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Special Places

In my mind, Terzo is tops

A cozy night at Terzo. Photo: courtesy Terzo

Guess what?” I asked my friend. “I’m going to take you to my favorite restaurant in the city. And I know you’re gonna love it!”

I can’t remember exactly when I first had dinner at Terzo in Cow Hollow, but I’m pretty sure it was soon after it opened in 2006. I do remember absolutely how I felt the minute I walked into the warm, intimate space with its gleaming wood bar, wooden tables sans tablecloths, partially exposed brick walls, and hanging Edison light bulbs. I felt at home. And that was before I had even sampled Terzo’s delectable assortment of Mediterranean-inspired small plates and desserts to die for. Suddenly I had a new favorite restaurant.

FOOD FIT FOR A FOODIE

I am definitely a foodie. I read about every new restaurant that opens in the Bay Area, and I make plans to visit all that sound intriguing. That doesn’t exactly fit my budget or my lifestyle because I am also both loyal and a creature of habit. If I like a place, a dish, I’ll go back again and again. When a good restaurant closes, I feel exactly the same way I feel when my favorite lipstick is discontinued: distraught. What will I do without it?

Thankfully, Terzo has stayed put, a small place with some of the friendliest waitstaff ever, despite the fast pace at which they navigate gracefully between the kitchen and the dining room. It has a truly great wine list, especially wines by the glass; and a menu that never fails to retain old favorites while adding seasonal specials. Terzo is the place I take dates, girlfriends — and when she’s in town from New York —my daughter, Annie, who loves the restaurant as much as I do.

Mark Gordon, original chef and now chef emeritus, and businesswoman and owner Laurie Thomas, named this spot Terzo — the word “third” in Italian — inspired by a trip to the coastal regions around the Mediterranean. The menu represents influences from Italy, Spain, Portugal, Morocco, France, and the Middle East. Gordon is an experienced chef who also served as executive chef at Rose’s Café, Terzo’s sister restaurant across the street. Thomas owns both restaurants (she also owned the recently closed Rose Pistola in North Beach). While Gordon still plays an active role in Terzo’s kitchen, Miguel Tzab, its former chef de cuisine, is now the executive chef.

A SPOT WITH STAYING POWER

On a recent Monday night around 8 p.m., Terzo was hopping. My friend was late coming from the East Bay, so I had plenty of time to people watch and sip a glass of wine. I’m a fan of dry whites, and I had plenty to choose from: everything from California chardonnay and sauvignon blanc to Spanish albarino. An unfamiliar varietal caught my eye: a French picpoul de pinet. The hostess, who had greeted me warmly and offered me a choice of tables, asked if I’d like a taste. It was tart yet rich, and I immediately ordered a glass that the equally cheerful server brought right away. It was a nice pour; Terzo doesn’t stint on anything.

MENU NEVER DISAPPOINTS

My friend arrived and ordered a glass of Italian red, immediately picking up his menu. “I’m hungry,” he announced. We decided to share the hummus (which is some of the best hummus in town) with house-made pita; the grilled Monterey Bay calamari with lentils, spinach, and aioli; and the arugula salad with pear, toasted walnuts, Gorgonzola, and balsamic vinaigrette. My eyes wandered toward the roasted mixed vegetables with honey and manchego and the butternut squash soup with brown butter and sage, but they’ll have to wait for another visit. The server made sure the plates came two at a time, and all of them were as delicious as I remembered.

For larger plates, we ordered roasted wild Coho salmon with faro, zucchini, and bell peppers; Greek-style braised chicken with orzo, yogurt, lemon and fried rosemary, a dish I recalled; and braised Niman Ranch pork shoulder with mashed potatoes and green beans. I had a small plate for my entrée, tomato-braised pork meatballs with creamy polenta — such toothsome, tender meatballs, and the creamiest polenta with regggiano cheese.

We were both stuffed and had to decline when asked about dessert. But the memory of the flourless chocolate cake with cocoa-nib-toffee whipped cream and the vanilla ice cream sundae with caramel-chocolate sauce (self-processed chocolate junkie here) persist.

Restaurants may come and go, but special spots like Terzo will remain at the top of my list. Its cozy vibe, pleasant staff, and reliably innovative, satisfying menu can’t be matched.

Terzo: 3011 Steiner Street, 415-441-3200, terzosf.com; Sunday–Thursday 5:30–9:30 p.m., Friday–Saturday 5:30–10 p.m.

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