Where homage to tradition is transcendent: Cotogna in San Francisco, one of my best meals this year.

Wines for Peace: Brunello Consortium auction benefitting Ukraine, Monday, April 11, at Vinitaly. Click here to learn more.

Since the late 1980s, Italian cuisine in the U.S. has been shaped by a tension between traditional- and creative-leaning forces.

Remember the wave of “northern Italian cuisine” that came around in the Reagan years? “Sunday gravy” was out and polenta was in.

The problem was that culinary interpreters often didn’t see these dishes in historical or cultural context. The rich meat- and jus-driven sauces we ate as kids in this country were a derivative of haute Neapolitan cuisine (vis-à-vis Ippolito Cavalcanti).

Polenta, on the other hand, so popular “rustic” and “peasant” (ugh, I can’t stomach that term) movements of the late 1990s, was a dish that many older people in Italy refused to eat at the time because it reminded them of a time when there wasn’t enough to eat (the 19th-century pellagra crisis in Italy was caused in part because polenta had become a staple for economically marginalized families; in the years following WWII, many older Italians in the north will tell you, polenta was all they had to eat).

Making my way over to Cotogna from my hotel in San Francisco the other night, I couldn’t help but remember a chilly winter evening in the late 80s when I stopped a man on the street and asked him if he knew the way to a certain “trattoria,” a name for pseudo-Italian restaurants that had become popular in the second half of the decade.

He did, he responded, but he would only tell me — and I’m not kidding about this — if I pronounced it correctly.

It wasn’t traht-toh-REE-ah, as I had enunciated it. It was traht-TOH-ree’ah, with the emphasis on the second syllable, not the second to last.

It kinda says it all, right there.

In my view and experience, the greatest Italian restaurants in the U.S. have always found a precarious however brilliant balance between the traditional and creative. And my meal at Cotogna was a fantastic example of how respectful homage to tradition can be transcendent.

The carrot sformato (first photo) blew me away with its ethereal texture and subtle dance of bold but elegant flavors. Sformato — properly called a savory custard in English — is all about the texture. It should be firm but light, rich but buoyant. I know already from my Instagram that people agree with me: this dish was nothing short of show-stopping. I loved it.

The asparagus alla fiorentina (second photo) brought to mind trips to San Francisco with my parents when I was a child in the 70s. They would slurp coffee as they inhaled “eggs Florentine” at a swank hotel restaurant on Union Square.

This truly Florentine-inspired dish sang out to me. The flavor — the bontà or goodness as we say in Italian — of the materia prima was nothing short of spectacular. And I loved the play in texture — again, texture! — between the lardons and American-style bacon (which btw is extremely popular in Italy today).

The finale, garganelli with rabbit, also played on its balance of textures and subtle flavors. I loved that the rabbit was ground, not stringy, and the richly flavored pasta was the focus of this dish, not the rabbit. I couldn’t agree or have enjoyed it more.

Paired with the delicious, spicy Ruché Panta Rhei by Valdisole (thank you, Ceri Smith!), this dish became the synecdoche for the entire dinner. For a generation who grew up complaining that there wasn’t enough sauce on the soggy over-cooked and rinsed pasta, it made me feel like we might finally have adolesced.

Thank you wine director Joseph Di Grigoli and team for taking such good care of me. Your work is as inspiring as it is delicious.

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