Culture & Criticism From the Far Distant Realms
There are countless Italian restaurants in San Francisco’s famed North Beach district. Unfortunately, many of them are tourist traps where phonies hawk plates of spaghetti and meatballs in really sweet red sauce.
More often than not, the windows of these places tend to be framed in an array of empty Chianti bottles, the waiters featuring that all-too-perfect Roman accent.
Sadly, as times have changed, fewer and fewer of San Francisco’s Italian eateries strive to set themselves apart – either by-way of an authentic menu or a unique vision.
But Volare – with its ornate interior that pays homage to the Greco-Roman connection – breaks the mold.
Volare, sitting catty-corner to Washington Square Park and the ever-elegant Saint Peter and Paul Church, has been owned and operated by chef Tony Fragale and local entrepreneur Maurzio Iantorno since 2008.
Fragale is a restaurant veteran who’s worked in some of the city’s best venues (Antica Trattoria; Spendido; Prego), having undertaken formal training as a chef in Italy before he immigrated to the United States in the late 1980s.
Volare is immediately recognizable because it’s one of the few Italian restaurants to focus on Southern Italian cooking (on the food that grows out of the Sicilian region at the heel of ‘the boot’) – and do it well.
The lengthy menu at Volare boasts a wide assortment of home-made pasta, meat and fish dishes that resonate with flavor and freshness – the food noted for its bright tones and for the way the kitchen delicately use spices (enhancing the ingredients rather than suffocating them).
Signature dishes include the Caponata Siciliana – this appetizer is a wonderful ‘sweet-and-sour’ blend of egg-plant, tomatoes, capers, celery, onions and olives that is meant to be spread on bread.
The Caponata is a reflection of the over-all vision of Volare and it paints a truly unique taste: The sweet of the tomato playing off the bitter hue of the olive/egg-plant with perfect subtlety.
Another appetizer worth mention is the Carpaccio di Manzo – thin slices of raw beef tenderloin served on a bed of arugola, topped with olive oil, capers and shaved Parmesan cheese. The beef is so flavorful and tender and the ingredients blend together with such flare that the meat actually leaves no greasy after-taste (which is a common problem with other versions of this dish).
In terms of entrees, pastas dominate the leader-board: The Pasta Del Pescatore (seafood pasta) is the menu’s centerpiece, featuring a wonderful amalgamation of clams, mussels, shrimp, calamari and prawns in a tart garlic-infused red sauce.
Also notable is the Penne Sicilia – a nuanced mix of eggplant, tomato sauce, fresh basil and dollops of ricotta that rises in perfect balance: the tartness of the eggplant off-set by the creamy sweetness of the cheese comes to create Volare’s best vegetarian plate.
Other stand-outs include Fragale’s Lasagna Casalinga (homemade pasta with tomato and cream sauce) and the Gnocchi Agli Spinaci – homemade potato-spinach dumplings in a rich and smoky Gorgonzola cream sauce.
Insofar as meat entrees, the Veal Marsala is notable: tender slices of milk-fed veal is seared on high heat and then served in a sauce comprised of Marsala wine, white mushrooms and beef-stock. Fragale’s version is ultra-light, yet still filling – a testament to what happens when the right chef uses top ingredients to build his menu.
You can also get a helluva pizza at Volare that rivals the fare at any of the local (and more advertised) pizzerias. Volare regularly offers six pizzas on its menu; the Margherita, with its ultra-light mozzarella and sweet basil combo, and the Al Prosciutto, featuring imported Parma ham that’s been aged for some 14-months, are the fan-favorites.
However, all six pizzas are made on the same thin crust – delicate and seared to the perfect level of crispness, it’s a true New York version of everyone’s favorite indulgence. In fact, I think Volare’s pizza is so good that it could easily be the ‘slice house’ of choice in the city should Fragale ever chose to explore that path.
More than anything, Fragale’s cooking is about the way layers of texture and flavor merge to build the ‘plate of choice’ – eating at Volare is more about satisfying you and making you say “Wow! That’s really good!” rather than over-whelming you with another San Francisco ‘dining experience.’
And in these tough times when you’re trying to make every dollar count, isn’t that what picking a restaurant is all about?
BAR: Full bar. Plus coffee, espresso and soda.
STAFF: Veteran wait-staff gets the food to the table in short-order; moreover, they are able to offer recommendations to diners who need direction.
ATMOSPHERE: Classy and spacious, Volare is an option for family night as well as for couples looking to spark romance while looking out across the bustle of Columbus Avenue.
OVER-ALL: Varied menu specializing in food from the south of Italy: Volare brings back the taste of Old North Beach while recalling a way of business that’s been lost by restaurateurs chasing tourist dollars.
COST: Moderate. Two can dine well for around $50.00, including tip and a glass of wine. Hearty portions make it a real value in a district where portions are becoming smaller and smaller.
OF SPECIAL NOTE: Volare is one of the few North Beach eateries to openly and sincerely welcome children, with 10+ items (such as cheese and tomato pizza and pasta with butter and cheese) on a stand-alone kid’s menu specifically designed for the junior diner. All in all, it shows that Volare is truly striving to re-invent the concept of family restaurant – good food served in reasonable portions with a place at the table for the kids, too.
HOURS: Monday through Friday, 4 PM to 9:30 PM; Saturday 1 PM to 10:30 PM; Sunday, 1 PM to 9:30 PM. Volare opens at 12:30 PM daily for lunch during the summer season.