It’s nice to know that in San Francisco, the old doesn’t get tossed away. It gets recycled, or – in the case of the landmark Tosca Café – a second chance.
This 94-year-0ld North Beach drinking establishment has been known more for its speakeasy décor with dark corner tables perfect for the wheeling and dealing that goes on by local politicians who have come and gone through the years. Whenever I visited in the past, it was always when our group felt a bit of nostalgia and wanted a classic coffee drink or plate of tiramisu.
Food was never a part of Tosca Café’s history, and when the proprietorship changed hands last year, it took a couple of New Yorkers to make food the highlight of this San Francisco institution.
Ken Friedman and Chef April Bloomfield have carefully renovated the Tosca Café, retaining the murals of Italian scenes on the walls and the long bar at the front entryway. They added an open kitchen, which serves as a bright stage for Bloomfield as she works and assembles her dishes for diners.
I had a front-row seat when I dined recently with my other food blogger friends, the gluttinous Sandy of Foodhoe Foraging and the adventurous Tara of Food (and Other Things). Sitting at a table in front of the open kitchen, we saw the kitchen and service team work like clockwork, efficiently moving dishes and clearing tables with precision.
I have to admit that I wasn’t feeling all myself that night, so the menu didn’t seem to speak to me. I felt like there were a lot of meat-heavy dishes that wouldn’t do well for my cholesterol, which always excites Sandy because she always seem to zero in on the dishes that puts my health to the test.
For example, the crispy pig tails ($9) was something she knew she had to order. I can’t tell you much about this dish because I didn’t try it and the darkness of the dining room made it difficult to really see what was happening on the plate. It didn’t look like tails, but more like slices of pork. But Sandy and Tara both loved it – a dish that remains indescribable but good, it seems.
A Bloomfield Fan
I was looking forward to our meal, though, because I had eaten at one of Bloomfield’s New York restaurants, The Spotted Pig, in Greenwich Village and fell in love with her hearty Italian pasta dishes and offal-plenty entrees. She definitely brought the pig-heavy menu to Tosca, but doesn’t seem to offer very much else, other than maybe a bowl of manila clams, one fish entrée, and three salads.
Still, there was much to enjoy, including what could give Zuni Café a run for the money for the title of best chicken dish in the city. Just like Zuni’s classic roasted chicken dish, Bloomfield’s roasted chicken ($42) takes an hour to prepare, and arrives to the table beautifully plated and sitting on a layer of toasted bread with a ricotta spread.
My favorite dish of the night was our pasta selection of bucatini ($17) with tasty guanciale infusing the house tomato sauce with a lot of flavor. But it was the perfectly cooked al dente bucatini that I loved. It had just the right bite, not mushy like you get at many restaurants, making it something you want more and more.
The dessert menu offers a lot of Italian classics like cannoli and tiramisu. But we went with our server’s recommendation, who raved about the buttermilk gelati ($6), which was tart like buttermilk but light and airy. Really more a palate cleanser, which probably was enough for me that night.
The Last Bite
Tosca Café still draws people for its bar and remains a late-night destination, but its kitchen is now beaming with flavorful food and Italian dishes that will keep diners talking for years to come.
Rating: 3 out of 4 camera snaps
Tosca Café, 242 Columbus Ave., San Francisco. PH: 415.986.9651. Open Tuesday through Sunday, from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. No reservations. Major credit cards accepted. toscacafesf.com
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