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    Via Veneto: Naples in the Neighborhood

    By David Landis–The Gay Gourmet–

    As many residents and business owners will readily agree, the biggest challenge in both running a restaurant in San Francisco—and eating out—is the cost. The escalating rents, the cost of labor, and the price tag for quality products have created a perfect storm that makes it difficult for restaurants to survive in this City while remaining affordable to regulars.

    The exception to that rule? The nearly 30-year-old Via Veneto on Fillmore Street across the street from the iconic Clay Theatre. This authentic Italian trattoria, run by the charming and extroverted Massimo Lavino, bucks the trend with a menu that is approachable, authentic, affordable, and attractive to regulars.

    “It’s the only real Italian restaurant in the City,” enthuses regular Daniel Lapin, who frequents the establishment on an ongoing basis. Credit owner Massimo, a native of Naples, who offers both Northern and Southern Italian fare that ranges from seafood to risotto to fresh-made pastas.

    Massimo began his career working for the Royal Viking Line, traveling the world and learning the hospitality and culinary business from the best. In 1984, he landed in San Francisco, where he started working (and later owning) Grazie in North Beach. In 1990, he opened Via Veneto in the same spot where it still remains in Pacific Heights.

    “I like to feature traditional cuisines like puttanesca,” says Massimo. “I favor long-established recipes that have been around for years. Most of our pastas are homemade, as are our desserts. I like to cook globally, but shop locally—all of our products are from local suppliers like La Rocca (fish), Manna Foods (meat) and Union St. Produce. One of my favorite menu items is our osso bucco—we make the best. I make sure there is always one left over for me!”

    On several recent visits, the Gay Gourmet enjoyed the homemade broccoli soup (a personal favorite)—made from scratch every time—along with a zesty ravioli with cheese and pesto sauce, dotted with tomatoes. At lunch, Via Veneto offers a distinctive seafood salad with fresh salmon, calamari, and just-picked greens paired with a Dijon vinaigrette dressing.

    Salad choices include a delicious Caesar with the right crunch of croutons, a spinach salad with roasted bell peppers, gorgonzola cheese, walnuts and Dijon dressing; or a TriColore salad—with radicchio and Belgian endive topped with a balsamic vinaigrette. A dinner favorite is Via Veneto’s always-available spaghetti Bolognese—again, made in-house with the right mix of carrots and spices. Dinner specials often include a lobster ravioli, rack of lamb (cooked perfectly, to a medium rare), and homemade minestrone soup.

    Every meal begins with fresh Italian bread, which comes with garlic olive oil for dipping. The desserts are exemplary. A traditional Tiramisu is always a tasty winner, but my personal favorite is the made-to-order Zabaglione. They don’t always have it on offer (insider’s tip, it’s “off-menu”). You might just get lucky enough to try it, depending on how busy the kitchen is. The secret to Via Veneto’s version, according to Massimo, is “how you whisk it, over a pot of boiling water.”

    The wine offerings at Via Veneto are a surprising mix of California, Italian, and even New Zealand wines, with an emphasis (of course) on Italy (think Pinot Grigio, Chianti and Brunello). Luckily for customers, the wine selection changes weekly. An added plus is that Via Veneto has a full bar; Massimo’s Negroni is legendary.

    On any given night, you’ll run into some of the regulars, including Guy, a lawyer who stops in for a glass of wine before heading home—or retired nurse Robin, who loves that it’s a slice of old San Francisco. “I could write a book about our regulars. We know that some people want a special wine, even delivered in a special glass. We know what the customers want without them asking.”

    At its essence, Via Veneto is a place for the neighborhood, which still strives to be affordable, without the sticker shock of so many San Francisco restaurants. “People tell me I should raise my prices,” says Massimo, “but my customers appreciate that we keep it approachable enough that you can dine here regularly.”

    New Year’s Eve is coming up and Via Veneto always makes it special without the scary price tag. But I’d recommend reserving early to ensure a spot at the intimate restaurant.

    Via Veneto is run by a family that still cares about quality. Massimo still lives upstairs, and at any moment you’ll see Massimo’s girlfriend Roxanne waiting tables or daughter Alexandra as the hostess. Waiter Carlos has been there for close to 15 years and knows (and delivers) your drink before you’ve decided what to eat. And if you’re lucky, you’ll get a glimpse of Massimo’s Bichon-mix rescue dog Bella, sidling up to one of the outdoor café tables.

    Via Veneto is open for lunch Wednesday through Saturday and open for dinner daily. It’s old-school, so no online reservations, but just call and say hi to Massimo from the Gay Gourmet: 415-346-9211.

    David Landis, aka “The Gay Gourmet,” is a foodie, a freelance writer, and a PR executive. Follow him on Instagram @GayGourmetSF, on Twitter @david_landis, email him at: david@landispr.com or visit him online at: https://gaygourmetsf.com/

    Published on December 19, 2019