sardines:
Scallops came in another form as pan-seared with the Capesante. The scallops were perfectly cooked to our liking with raw centers. Served swimming in a mushroom and green onion cream sauce with pools of truffle oil, this dish just begged for bread to sop up every last bit of that deliciously rich sauce:
The Bigoli might have been our table’s favorite dish of the evening. We would be hard pressed to think that there wasn’t any meat in the amazing tuna bolognese sauce, lightly spiced by Calabrian chili. We always hear that seafood and cheese aren’t supposed to mix in Italian food, but the sprinkling of Parmesan cheese made sense and further fooled our minds into thinking that this was a slow braised meat sauce:
The Risotto di Seppia featured grilled squid served over inky black rice. The risotto tasted of the ocean with the slightly briny taste supplied by the ink:
Maybe we were too full at this point, but the lone large dish we ordered, the Tonno Puttanesca, was probably our least favorite item of the evening. The herb crusted tuna was perhaps over-grilled on one side and raw on the other. Don’t get us wrong, we don’t mind raw tuna, but in this case, the overcooking gave the tuna a tough consistency requiring a knife to pull it apart. Perhaps it was due to the newness of the kitchen; that said, the spicy tomato sauce and soffritto were very good. But next time we’ll probably stick to the Bigoli bolognese dish for our tuna prep of choice:
We returned another night to try some meaty dishes as well. The Maiale featured tender milk-braised pork chunks with gnocchi and sage. As if there weren’t enough of the pig represented, crisp bits of pancetta were thrown in for good measure. This dish was comfortingly rich, satisfying and very filling despite its tapas-style portion:
We realized we hadn’t tried anything from their salad and sides part of the menu and gravitated toward their Patate dish of scalloped potatoes baked with cream and Parmesan cheese. It was another rich and decadent dish that might not normally pair with any of their healthier seafood dishes, but we’re awfully glad it’s on the menu:
The Puttanesca Pizzette was more successful than the Tonno (for us anyway.) A salad plate-sized small pizza topped with spicy tomato sauce, capers, olives, arugula, white anchovies and Parmesan cheese was really good:
We made our way through a lot of the menu over a couple of visits. But we also had to check out their dessert course, especially since one of our dining companions loves desserts. The BarFlys stuck with the Formaggio plate of Gorgonzola and soft Pecorino cheeses:
The Tiramisu, made with the typical espresso and rum-soaked ladyfingers, were layered with vanilla-flavored mascarpone. The portion provided is fairly large and easily sharable:
Lastly, Torta Cioccolato featured a chocolate ganache tart with pecan crust. Slightly savory with a sprinkling of sea salt, the berries and whipped cream were the perfect accompaniments to the rich dessert:
It’s really nice to have a small plate seafood place where we can share many dishes and not feel constrained to a three-course meal. With a full bar and easy walking access from our base in the Mission, we expect to be frequenting Pesce, especially when we are in the mood for seafood.
September 2015 Update: Sadly Pesce is closed as of September 13, 2015.