I had a dream the other night, and in it, I was at the original Oritalia on Fillmore Street in the mid-1990s when chef Bruce Hill was in charge of the restaurant’s innovative Asian-Italian fusion menu. Even waving away the haze after I awoke, I could almost taste the delicacies I ate in my dream, particularly the diced ahi tuna and mango mix with wasabi on a mini rice cake, and a spectacular seafood pasta entrée — Hill’s yellow jack scaloppini.
It’s been so many years since I haunted Oritalia. Back then, I’d start salivating while simply thinking of those two items, which I made a habit of ordering on a regular basis. Here’s a rule of tongue: When you start smacking your lips while thinking of a dish or find yourself dreaming about it, it’s probably pretty special. Oritalia is just a memory now. Though the eatery relocated (and eventually closed), Hill moved on beforehand to run the Waterfront, then Bix and Fog City, among other fine-dining establishments in the Bay Area — including my favorite gourmet pizza place in San Francisco, Zero Zero on Folsom. Yet the sense memories from Oritalia endure.
Without question, a multitude of restaurants thrives on signature dishes that serve as magnets to longtime customers and first-timers with guidebooks or access to word-of-mouth. Consider my friend Patty, whose mad love for a certain preparation drove her out to Il Ristorante di Giorgio Baldi, a high-end Northern Italian place off the Pacific Coast Highway in Pacific Palisades. What she craved: Carpaccio di Manzo alla Salsa di Tartufo, which is sliced raw beef and truffle under olive oil, with melted fontina cheese and cream. Sounds heart blockingly delicious. Heck, I’d have a bite.
CULINARY MAGNETISM IN EFFECT
If I happen to be in San Francisco or Los Angeles or any other city that’s considered a foodie hub, I do like many others and seek out trademark dishes at an assortment of dining destinations. In an earlier column, I mentioned my near insatiable love for the hot-and-sweet and garlic chicken wings from KyoChon, a take-out or eat-in Korean joint in a Los Angeles strip mall. The need for those little flavor bombs can get so great that I will drive across the entirety of the Los Angeles Basin just to procure a box of six wings and drumsticks. In Southern California, where “geographically undesirable” is a relationship killer for people who live more than 10 miles apart, that’s devotion.
Before my San Francisco/ Los Angeles timeshare lifestyle ramped up, I made it my business to hit Michelangelo on Columbus in North Beach twice a month. The lure? Their inimitable pasta calamari — not to mention the heavenly dressing on the house salad. The garlicky nature of the pasta sauce and salad dressing might have been somewhat intense for the more delicate of diners. Not for me. And the endless bowl of amaretto cookies brought to the table upon the end of the meal sealed the deal and went perfectly with an espresso. I’m uncertain if new owners changed the menu and dropped the complimentary treats. That wouldn’t alter the fact that I was a moth and Michelangelo’s calamari was the gustatory flame for years.
HUNGER TO THE EXTREME
The chicken enchiladas in mole sauce at Puerto Allegre on Valencia in the Mission? Incomparable! The seafood gumbo with cornbread and collard greens at the Gumbo Pot in Los Angeles’s farmers’ market? Comfort food supreme! More dishes to stimulate the appetite and entice a customer repeatedly. So occasionally, you get a hankering.
Sometimes that passion for a specific dish has the potential to boil over into something ugly. Consider the case of the great Geno’s versus Pat’s rivalry. I’ve heard truly heated debates over which shop in Philadelphia makes the best cheesesteak sandwiches — Geno’s Steaks or Pat’s King of Steaks (the latter purportedly the original home of the cheesesteak). The fact that they sit across from one another on Ninth Street in South Philly makes the rivalry even more pronounced. Calories and cholesterol be damned, people in the Delaware Valley area will travel from far, far away to go to one of the two. And I have no doubt that there have been arguments about the superiority of one over the other that resulted in fisticuffs. That’s devotion, too — albeit, a tad extreme.