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Da Flora

November 9, 2006

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Back when we reviewed Mescolanza, we rather dismissively stated that, for the most part, San Francisco’s most treasured Italian restaurants were not to be found in North Beach. While this is generally true, every rule has its exceptions, and Da Flora is a most notable one. Despite its location on busy, touristy Columbus Avenue, in the heart of North Beach, the Venetian restaurant Da Flora is really exactly the sort of place that locals dream about, and it is definitely one of the less touristy establishments in the area. No frills, no gimmicks: just excellent Italian food in a cozy, unassuming, romantically-lit atmosphere. It is certainly a refreshing break from the map-toting, bewildered-eyed tourists (have they never seen an Italian restaurant before?) that are roaming the Avenue. Upon setting foot inside from Columbus, it feels like you’ve entered some sort of hidden getaway, with a particularly intriguing ambience, largely set by the candles which are everywhere (including on the toilet), and the dark reds and mahoganies of the curtains encircling the perimeter of the small dining room, which give the restaurant a very Barbary Coast feel — or perhaps, more authentically, the feel of a room in one of the many centuries-old palazzi crumbling into the waterways of Venice. The handwritten menus (which, we admit, are sometimes not only difficult to read, but actually vary slightly from menu to menu, even on the same night) only accentuate the Old World feel.

Da Flora is run by Madame Flora (who is actually Hungarian, but studied in Venice) and her daughter. It is a very small restaurant, with barely 10 tables, so reservations are definitely recommended. Another good reason to make reservations is to stay on the nicer side of Flora. Although we have never ourselves experienced anything other than helpful and friendly (though certainly not fawningly attentive) service at Da Flora, we have heard reports from others in which they were treated with somewhat less than the utmost in courtesy. We suspect that the root of the difficulty is the small size of the restaurant, which does not lend a great deal of flexibility in terms of seating times. Flora is a strong personality, and if she feels annoyed or frustrated, she might very well let you know about that. Still, if you make a reservation and show up on time, there should not be any problem, and as we mentioned above, we have not personally experienced any bad or rude service at Da Flora.

On our most recent trip to Da Flora, Short Exact ordered a delicious risotto

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which featured heirloom tomatoes, as well as a bright and peppery pesto of basil and arugula. The texture of this risotto was perfect — pleasantly rich and creamy, while still al dente. The risotto was complemented well by the heirloom tomatoes, which were not only wonderfully fresh, but featured a very light sweetness and supremely delicious clarity. With its bright colors on the plate, sharply defined and contrasting textures, and clear singing flavors, this was simply an excellently executed dish.

Of course, no trip to Da Flora is complete without ordering its signature appetizer, the sweet potato gnocchi:

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Although the rest of Da Flora’s menu changes with the seasons, one item is constant: that item, with good reason, is the sweet potato gnocchi. We’ll just come out here and say it: the gnocchi here could very well be the absolute best in the San Francisco city and county limit; the melt-in-your-mouth pillowy texture of these gnocchi is essentially perfect. Simply beautiful gnocchi. The subtle sweetness of the gnocchi is thoughtfully paired with the rich sherry cream sauce, so that the two flavors meld together, neither overwhelming the other. Meanwhile, the salty pancetta carries this dish to an entirely new level. After eating these gnocchi, you’ll never look at bacon the same way again. Though this dish is not much to look at it, in terms of color and plating, the flavors here are really amazing. Nota bene: this is quite a rich dish, but if you find the above appetizer portion to be insufficient, the gnocchi can also be ordered as an entree-sized portion.

After the gnocchi and the risotto, Short Exact and our dining companion capped off the night with one last bit of decadence,

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the fallen chocolate cake, glazed with dark chocolate ganache, all served atop a bed of caramel. We wish that the cake had been served at a slightly warmer temperature, but this one complaint aside, the cake was very rich, creamy, and satisfying. It was a great way to close off a delicious meal.

Short Exact is no connoisseur of wines, so we are not really in a position to comment on Da Flora’s offerings in this department. However, we will simply note that Da Flora has a large collection of esoteric wines (which are on display in one corner of the room), and Flora herself works with you to find the wine which pairs appropriately to your meal. We have not personally taken advantage of this service, but we would certainly encourage you to try it when you visit Da Flora — and if the wine pairings are anywhere as good as the food, we can only guess that you will be in for a real treat.

The food at Da Flora is extremely rich, so it is definitely not the sort of food Short Exact could eat on a daily or even weekly basis. Nonetheless, the Old World ambience and excellent cuisine make Da Flora a real gem, and one of our very favorite Italian restaurants, and so we heartily recommend it to you.

RATING:

COST:

701 Columbus Avenue (at Filbert St.)
San Francisco, CA 94133
Phone: 415.981.4664
Hours: Tuesday-Saturday, 5:30 pm – 9:30 pm.

Cuisine: Italian
Neighborhood: North Beach

How to get there: Da Flora is within a few blocks of Muni lines 9X, 12, 30, 39, 41, 45, and the Powell-Mason cable car line.

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3 comments

  1. Excellent review and wonderful pictures! I always feel conflicted about taking pics in the restaurant.


  2. Hey Garrett, thanks for dropping by! You wouldn’t know it from the the number of pictures on here, but I also feel conflicted about it — still, places haven’t minded when I’ve asked, so I think it’s just a matter of being discreet.


  3. My wife writes restaurant reviews, and takes pictures of everything we eat everywhere. She never asks permission, and no one has ever complained, and many owners and chefs have gladly posed for her photos (not knowing she’s a writer). So don’t sweat it.

    In any case, thanks for the review, and I intend to try this place (without my wife) next week.



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