Under renovation since January 2013, North Beach’s historic Tosca Cafe reopened in October to much fanfare, as it was preserved and is now operated by famed restaurateurs Ken Friedman and Executive Chef April Bloomfield who own New York’s Spotted Pig, The Breslin and others. San Francisco has lost many of its great chefs to New York: Daniel Humm, Elizabeth Faulkner, Laurent Gras and Danny Bowien to name a few, so it’s always nice when a piece of the Big Apple comes to this coast. British-born Bloomfield is credited with starting the “gastropub” movement of providing upscale pub food. She is also know for her love for all things pig — she carries one over her shoulder in her recent book, A Girl and Her Pig: Recipes and Stories, so we expected to see many parts of the swine available on Tosca’s menu, and we were not disappointed.
There is a lot of history regarding the beloved 92 year old bar, favored by locals and celebrities such as U2’s Bono, who once opened a version in Dublin, and Sean Penn, who played a role in bringing out the New York team to “rescue” it. The revamp included an all new kitchen — despite its name, Tosca Cafe had not been serving food since the 1960s. Most of the interior remains the same, but many items were restored to their former glory, such as the now-free juke box, booths, mural paintings and the famous antique cappuccino machine.
The neon sign outside of the restaurant beckons passersby from the bustle of Columbus Avenue:
We had no problems finding a couple of seats directly at the bar and checked out their all new cocktail list. We started with a couple of excellent cocktails: the Trouble in Paradise (Bourbon, Campari, Basil, lemon juice, grapefruit juice, black pepper tincture) and a Suffering Bastard (Armagnac, St. George Terroir Gin, fresh ginger, lime juice, soda, bitters):
Paying homage to the Italian-American history of North Beach, the menu takes on an Italian slant separated into Antipasti, First, Second, Third, and Vegetables sections. The Crispy Pig Tails from the Antipasti section are not typically Italian, but something you would expect to come from Chef Bloomfield. They are definitely a hands-only affair since the meat from the fried pork is meant to be gnawed off the bone. The agrodolce sauce added some moisture and sweetness to the fatty but great pig bite:
Alas, they were out of the Oxtail Terrine the night we came in. Our bartender noticed we had a penchant for offal, so he asked the kitchen to prepare us a plate of a Pig’s Ear Terrine that was decadently soft and tender. This item is not on the menu, but might, for all we know, be part of the cured meats plate. The cross-cut thin slice preparation was a totally new style of pig’s ear for us, and we wonder why we haven’t seen it before (typically it’s fried in strips, and once we had it as Chicharron):
We’re suckers for anything that has tonnato sauce (commonly made with a mixture of tuna and mayo) on it, and the Fried Artichokes served with a tonnato vinaigrette, draped anchovies and capers might have been our favorite dish of the evening. Topped with arugula, the cured fish and capers added the right amount of saltiness to the fried artichoke rosettes:
Bar Director Isaac Shumway, who has extensive experience at Bourbon and Branch, was behind the bar that evening and shook us another round of excellent Bartender’s Choice Rye cocktails: a classic Vieux Carre and a Manhattan-derivative Red Hook:
The artichokes were from the ‘First’ section, as was this excellent Chicken Liver Spiedini served on a crostata. The tender liver lobes were cooked with Marsala wine, drizzled with a Balsamic and topped with salsa verde. The richness of this delicious liver dish made us feel full so that we couldn’t really move on to the larger format items:
So instead of getting a pasta or main dish, we moved back to the antipasti section and ordered something that was simply labeled “BAR SANDWICH.” It turned out to be an excellently grilled prosciutto and cheese mini-panini that really is an excellent bar sandwich:
To pair with the sandwich, we ordered the Crispy Potatoes from the ‘Vegetables’ section of the menu. These addictively great potato chunks must have been baked before being fried in pork fat. Flavored with garlic and rosemary seasoning, the spud pillows were airy, creamy and crispy:
The antique cappuccino machine was never used to make coffee in Tosca’s previous incarnation, as the ‘House Cappuccino’ was a blend of frothy hot chocolate and brandy (a Prohibition-era drink). The renovated machine now makes Shumway’s updated House Cappuccino 1919 (Marie Duffau Bas Armagnac, Buffalo Trace Bourbon, Dandelion Chocolate Ganache, organic milk). Plenty of orders for this drink came in, as we watched every order get shouted by the bartenders down the line and repeated back by the cappuccino maker at the other end of the long bar:
It was another lovely evening in San Francisco outside of the cafe: down Columbus is the famous Transamerica building and the Columbus Tower, as captured by the non-flash light-field Lytro camera:
Ok, now these guys know how to cook and display the food. Looks really splendid!
Thanks Eugen! Yes, when dealing with all parts of the pig, you know it will be great food! They make great drinks too.
Here in Emilia-Romagna, Italy we use every part of the pig, but I’ve never seen such a whole cured pig’s ear!
Usually here the ear is cutted and mixed with other “waste” parts during the meat processing.
Was that ear smoked or just cooked and cured with spices?
Ciao Ilaria! Actually, since corrected as a Pig Ear Terrine. A pig’s ear is naturally striated with meat, skin, fat and cartilege so it makes for a dramatic cross-cut, but on closer inspection, we realize that this is a couple of layers of pig’s ear (hence the terrine). I would suspect that they probably cook for a very long time or pressure cook it to break down the cartilage and muscle, then fold the ear over or stack a couple of layers to form the terrine, then slice it while cold. It was soft and very tasty with the texture not that far off from a lardo (even the skin was very soft).
One serving of those delicious-looking potatoes for me, please.
Oh, make it a double…
Yes, we admit those potatoes are definitely uniquely great; something between a baked potato and fries with plenty of flavor!
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