Recent Comments

    Poesia in the Castro Delivers an Authentic Calabrian Dining Experience

    By David Landis–

    One of the great delights of living in hilly San Francisco is all of the magical, hidden stairways. Climbing these passageways, often landscaped with lush vegetation, frequently brings a surprise (and usually panoramic views) around every corner. The Vulcan Steps in the Castro offer year-round blooming wonders; the 16th Avenue tiled steps provide a boisterous mosaic mural as you ascend or descend; and the famous Filbert Steps on Telegraph Hill astound with 360-degree views of the Bay, downtown, and Treasure Island.

    Add to that one more: a hidden staircase off 18th Street in the Castro that leads to a magical, Calabrian dining experience—namely, Poesia.

    In Italian, poesia means poetry. Merriam Webster defines poetry not just as metrical writing in verse or the production of a poet, but a “concentrated imaginative awareness of experience.” That’s a perfect description for what to expect at Poesia the restaurant, which includes Italian films broadcast on an interior wall, a convivial bar with one of the best Negronis in town, an outdoor courtyard that replicates a piazza in Apricale, and, of course, first-rate culinary offerings.

    The Italian experience arrives right at Poesia’s door, where the ebullient owner Francesco d’Ippolito greets you warmly—as if you’re part of his own Southern Italian famiglia. Francesco told me for the San Francisco Bay Times: “In poetry, there’s a combination of things that have to rhyme. When I think of a beautiful restaurant experience, I think of a combination of rhymes—the food, the company, the atmosphere—it becomes like a little poem. That was the spark that gave me the idea. Plus, I personally write poetry. We’re the only restaurant named Poesia in the whole world.”

    I asked Francesco about his background. “I started in business as a dental technician,” he said. “But since I was a little kid, I also worked in the restaurant industry—at a little coffee shop in the train station in Calabria. I would work there in summers for 3 months, at 11 years old, making cappuccino, croissants, and interacting with customers. It was such a joy. I enjoyed being around people, hearing their stories, being a contemporary friend. It’s been in my DNA since then. I didn’t feel the same appeal about the dental work.”

    He added, “I came to San Francisco to visit my brother in 2005 and I fell in love with the city. I was supposed to stay for a short visit, but stayed for 3 months. I met some restaurant owners near the beach, feeling the vibe of the restaurant industry. That planted a little seed. I kept coming back and explored the idea of opening my own restaurant. In 2008, I found this place in the Castro that was for sale and it was the perfect size. I didn’t want a touristy area—North Beach or downtown—I wanted to recreate the feeling of being surrounded by people you see regularly. That’s why I chose the Castro. People support each other here and know each other. It’s very active, very alive; there’s lots going on. This is my place.”

    Upstairs at Poesia, behind the indoor restaurant and through the kitchen, is a surprise: a courtyard that looks like an Italian piazza. I asked, how that space came into being and how Francesco and his team were able to open the courtyard during COVID.

    “The back patio is a little surprise for customers—and it was for us,” he said. “We never thought about using it until it was really necessary. Before COVID, people weren’t so free to eat outside. We had one table on the balcony in front, and rarely people wanted to sit outdoors. COVID made me think of this. After the initial lockdown and takeouts—we didn’t do a big takeout business—when the city allowed serving outdoors, that’s when the idea of the back patio came together. The patio with the fence was made for an experience. You feel like you’re walking into an Italian piazza. We wanted to give an Italian experience.”

    “Indoors,” he said, “we had Italian music and Italian movies. I thought, ‘How can I create a similar experience outdoors?’ When you’re eating outdoors in Italy, where are you? You’re surrounded by old buildings, churches, eating in a piazza. I talked to an artist, Andrew Johnston in Oakland, who helped me create this. This space is a replica of a piazza in Apricale, Liguria, near San Remo. It’s a very small village, but a perfect piazza—there’s a church, there’s a city hall, and there’s a bar. You must have those 3 elements. We decided to go for it.”

    “We created paintings based on photographs of that piazza and filled the deck with plants,” he continued. “Now, people feel like they’re walking into an Italian piazza. That space was allowed because of the city’s Shared Spaces program. Because of that, I was able to use that space, since it was already part of my lease. It’s become very popular: the Mayor, Senator Scott Wiener, and Supervisor Mandelman have all dined there. It’s private and quiet. We created an oasis where you can feel safe. Lots of restaurants have parklets, but this is a completely different vibe. Being back there gives you peace of mind.”

    Where does Francesco find his recipes? “When I first opened, I only made family recipes,” he explained. “I was in contact with my older sister and mother in Italy and asked them for advice. At the same time, I would go to the farmers’ market and see what is in season and I would ask my family for ideas and then share that with my chef. He was an American chef, Gregory Leon (he now has a restaurant in Milwaukee). He didn’t have as much experience with Italian cuisine, but had worked in a couple of Castro restaurants, so it was a perfect collaboration.”

    “With time, I realized I could have an Italian chef who could come to the U.S. and work here,” he added. “I always had the concept of the home cuisine where grandma would work. Marecello Franceschini is our current chef; he’s from Modena. He may make the best Bolognese sauce in San Francisco and he makes all the pasta in-house. Modena is known for their homemade pastas. He arrived at the end of February, 2020. Two weeks later, we had to close the restaurant due to COVID. But we decided never to really close the restaurant. I thought, I have this new chef from Italy, I can’t close the restaurant. It was just me and him the first month for takeout. We’d never had a platform for takeout, so I started making personal phone calls to my regular customers. Soon enough, the takeout was successful and I could hire back all of my staff within 3 months.”

    Where does Francesco find his extensive wine list? “It’s all my choices. I try them personally,” he said. “The way I choose my wines is—there’s a small section of classic Italian wines—Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino—to make people feel comfortable. I also want to display some wines that aren’t normally found in a traditional Italian restaurant. Italy has more than 1,200 grapes. Having an opportunity to display some of those wines on rotation is fun for me. When I find people who try Pinot Bianco or so many different wines—small wineries that do a great job, biodynamic or organic—that’s fun for me.”

    So, how’s the food? One simple word: delicious. The Gay Gourmet has been to Poesia many times, but recently, we visited with friends and started with a crisp, sparkling rosé from Veneto; their traditional Negroni (but ask for a splash of fresh-squeezed orange juice); the “Dante,” a cocktail made with vodka, fresh basil, and lemon juice; and the Petrussa Pinot Bianco, a mineral-driven white wine from Friuli.

    Following that, for starters, we sampled one of the best specialties of the house: Vitello Tonnato, a tender, sliced roasted beef with a homemade tuna sauce (see recipe), fried Sicilian capers, and celery; a fresh and tasty Ahi Tuna Tartare with mango, cucumber, radish, and sesame; house-made Bruschetta, popping with heirloom vine-ripened tomatoes, Tuscan-style bread, and basil; and the Insalata Nettarina, a baby mixed lettuce and frisée salad with nectarines, goat cheese, and roasted walnuts drizzled with a honey-lime citronette.

    For our mains, we split the house-made Bolognese (Francesco’s favorite), served over tagliatelle—one of the city’s best, because tomato doesn’t dominate; then moved to another house specialty, the Agnolotti al Plin, which is a slice of heaven: homemade pinched pasta with a veal, pork, spinach, and Parmesan cheese filling topped with a veal reduction; the Grilled Seabass, perfectly cooked to a medium rare with chickpea puree, sauteed caponata cherry tomatoes, and Taggiasca olives with Sicilian capers; a Grilled Sweet Little Gem Lettuce Salad with marjoram extra virgin olive oil; and the “Paccheri ai Fruitti di Mare,” Mancini-tube shaped pasta with a seafood ragù (including prawns, squid, clams, and mussels) in an organic tomato sauce. All of the pastas are served al dente, which The Gay Gourmet prefers, but if you like it cooked through more, just let the staff know.

    For dessert, we had the creamy and perfectly-balanced homemade Tiramisu, as well as an herbal and smooth Amaro, served over ice with an orange peel.

    Speaking of the staff, Poesia’s is very international—and well-trained. Sybelly, from Brazil, was our on-spot server this night, but much of the staff is from Italy, with the requisite and romantic Italian accent.

    What’s next for Poesia? Well, a couple of things. They’ve started a new wine club, offering great Italian, small production wines, hand-selected for customers each month. You can choose from 2, 3, or 4 wines per month. And, according to Francesco, “We are hoping to move into an additional space with an expanded downstairs once the pandemic gives us a break. We’d like to create an Italian bakery on the street level—right now, it’s a mask store. I already have a pastry baker waiting in Italy for his visa to get approved. As soon as he is ready, he’ll be in charge to create the menu. That will be a bread and sweets operation—croissants, breakfast Italian-style, plus lunch and dinner (including aperitivo—wine with snacks). We’ll still offer fine dining upstairs and a little more casual alternative downstairs. Everything will be baked in-house and you will be able to eat it fresh. It will be full circle for me personally.”

    And what motivates Francesco? “All the support from people coming back over the years is very important to me,” he said. “It’s about creating a connection with the community, rather than just running a restaurant. That relationship has given me the strength to move forward over the years.”

    P.S. Chef Marcello was kind enough to share his Vitello Tonnato recipe with our readers below. But The Gay Gourmet still guarantees it’s always better in person at Poesia, because his interpretation is off the charts.

    Vitello Tonnato

    (a/la Chef Marcello Franceschini at Poesia)

    The vitello tonnato is a traditional appetizer from Northern Italy, made with the eye of round beef. Clean the meat from any part of fat, sear it on all sides, then cook it in the oven until rare to medium rare temperature to let it be pink inside. Sprinkle coarse salt over the meat, which Chef Marcello said helps the beef to “turn out a bit more juicy.” As for the Tonnata Sauce, Chef Marcello said, “It’s literally a mayonnaise mixed with tuna, anchovies, and capers.”

    His recipe for the sauce is:

    6 egg yolks
    2 cups high oleic sunflower oil
    1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
    2 tablespoons capers
    10 anchovy filets
    2 3/4 cups tuna
    Salt to taste

    Chef Marcello said, “I usually make the sauce in a Robot Coupe food processor. Start with the egg yolk, then add a pinch of salt and the lemon juice, pouring in the oil slowly; do the mayonnaise first, then add the capers, anchovies, and tuna. And always taste to fix the flavor, as you might need a pinch more of salt!”

    Bits and Bites

    Alice Waters’ acclaimed restaurant Chez Panisse turned 50 this past summer (how time flies!). It’s open only for takeout right now, but look for the restaurant reopening in October.

    San Francisco’s very own Stuart Brioza and his extended team from State Bird Provisions, The Progress, and The Anchovy Bar will participate in the James Beard Foundation’s 2021–2022 Taste America culinary series, on Thursday, October 28. Taste America, presented by Capital One, will feature events in 26 total cities nationwide, bringing chefs and diners together to celebrate local independent restaurants and support efforts to rebuild a more sustainable and equitable industry. Guests will enjoy a multi-course meal with beverage pairings, tailored for the event through a unique chef collaboration curated by the Foundation. A reception prior will feature signature welcome beverages by national sponsors Rabbit Hole Distillery and White Claw Hard Seltzer.

    As my loyal readers know, I’ve always been a fan of America’s Riviera, Santa Barbara. It’s an easy 5-hour getaway, especially during the surge of the Delta variant. And the dining is truly gourmet. Three new Santa Barbara restaurants are now recommended by Michelin, including: Spanish-inspired Loquita, Caruso’s on the Montecito oceanfront, and Cal-Indian restaurant Bibi Ji. Other new buzz-worthy Santa Barbara restaurants include: Alessia Patisserie & Café; independent coffee shop Caje; Aperitivo, a wine bar focusing on small plates and wines from Italy; and Costa, a California-cuisine restaurant at the new Mar Monte hotel.

    Gott’s Roadside just opened a second San Francisco location in Thrive City at the new Chase Center in Mission Bay. Speaking of Mission Bay, you can make a day of it by sampling Café Reveille for breakfast, Blue Bottle or Joe and the Juice for coffee, and homemade juices and lunch or dinner featuring seasonal cuisine and Belgian-style beers at the New Belgium Brewing Company, San Francisco.

    Finally, Top Chef Family Style is streaming on Peacock TV. In the series, talented young chefs sharpen their knives and battle it out to prove that their culinary skills are aged to perfection—and team up with an adult family member. The family chef duos are put to the test in a series of creative and suspenseful quickfire and elimination challenges. Give a big shout-out to local San Francisco contestants (and son & mom duo) Taylor Ellison and Elizabeth Frame Ellison. 

    Poesia: https://www.poesiasf.com/
    Chez Panisse: https://www.chezpanisse.com
    Visit Santa Barbara: https://santabarbaraca.com/
    State Bird Provisions: https://statebirdsf.com/
    Gott’s Roadside: https://www.gotts.com/#
    Café Reveille: https://tinyurl.com/bz42n8y3
    Blue Bottle: https://tinyurl.com/68hhyxxa
    Joe and the Juice: https://www.joejuice.com/
    New Belgium Brewing Company San Francisco: https://tinyurl.com/esavvje8
    Top Chef Family Style: http://ow.ly/MfTq50G8l9a

    David Landis, aka “The Gay Gourmet,” is a foodie, a freelance writer, and a retired PR maven. Follow him on Instagram @GayGourmetSF or email him at: davidlandissf@gmail.com Or visit him online at: www.gaygourmetsf.com

    Published on September 23, 2021