Dinner with the Parents
Impressing Out of Towners
834-838 Divisadero St
San Francisco, CA 94117
Sometimes you like someone or something so much that you’re willing to overlook a minor flaw. Like your little brother’s conviction that Crystal Pepsi was the best soda ever made, or your dog’s failure to totally understand the concept of fetch. At Che Fico, an Italian restaurant on the edge of NoPa, not every single thing on the menu is spectacular, but the small plates, pizzas, and pastas are so good - and the space is so impressively designed - that the first thing you’ll want to do after leaving is turn around and go right back inside.
To get to the dining room, on the second floor of a building on Divis, you’ll first take a staircase with bright tiles and fig-patterned wallpaper. It feels less like you’re on your way to dinner, and more like a sprightly fellow in a purple hat is going to pop out from behind a corner and offer you a tour of his chocolate factory. Then the staircase opens up to the dining room, and you’ll feel even more like you’ve left San Francisco very far behind. The space is huge, with high ceilings, a big open kitchen, an L-shaped bar, and a lot of people who can’t stop gawking at how pretty it all is.
When you can pull your attention away from the surroundings and look at a menu, you’ll see that it’s split into a few sections: antipasti, Jewish-Italian specialties, pasta, pizzas, mains, and some sides. You could mix and match the sections a thousand ways, but for two people, splitting a starter, a pasta or two, and a pizza will be more than enough.
The pastas are truly outstanding. We could eat the tagliatelle al ragu, triangoli, and green garlic agnolotti all day long. They’re all on the lighter side, but still satisfying, with clean, easily identifiable flavors, and the stuffed pastas have a perfect filling-to-dough ratio. If you want to try several different kinds, which you will, just order half-portions. The small plates also work very well, but we especially like the octopus with pork belly - so much so that we’re still trying to figure out what’s in the sauce that goes with it.
Then there are the pizzas. They don’t look like most, or possibly even any, pizzas you’ve seen before: the puffy outer edges and are charred to the point of being black, then dusted with grated cheese. The crust under the toppings is thin and stiff, but won’t shatter when you bite into it, and the extra char around the edges is a good thing, since it adds more flavor (although if you’re the kind of person who uses a knife and fork to eat a slice, you may have a bit of trouble getting through it). On the flip side, the cheesy edges do make these pies a little messy to eat with your hands, but the good news is that in this day and age, no one will be offended if you leave your pizza-eating gloves at home.
There are a few Shaquille O’Neal free throws on the menu - i.e., things that don’t quite work out. The cocktails - mostly named after herbs and spices - can go either way. We’re fans of the Pepper, which is light and refreshing, but the Basil is way too intense, to the point of tasting medicinal. A cauliflower side dish had an unexpected taste we couldn’t put our finger on right away - ultimately, we landed on mezcal. And a $45 lamb entree for two was well prepared, but nowhere near as good as the small plates or the pastas. Given the quality of everything else, we expected a bit more.
The pizzas, pastas, and small plates are the main reasons you should eat at Che Fico, and that’s not a half-endorsement. They’re so good, and the space is so attractive, that you’ll have very little trouble ignoring the misses and focusing on what this place does best. It’s like that one time your parents forgot to pick you up at the airport back in college. Of course, you forgot about it almost immediately - but now that we’re on the subject, it’s a decent anecdote to bring up over dinner at a restaurant they’re bound to like. You’ll be looking for any excuse to come back here anyway.
Grilled Chopped Duck Liver
Not your grandmother’s chopped liver - you know, if your grandmother made chopped liver a lot - but really, really good. A little too sweet from the onion marmellata, but we really like the pickled onion and daikon this comes with.
Fried rice balls with red sauce and cheese. We wish these were tiny and bite-sized so we could sneak them into the movies.
Wood Fired Octopus and Crispy Skin Pork Belly
Really great dish. In fact, we’re casting our vote for this to be what people talk about when they say “surf and turf.” The pork skin can err on the side of being leathery rather than crispy, but the overall flavor of the dish and the tenderness of the octopus more than make up for this.
San Francisco Margherita DOC Pizza
Tasty crust and really flavorful sauce. The only problem with this pizza, aside from the fact that it’s a little messy to eat, is that the mozzarella can slide off in big pieces if you’re not careful. Still, the sauce is amazing, there are perfect bites of basil on top, and do you really need us to explain why mozzarella on a pizza is a good thing?
Pineapple, Red Onion, Fermented Chili Pizza
It’s a bold move to put a pineapple pizza on the menu, but it pays off. Is this our favorite pizza of all time? No. Would we order it again? Absolutely. The fermented chilis bring nice heat that works well with the pineapple. Even if you hate pineapple on pizza, you should give this a shot.
Tagliatelle al Ragu
Much lighter than you might expect from its name, and that’s not a bad thing. You won’t be bursting at the seams and drowsy after eating this - you’ll want more.
Really clean, lemony flavor on this one, and each piece stays together well. Perfect filled pasta dish.
Green Garlic Agnolotti
This is filled with lamb, and we want more of it. But, to be fair, we want more of most things that have lamb in them.
Zuckerman Farms Asparagus, Lemon Aioli
If asparagus had been served to us like this when we were kids, it would be our favorite food today.
Roasted Cauliflower and Romanesco
What we enjoyed most about this underwhelming dish was trying to figure out what it tasted like. We settled on mezcal. And while we enjoy mezcal as much as the next person (who likes mezcal), we don’t necessarily want to eat a bowl of vegetables that tastes like it.
Slow Roasted Half Lamb Loin
This under-delivers a little. The lamb is well cooked and the potatoes are great, but it doesn’t shine as bright as other things on the menu. Also, the long-stemmed watercress on top is a pain to get from plate to mouth.
Wood Fired Rhubarb Crostata
Served with a big scoop of fior di latte ice cream on top. The crust is flaky and delicious, and the rhubarb filling has a good amount of sourness to it that’s balanced out well by the ice cream. Don’t skip this.