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Hungry Palate

The Original U.S. Restaurant: Italian with Sicilian sensibility

Linguine con vongole. photo: originalusrestaurant.com

There was rejoicing in the streets of North Beach late last year when the Original U.S. Restaurant reopened after it was forced to close at its previous site. The reopening was a major event in the neighborhood. It represented one uptick on a slippery slope that has seen restaurant closings demoralizing many of us.

For those unfamiliar with this venerable North Beach establishment, let me add a bit of history. It opened in 1919 and the U.S. stood for Unione Sportiva — a union of neighborhood Italian athletic clubs. This is the third iteration of the restaurant since that time. Gaspare Giudice, from Sicily, who makes a fine and knowledgeable host, has owned and operated the restaurant since 2004. Benjamin Ruiz is executive chef, not from Sicily, but a Mexican with a Sicilian attitude. Additional investors in the new operation are Alberto Cipollina, who ran the original place for many years, and Mario Alioto, marketing boss for the Giants.

OLD PHOTOS ADD HISTORIC CHARM

Several years ago, I reviewed the U.S. Restaurant for Northside San Francisco and gave it a favorable rating. It’s time to reassess this neighborhood standby in its new location, 414 Columbus Avenue, formerly the site of the now-defunct Colosseo.

Some will remember the site as the former Nebbia Bakery. Sensibly, Gaspare and his associates uncovered the original mural from the dining room ceiling — wonderful cherubs with loaves of bread in hand — but got rid of the gaudy wall murals of Roman gladiators on the streets of Rome, which were added by Colosseo. Now the pale blue walls that match the ceiling are covered with historic black-and-white photos from the restaurant’s past. Terracotta tile floors complete the seasoned look, and there’s a wine bar at the rear laid out for counter dining.

CALAMARI FRITTI

The new U.S. Restaurant seems like old times to me: Roast shoulder of lamb and lima beans ($22) on Tuesday was, and still is, one of my favorites. The lamb is roasted with a blizzard of rosemary that perfumes it nicely. It’s crackly on the outside and a bit pink in the inside. The lima beans are slightly al dente. I usually add a bit of olive oil, and also ask the kitchen to cover them with chopped, raw red onion.

A few other outstanding daily specials are stewed tripe ($16) on Wednesday. Tripe may not be everyone’s favorite, but if done with care, as U.S. Restaurant does it, cooked for hours in a rich and spicy tomato sauce, it is superb. On Friday, the calamari fritti ($17) is a good choice with a peppery, white-flour batter coating. It’s deep fried very quickly, and the calamari is crunchy and not oily as it sometimes is at other restaurants. And one of the specials on Saturday is calves’ liver and onions ($18), nicely accomplished, sautéed baby liver with a topping of grilled onions.

SOME EXCELLENT PIZZAS

Besides the specialties mentioned above, the lunch menu includes omelets ($10) any style, a series of sandwiches ($10.50–$15), including some Sicilian-style offerings and all served with salad or fries. There’s a soup ($5 cup, $8 bowl) of the day. I like to begin with pastina en brodo ($3 cup, $5 bowl), a rich chicken broth with those tiny bits of pasta swimming around. And there are 10 or more pasta dishes ($10–$14), all with red sauces executed well by the kitchen, and quite lusty. There are also some excellent pizzas ($12–$16). My favorite is the Sicilian Trapanese with fresh tomatoes, mozzarella, and Sicilian sausage ($16).

At lunch U.S. Restaurant is decidedly informal. There’s the scurrying friendliness of the servers, who initially place a basket of crusty bread on your table along with a small bowl of cold cannellini beans, dressed with olive oil, wine vinegar, chopped onion, and bit of celery. It’s a complimentary appetizer and a good way to start your meal.

SICILIAN SPECIALITIES

Evenings, U.S. Restaurant becomes a bit more formal with white tablecloths and a more extensive menu — all Italian, but with many Sicilian specialties that remind Gaspare of his homeland. There’s a sizable dinner menu with offerings of antipasti ($8–$20), insalada ($8–$16), pasta ($12–$20), pesce ($20–$32), pollo ($18), carne ($17–$28), contorni (side orders, $6–$8), and a variety of pizzas ($13–$17).

One thing I do miss at U.S. Restaurant is sitting at the counter in the old place and watching the cooks sling those hot pans back and forth as they prepared my meal. These days the kitchen is out of sight, and when I mentioned this to Gaspare, he invited me back there to watch Benjamin prepare my linguine con vongole ($20). In a large, hot pan he lavished some olive oil and a spoonful of minced garlic. A minute or two later he tossed in a couple dozen Manila clams from Washington state, and poured in about a cup, or a bit more, of white wine. After giving the whole thing a good shake, he placed another large pan upside down over the one on the stove, and turned the heat to high. After about five minutes he uncovered the pan, made sure all the clams had opened, added a dash or two of salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes, and a sprinkling of Italian parsley. After a few more shakes of the pan, he drained some linguine and added it to the pan. A few more shakes and he served the linguine con vongole in a hot bowl, and I followed my server, Renee, out to my table in the dining room. It was a wonderful meal — simple, but elegant at the same time.

The wine list is modest and built around Italian and California vintage offerings. The house red ($7) is adequate. There’s also a selection of beers.

Original U.S. Restaurant: 414 Columbus Avenue, 415-398-1300, originalusrestaurant.com; daily 11 a.m.–11 p.m.

◆◆◆

AMBIENCE

Although this is a large dining room, the space seems more intimate with servers who engage you and make younfeel welcome.

SOUND LEVEL

When the dining room is full, as it is often, sound can invade your space. But, what else is new in San Francisco dining, where many new restaurants emphasize noise as a dining enhancement?

LIGHT LEVEL

Bright and cheerful during the day, subdued appropriately in the evening.

NOT TO MISS DISHES

The roast shoulder of lamb is a winner. Calamari fritti and any of the pastas are good choices, especially those with lusty-flavored Sicilian sauces.

WHAT THE DIAMONDS MEAN

The Marina Times ratings range from zero to four diamonds and reflect food, atmosphere and service, taking price range and type of restaurant into consideration.

OUR REVIEW POLICY

We conduct multiple visits anonymously and pay our own tab.

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