Cotogna – San Francisco, CA
I was thrilled to be coming back to San Francisco for my first time in over two years as a little celebration after completing my first year teaching at Davidson. The main event, of course, was the food, and the crowning jewel a visit to Atelier Crenn. However, I had two other nights during which I had to find places to dine, and San Francisco is certainly not shy of amazing offerings!
Michael Tusk is a San Francisco institution. When he and his wife Lindsay opened Quince in Pacific Heights in 2003, it quickly became one of the city's most acclaimed eateries, serving locavore Californian cuisine with an Italian bent. Quince had earned three Michelin stars by 2017, and moved to its current Jackson Square location, next door to which Tusk opened the more casual, traditional Italian spot, Cotogna, with means "Quince" in Italian.
I ate at Quince a few years back and had a really wonderful, if a shade uninventive, meal, and though I have always wanted to try Tusk's more accessible offering in the city, it somehow gets overlooked each time I visit. Well, this time, I had a little date in SF, so Italian seemed appropriate, and Cotogna had a spot for their outdoor patio for my first night in the city. So I booked it!
Despite being served a mediocre sandwich by American Airlines, I was super hungry after my flight, especially because my brain and stomach were still three hours ahead on eastern time! Jarron, my cute date, met me at my hotel and we embarked on a chilly walk through the marine layer to the Financial District. Cotogna has set up a beautiful street-side patio looking much like the ones in New York that I'd gotten used to after my handful of visits. Olive trees decorated the patio structure and strands of lights kept a nice glow, with heaters overhead to break through that San Francisco chill.
We were greeted by our server and given a copy of the menu, and Jarron gave me carte blanche to make the selections (good choice!). So, I went for several of the dishes I knew to be classics for the restaurant, and a couple other seasonal delights. And, my friends, it turned out to be a carb fest, in the best way possible.
I opened with a delicious gin and tonic that included an Italian aperitivo for a nice sort of bitter finish. Really delicious. Jarron got a drink made with grappa, ginger, and lime. Also very tasty, and since we were both fully vaccinated, we were able to trade tastes! What a concept after 14 months of a pandemic!
Cotogna's best-known appetizer dish is a board of San Danieli prosciutto, some of the best Italian prosciutto you can get, with little puffed breads that are hollow inside, a sweet, creamy gorgonzola spread, and pickled onions. This was awesome because you could stuff each half of the hollow bread with the various ingredients and chow down. The funk of the gorgonzola was magical, while the tang of the onion helped cut through the fatty pork. Absolutely fabulous!
Alongside the prosciutto, we rounded out our appetizer course with some crudo (raw fish) of local halibut, served with garlic chips, greens (or should I say "reds"?) and a sort of pesto made out of fava bean leaves. The fish was snappy and fresh, and the fava leaf sauce delicious, but the course definitely paled in comparison to the prosciutto!
For a middle course, we decided to split one of their pizzas. But first, some wine! Jarron was a stranger to orange wines, which are skin-contact whites, and Cotogna has a healthy selection of such wines on their list. I ordered a bottle of orange wine made with Malvasia grapes from northern Italy, which had an aromatic, almost cider or beer-like quality to it, and Jarron and I both really enjoyed it, though I did neglect to take a photo! Oops.
The pizza we ordered turned out to be my second-favorite thing we ate that night. Capicola is a spicy Italian ham that absolutely bursts with flavor. The wood-fired pizza was served in a very traditional style with capicola, San Marzano tomatoes, and fried oregano leaves. Just spicy enough, with loads of flavor and a nicely charred crust, the pizza was absolutely delicious, and we managed to polish it off fairly quickly between the two of us.
But at Cotogna, you're here for the pasta. And it's just as good as Quince's, for a fraction of the price. It was the tail end of Dungeness crab season in San Francisco, so we absolutely had to get the taglioni with Dungeness crab meat, Meyer lemon, and spicy peppers. I love a seafood pasta with citrus and peppers, and the crab meat shined in this simple, unfussy preparation. Divine, and perfect with the wine!
The other two pasta dishes we ordered were things for which Cotogna is famous, perhaps no dish more so than their plate-sized raviolo (note, "raviolo" over "ravioli," since there's just one!) loaded with ricotta, swimming in brown butter, and topped with a poached egg yolk. So simple, and so perfect––the brown butter brought everything together in nutty, artery-hardening glory, and made the yolk taste impossibly more creamy and magnificent than before. So goddamn good, and my placemat was covered with little drips of butter after. I was glad they gave us a spoon to scoop up some of the more liquid bits!
Last but not least, we ordered the one pasta dish that has been on the menu since opening––agnolotti del plin, which was originally on Quince's menu in 2003, is a rabbit agnolotti with a Piedmontese sauce called sugo d'arrosto, made from the drippings created by roasting meats. The sugo was thick, full of flavor, and almost sweet, and each little rabbit agnolotti burst with flavor. Not a great pairing with the orange wine, but we did our best matching three different pasta dishes!
We were so stuffed with carbs that we decided to just get a scoop of gelato for dessert. Now, let me be clear––gelato at Cotogna is not "just" gelato. Jenn's gelato is the product of a literal gelato school in Italy. It is made in the traditional manner, and they offer a handful of flavors each night. Tonight, Jarron and I split a scoop of the magnificently complex roast pineapple gelato. So rich and intensely flavored, and a perfect last bite before we had to haul ourselves (and our now carb-filled bodies) back up Nob Hill to burn off some of these calories!
I loved Cotogna and would not hesitate to go back. This is a place where you get three-Michelin-star food from a three-Michelin-star chef without having to pay anything close to three-Michelin-star prices. Divine. And, when in San Francisco, Italian food is one of the "must haves." Check it out if you're in town!
I dined at THREE restaurants helmed by three-Michelin-star chefs on this trip, though only one of those places actually is the restaurant awarded those stars! Thrilled to share more culinary delights from the City by the Bay, one of my favorite cities in the world. Stay tuned!