Note: Bar Bambino closed in 2012.
When is a dumpling more than just a pillow of semolina on a bed of kale? When the dumpling is an Italian take on the Viennese topfelknödel and comes — if you’re curious enough to ask the man with the flashy, checkered tie — with a lesson in Austro-Hungarian influences in Northern Italian history.
This is no trendy mash-up, though Bar Bambino’s company might suggest otherwise. Christopher Losa — he of the gregarious neckwear — opened Bar Bambino in 2007. The restaurant joins a coterie of New Italian hotspots, from the sacrosanct hearths of Una Pizza Napoletana, 00, and flour + water, to the blossoming Delfina empire. What holds these restaurants together, and sets Bambino apart, is a reverent devotion to single ingredients, simply dressed. Chefs and diners swoon over the acidity of these or those tomatoes and the gluten percentage of this or that pizza flour. Nerdiness can be forgiven, since those tomatoes and that flour taste damn good. But at Bambino, Losa picks his dishes based on history, not hype. The ingredients are local, sure (delicate Monterey sardines), and personal too (fried, stuffed olives — his aunt’s recipe). But like those multicultural dumplings, their simple presentation belies a rich story of time, place and people.
Take the wine. The geographically arranged list (with nice, though hard to see, maps in the margins) spans natural “orange wines” and hácek-studded varietals from Croatia and Hungary. Since a fateful trip to Trieste in 2008, “my travels have been taking me East,” Losa says. Wherever he goes, he tastes and what he likes, he shares with obsessive, good-natured excitement. The Batič Rebula, its voluptuous bottle blown by the hippie winemaker to “drive energy into the wine,” Losa laughs, festers with salty Adriatic breezes. The former Olivetti typewriter salesman behind the musty Ronchi di Cialla Rosso is the only winemaker in his tiny D.O.C.
Food is best in context; wine tastes richest with a story. Those peppers in the pork ragu? Hungarian Kalocsas, air-dried on the shores of Lake Balaton. That oil drizzled over the octopus carpaccio? From Sardinia, infused with paprika and mint. Olive oil is taken as seriously here as wine — just ask for the tasting flight of three Italian varieties. Losa wants to offer some Croatian oils too, as soon as he can find an importer. Even the chocolate and paprika sponge cake has a history: something about a gypsy lothario and his princess bride — forgive me, the Chianti had taken hold.
Eating at Bar Bambino feels like traveling, an exploration of time and place, guided by an enthusiastic host. Even if the restaurant’s clean marble bar, rough-hewn walls, and wine-bottle lamps aglow like captured fireflies make it a quiet eddy off the frenetic stream of Mission Street. This is the place to come for a slow dinner of cheese, charcuterie and hand-pulled pasta. Or for salty, fried cauliflower tops and a glass of inky Loacker Gran Lareyn to stretch a late night a little longer. The place to tuck into dishes that are more than their parts, wine that’s more than just special grapes, at a restaurant that’s something else entirely.
Bar Bambino, 2931 16th St., San Francisco, CA 94103; 415-701-8466. barbambino.com