Delfina is great and has been for over a decade, but it is still hip and does it still have star power? My answer is...YES. There's a large wood entry door like there should be a bouncer out front, the dining room is cramped, the bar area is small, the ambient noise carries throughout, and reservations are tough to come by. Why would anyone want to go there? Of course, for the FOOD!
Delfina launched the Mission gourmet ghetto scene in 1998 with homestyle cooking, freshly prepared pastas, locally sourced ingredients, and a daily changing menu based on the season. Owner and chef Craig Stoll appeared on the cover of Food & Wine Magazine in 2001 as one of the top ten new chefs in the US. Seven years later he received the James Beard Award for Best Chef Pacific. That says it all, right?
Sheila and I went to Defina over ten years ago on one of our early dates. I can recall how difficult it was to get a reservation, hence the reason it wasn't our first date. We were seated in the back corner of the dark dining area surrounded by an SF foodie crowd. It was a great night for certain, however neither of us truly comprehended how great the food was back then until we visited Delfina recently. So on an Indian Summer Friday night in Sept, we made the trip back to this much heralded Italian-inspired California trattoria.
The space appeared much larger then we first remember with approx 70 seats and a small bar area. There are locally created art piece hanging throughout the space and dimly light pendant lights over each table. The space is warm and inviting, which is exactly what they're going for. The waiter warmed greeted a few mins after we were seated and after letting him know that we were vegetarian, he jumped right in to explain the entire menu, dish by dish. This was great touch because it allowed us to hear the best dishes from both his and the kitchen's perspective since the menu changes every night based on the ingredients in season. After ordered a couple of glasses of recommended wine (Barbera and Timorasso), we decided on our dishes.
Fresh stretched mozzarella with heirloom tomatoes and basil oil - This was the kitchen's take on a caprese salad. The heirloom tomatoes were firm, juicy and sweet; felt like no other tomato I've eaten before. The dish was gently seasoned with some fresh ground pepper which grounded the dish. A handful of arugula added another layer of earthiness and texture. The mozzarella, made and stretched in house, was light, soft, and airy. And it was the mozzarella and tomatoes that were in perfect harmony - saltiness of the cheese balanced with the ripened sweetness of the tomatoes. They even split the portion for us before serving which was a great touch. The kitchen recommended this dish because this season's supply of tomatoes and basil have been the best they have seen in several years. Both of us agreed and we would order it again!
Spaghetti with plum tomatoes, garlic, basil - Cooked al dente, this wasn't an overpowering dish of tomato sauce or pasta; both were mixed to perfection. The dish has a lot of sweet undertones due to the tomatoes. You could taste the slight flavors of garlic and evoo, but neither were meant to be the star of this dish. The plate was filling by not food coma status, like your run of the mill spaghetti dishes. In fact the table right next to us liked it so much that they order another one half-way through their meal. Sheila felt the same way and would order it again. Note this pasta dish takes 25 mins to cook because it's the only hard pasta they have on the menu; all others freshly made to order. It comes in two sizes - side dish or main course. Order the main course side at $13, it's actually just the right amount.
Pansotti stuffed with ricotta and dandelions served over a walnut cream sauce - A delightful walnut cream sauce that was infused with lemon. It gave the dish an overall citrus/acidic tone and also kept the cream sauce very light. The stuffed pastas with ricotta and dandelions was freshly made and you could tell. Soft and moist, each bite just melted in my mouth. I had a tough time tasting the dandelions, perhaps because the walnut and lemon were so prominent. Of course my palate is not as discerning so don't take my word for it. All in all there was good balance - saltiness from the ricotta, earthiness from the walnuts, zest from the lemon, and creaminess from the sauce. At $17, this was a good value selection. Although I have to say that the portion size was a bit smaller than expected. That just mean I had room for dessert!
Profiteroles with espresso gelato, warm chocolate sauce, and candied almonds - Three roles were served side by side on crisp white plate. Sheila's first bite was of the espresso gelato and almonds which were very strong. My first bite was the profiteroles with chocolate sauce and it was rather bitter. However eaten together the dish worked well - sweetness from the almonds, bitterness from the chocolate, creaminess from the gelato, and crunchiness from the profiteroles. I would have preferred a bit more warmed to balance out the ice cream, perhaps warming the profiteroles? After a while all you could taste was the ice cream and the dish ended up being pretty heavy; I struggled to finish the last one. There was a apples and honey dessert available for Rosh Hashanah. Alas I was swayed by the chocolate on the menu; Sheila would have preferred to order this; let's hope they have it next time.
Ten years later, Delfina remains the gourmet ghetto stalwart. All around it, there are liked minded restaurants popping up from Farina and Bar Tartine to Flour + Water and Frances. However, it continues to play to sold out crowds each night with a superb quality of food. We'll be back for sure, just not after 10 years again! Who wants to come with us the next time?!?!