Tucked away in the heavily residential area of Noe Valley is a small and cozy restaurant that oozes charm and personality. I’d had a couple of friends tell me about the food here; one in particular raved about how good the food was, and since I am normally in agreement with her taste in food, I made reservations to check it out w/ Mr. K for a Wednesday evening.
But I made a rather grave mistake this evening. Opentable sends out a reminder message about “tomorrow’s reservation”, and I had received one a bit past midnight on Tuesday morning. Oblivious to the fact that the message actually states “Wednesday”, I immediately thought it meant Tuesday evening, as in my mind, I was still reading it on Monday night — and reminded Mr. K, who readily agreed that yes, we’re on for La Ciccia.
So, we showed up at the right time and place, just on the wrong date. Now this was one mistake I had never made before!
The owner, however, was so gracious about my mistake — and informed us that despite their full dinner booking (which I knew because no tables were available on Opentable when I checked that day), she’d make sure we were seated if we’d wait about 20 minutes. We were about 20 minutes early for our 7 PM reservation anyway, so I was more than happy and grateful that we’d be accommodated. One of my pet peeves is getting dressed up for what was to be special and ending up with nowhere to go, and thanks to the owner, all was going to be well with the world again.
Within 10 minutes, right after we had ordered a bottle of wine at the bar section, we had scored window seating in the very front of the restaurant — and I was ready to begin the evening.
Because I had heard quite a bit about La Ciccia, it was one of those time I entered knowing exactly what I’d be ordering, and because Mr. K is so obliging, he let me have at it. First up was the calamari and octopus stew — and one last minute inclusion of the appetizer special that day: fresh sardines from Italy!
Some people like fancy food — and I can appreciate a masterful combination of seasoning and sauces, but overall, I tend to like my food simple and clear. By “clear”, I mean that I want the objective of the flavor and taste to be clear; whatever the point of that dish is should resonate to the person eating it. With dishes like the typically breaded calamari, I expect the breading to have some punch or for it to be simple enough to really bring out the flavor of the squid inside of it. Masking great and natural flavors will never get points in my book, no matter what you replace it with!
Well, at La Ciccia, the calamari was delicious. It erred a bit on the blander side of things, which is easily fixed with a sprinkle of salt, but the amazing flavor of the EVOO they used, in conjunction with the sweet and fresh taste of the squid that kept nicely through the baking process and made for a great start to the meal. Each piece was tender and perfectly cooked without a hint of being overcooked! That said, my dinner date found the dish to be a bit boring — hence, leading to my little dissertation about how I appreciate simple foods. This dish was far, far from fancy; it’s a clean tasting dish with fresh ingredients, partnered lightly with olive oil and other simple seasonings to give you a taste of fresh squid — no more, no less. Take a fresh ingredient, give it a little support and it shines. We’re off to a great start.
The fried sardines were rather enormous for sardines’ they were more the size of yellow corvina! I was expecting more of the sardines I had in Venezia, but these were apparently the cousins on the mackerel side of the family! They were thoroughly cooked through with a light breading on top, laid in tasty olive oil. Presentation could have been better, and I’m not quite sure what the purpose of the liquid was, as it was nicely cooked to begin with, but overall, the dish tasted okay, though none of it was notable in any way.
What was notable was the octopus stew. While considered a “Sardinian” dish, this dish had distinct Asian flavorings to it, in particular — of Korean chili paste. This is not to say that’s what was in it, but rather, it tasted much like a Korean fish stew dish that is wildly popular in coastal towns. It was both hot in temperature, and up there on the spice index (at least compared to the level of spice I expect from Italian cooking, which is none), and something about the dish was comforting and familiar to me. Unlike the calamari, this dish wasn’t simple or clear; it was, however, a balanced mix of seasonings that obviously intended to evoke some depth, weight, and “umph”, for lack of a better word. It wasn’t “light”; it was meant to be the equivalent of a creamy dish. There was a generous amount of octopus in this dish, cooked well — and retaining all of the flavor and texture one wants from octopus.
Consumed with the calamari, it was a perfect way to discuss the distinct difference between octopus and squid meat. I’d highly recommend this dish.
Moving onto the second course — I love pasta. Good, fresh pasta just floats my boat and makes me happy. While I had roamed through northern Italy some time ago, I have not had the opportunity as of yet to cruise through southern Italy, and I was excited to try a taste of the pasta and flavors throughout this region. In my opinion, La Ciccia is an awesome place to get a taste of the southern flavors.
But this leads me to one gripe I had with the restaurant. We had a server who was European, who, for some reason, went through the specials in the heaviest accent possible while speaking in English I could understand for everything else. It was bizarre; the accent emerged most heavily only when talking about the food. I made out “pasta” and “sea urchin”–and after three times, I decided to just go with it because those are two magical words in my world. Based on the flavors, though I can’t be certain whether tuna heart was really in the dish, it was a truly remarkable dish. Phenomenal preparation! This, however, was a special for the evening.
What every person I know has always mentioned about La Ciccia was the dish below.
Bottarga is a cured fish roe that is commonly used in southern Italian cooking — most often associated with Sicily and/or Sardinia. The roe can be from a variety of fishes, including swordfish, and it’s usually cured with sea salt and dried for weeks. At La Ciccia, a good amount of this roe is used in their spaghetti dish, giving a distinct fishiness to the carb-rich dish, which blends surprisingly well, much like “Mentaiko Spaghetti” for the Japanese. While we expect roe to readily be used in Japanese cooking, it’s always pleasantly surprising to me when it’s presented in Italian cooking.
This dish was absolutely fantastic! Overall, I think I preferred this over the special “uni and tuna heart” pasta; it was rich yet a blend of subtle flavors without one taste overpowering the others. You got a good whiff of olive oil balancing out the fishiness of the roe, combining to create a taste of — butter? Very interesting dish — and I highly recommend you order this one when at La Ciccia.
Mr. K wanted to try the pizza, so we opted for the Pizza Bianca.
Now, to divulge something that might usurp me from “food lover” in some people’s eyes, is that I am not a big fan of pizza. To be clear, I love excellent pizza — who can deny that taste? But overall, I find “excellent pizza” hard to find and will order pizza only at about two restaurants in San Francisco. La Ciccia being a new place to me, I was agreeable to trying it but didn’t expect too much.
The crust on the pizza was good — not too thick, not too thin, and a solid dough that provided a good background taste for what laid on top (or should have, anyway). The ingredients on top, though, I found to be overpowering. The ricotta seemed to make it a bit soggy; the gorgonzola overwhelmed the subtle flavors of the mozzarella and essentially, I tasted nothing but gorgonzola and some prosciutto — and can barely remember tasting any tomato sauce on the pizza. “Wow — really, really cheesy,” was my comment at first bite. Mr. K seemed to enjoy it enough — and while we were only able to eat one piece each, he did finish the remainder as leftovers the next day — so take that for what it’s worth. (Understand that he sort of eats “whatever”.)
There was a couple sitting next to us, celebrating their anniversary. Their names were Catherine and John, and they were a course ahead of us throughout the night. I had ordered the sardines on this day because it looked good when they had it — and come time for dessert, I had basically given up on understanding what our server was saying, because — as she did with the entrees — when she started describing the specials for the desserts, she went into a Russian/Slovakian/Italian/British combination of accents. They had watched as she explained it to us, and when she left — I looked over and asked them, “OK, I didn’t understand a thing she said — but excuse me for asking but what was that dessert on your table you two seemed to enjoy so much?”
Their answer was even funnier: “We have no idea; we couldn’t understand a word she said either! We just know it’s a chocolate something!”
Looking over the dessert menu, there was nothing “chocolate” listed, so I assumed it must be a special item for the evening. When the server came back to ask us if we had decided — in regular English again — we pointed to the leftover dessert on Catherine and John’s table and said, “We’ll have that.” (Lest it be misinterpreted — note that our server was efficient and friendly enough, just strangely busting out into exponentially heavier accents when reciting the specials!)
That is how we ended up with what I will call the tartufo because I really am still unsure as to what it was called. It was chocolate ice cream on the outside that was rich and creamy, and the inside was filled with what tasted like ricotta cheese! The combination worked nicely, and provided for a nice ending to a good meal, and one order was plenty for us to share.
Overall, dinner at La Ciccia was a wonderful time with Mr. K, as usual. It was a nice peek at Southern Italian cuisine, full of unique presentations of seafood mixed in with the typically Italian carboyhdrates. The pasta was rather extraordinary, especially the Bottarga Spaghetti, and I’d highly recommend tasting the octopus stew. While Sardinia and Sicily don’t seem far enough from Rome or Florence to warrant such different flavors, I think you’ll find that the taste exudes a slightly more Asian-influence than their northern counterparts.
You can visit the website here for more information about this quaint and charming restaurant. La Ciccia is located at 291 30th Street, and is opened for dinner from Tuesday to Sunday; they are closed on Mondays. You can make reservations for La Ciccia on Opentable.
Again, much thanks to Lorella, the owner, for smoothly fixing my mistake of showing up on the wrong day for my reservation!
Addictive Factor: 8/10
Overall Rating: 8.1/10
Grace Keh is the author of "Food Lovers' Guide to San Francisco" and the critic, editor and photographer behind San Francisco Food. In her regular day job, she consults for corporate clients in marketing and event strategy. Once the sun sets, she's on the hunt for great food in what she considers to be one of the world's greatest cities, San Francisco.