Closed Captioned For The Thinking Impaired

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Restaurant Review: A16... Should They Rename It?

A16, according to its website, transports the cuisine of Campania & the wood-fired pizzas of Naples to San Francisco's Marina neighborhood. While its pizzas are indeed inspired by the famed Neopolitan slices, it's food is hardly the classic Campanian.

The truly popular cuisine of Campania (the "ankle" of Italy's thigh high "boot") is the coastal food that most people associate with Southern Italy: pizza, eggplants, tomatoes, mozzarella, calzone, lasagna. Food staples include dried pastas like spaghetti not the fresh egg pastas made further north; garlic, oregano, olives, olive oil, chilis, bread & vegetables are all widely used. Pork & beef are more scarce with mullusks, squid, scungilli, shrimp, local fish & to a lesser extent poultry being the proteins of choice. Limoncello is a drink proudly served in every home, each family with it's own secret recipe. You will not find these things at A16.

A16 Pizza Margherita, yummy

At A16, you will find Nate Appleman's salumi hailed far & wide by foodie critics all over this country and other foods not typical of most Campanian regions but they do serve Neopolitan style pizza. Of course, if you go further south to the Calabrian region (the "toe" of Italy) spicy sausages, sorpressata & other salamis made from beef & pork are staples, along with bottarga (preserved tuna roe), swordfish & tuna. But that's an entirely different region of the country. The difference culturally & geographically between Pennsylvania & Georgia.

To be honest, I'm not the "regional" police & don't usually care about the regional authenticity of a menu if the food and service are great. We're in California not Salerno. BUT....
Not my intent

I would not make a point of illustrating A 16's faults if it were not for how arrogantly the restaurant & its staff boasts of its authentic Southern Italian roots both in the press as well as in the dining room. So enamored is the staff of this dicta that it eschews the very hospitality that Italians are known for by ignoring the desires of its paying guests in the name of what they consider "authenticity".

A case in point was a very recent lunch when a party of three southern Italians from the Campania region sat next to me in the tightly compressed room; so close that our legs kept making contact during lunch (not wholly unpleasant).

Capisco l'italiano un poco, and, when I tell you that, like me, this Neopolitan group was unimpressed by the menu, the wine list & the staff, I am being very kind in my characterization of their feelings.

These Italians were in the wine industry & Ms. Lindgren, the wine director herself, attended them; bringing them selections she thought would favorably impress them instead of allowing them to peruse the wine list & perhaps, imagine it if you will, suggest to her what they would enjoy drinking.
Wine Director Shelley Lindgren

One of the party, the brother-in-law of the host, switched to beer (Birra Morreti) after the first sip & suggested his companions do the same. He originally asked for a Bloody Mary but was denied because A 16 does not offer a full bar service.

The glasses of wine kept coming even as it was apparent to this observer that these guests were not enjoying them. The brother-in-law kept suggesting that his companions tell the sommelier that they hated her wine choices; but, somehow, both, the servers & Ms. Lindgren remained oblivious to their customers' dissatisfaction and the other two members of the luncheon party were too polite to complain. The glasses remained virtually untouched. Che peccato!

If the sommelier had more graciousness than hubris, she would have asked these Italian oenophiles for their recommendations of her wine list since it was more than obvious to all but the most deluded, they weren't enjoying her selections.

When the most outspoken member of the party asked for tabasco, HP sauce (an English steak sauce), then balsamic vinegar to season what he considered bland prosciutto, meatballs & pizza, he, a native of Campania, was told very snidely by an A16 server that the kitchen contained no condiments that were not southern Italian in origin.
Che cazzo?

Sorry, my Italian paisans, I know that's a naughty phrase but, really, what's happened to the hospitality industry? Attempting to belittle the customer's requests is no way to win their patronage.

When you consider that a lot of the staff is Mexican & over half of the menu could be from Northern Italy, you have to wonder whether little Miss Food Snoot was being entirely honest when she said that they only stock southern Italian foods. We do know she was being smug & obnoxious. It was both unnecessary and inhospitable.

Look, the staff really needs better training. I know this is not L'Atelier de Joel Robouchon but despite the fact that our server couldn't even tell me what type of water they sold, she behaved as though she did and tried with great hauteur to make us feel as though we were silly for asking and should gratefully accept whatever was offered. Bad start to the meal.

The servers are just laboring under misapprehensions & it's time some public-spirited person taught them the truth. I know Nate Appleman is a James Beard Award nominee. I know Shelly Lindgren is considered a fine sommelier by some her industry. These facts do not make the cuisine any tastier nor does it make the dining experience any better.

On the contrary, the food (no matter what its provenance) has suffered while the chef has collected his plaudits & opened another restaurant, SPQR. Maybe he's spending most of his time there.

While the dinner menu is user-friendly and offers a variety of food with an abundance of small plates; the lunch menu is a bit spartan leaving those with a little yen for some pesce or other lighter fare out of luck.

Here's the most "remarkable" of what was tried in three visits:

Looks good, taste is disappointing

Pork meatballs, the special on Meatball Monday nights were tough, mealy, oversalted & lacking flavor. They could have easily hailed from Amici's Pizzeria (just down the road) in a tomato ragu that was flat & tinny. My husband thinks Amici's meatballs are better & he's not fond of the Amici's version. I still have Christopher Hille's original recipe and have had great success repeating it, I found it hard to believe that the meatballs my husband ate that Monday night descended from that wonderful recipe. We waited a week to eat there that night. Per che?

Ditto for a simple romaine & chickory salad offered at lunch that was so unbalanced & vinegary, I was afraid that the chef was seeking to add a new bit of salumi to the menu, "Lori's Pickled Tongue". Beet and radicchio salad with fennel, black olives & a salty housemade ricotta salad fared much better; balancing the fat & acidity with more success.

Another lunch's Mozzarella burrata with olive oil, sea salt & crostini offered crostini that were so crisped they could have easily been used as briquettes for a charcoal grill. They were useless as a vehicle for the burrata. Thank heaven, I had some bread on my table. Although, the sourdough served as the house bread did overwhelm the delicate creamy cheese's interior. At $11 for a slice of burrata, I was disappointed that it was not the beautiful, more nuanced (& expensive) Italian buffalo milk version but, instead, a cows milk burrata, probably from Gioia in Southern California. So much for the server's comment that A16 only serve foods from Southern Italy.

Escarole and sunchoke salad with shavings of pecorino canestrano was light on the sunchoke & the escarole but the slices of "fried" almonds were crisp & sweetly nutty giving this salad some much needed punch.

The pizzas & their toppings are still the way to go here with Bianca, Margherita or the spicy Salsiccia with rapini while not rapturous are never disappointing. I happen to like my pizza a little thinner and crisper, less weighed down with heavy ingredients (more alla Romana) but I still enjoy the wood-fired crust.

Desserts have possibilities but always fall just shy of wonderful. A rich chocolate budino tart that needs to be shared had great promise served with sea salt & fruity olive oil on a crisp shortbread crust but the quenelle of chocolate mousse served on top was overkill. The biscotti & cookies are a nice simple way to end along with a cup of Blue Bottle coffee. Gelato & sorbetto are offered in 1, 2 or 3 scoops. Cheeses of good & varied selections served with housemade breads are available for the sweets-averse.

Overall, the good choices are fairly limited.
It really is a grazer's menu with the best options being the small vegetarian plates & that's fine if you happen to wander in off the street to sit at the bar (and many of the food cognoscenti do); but when you reserve a table a week or more in advance you want something more substantial than pizzas & cicchetti.

I wonder how many people go to A 16 for its great reputation, go away disappointed, never returning but remain silent because they don't want to seem like unsophisticated, untutored diners in the face of all the raves in the press this restaurant has garnered.

I can tell you those three Italian diners after a while were laughing at the wait staff & the number of times the servers came over to ask how they were enjoying their meals; especially since the staff was so pompous about it.
The Italians started with a curt, "It's ok' and progressed to louder exclamations because the staff seemed so disappointed with these diners lack of reaction until the more outspoken guy in the group said very sarcastically with eyes rolling around in their spheres,
"It's GORGEOUS!, ok ?"

I mean, A16 people, get real. You serve pizza, meatballs, prosciutto & salads not ambrosia, and you serve this pedestrian fare with a major attitude.

No one who has eaten at truly stellar dining establishments is going to ooooh & aaaahhh orgasmically over that food. I suggest that if the staff of A16 wants to step it up a notch, they should go to Acquerello, Quince, Incanto, Perbacco or even Antica Trattoria and see what great food & hospitality is all about.

Hell, you may even hope that a place that brings Campania to San Francisco might offer more food from the Campanian coastal region other than just pizza & maccaronara. How about a few small plates of Mozzarella En Carrozza, Scungilli Salad, Caprese Salad, Calzone, Eggplant & dare I ask, Lasagna? Seafood is fairly abundant in the Campania Region which includes the dramatic Amalfi Coast, how about some fish dishes and a little limoncello to wash them down with (for the more intrepid quaffer of alcoholic beverages). These are not sexy cutting edge foods, I grant you; but, they are a large part of the Campanian culinary vernacular.

There are geographical purists and A16 restaurant advocates who have pointed out to me that the A16 road leads from Naples to the more isolated sparsely populated mountainous regions of Campania and that A16 restaurant is faithful to that cuisine. Bravo! Very true.

Although other reviews in the press have incorrectly reported that A16 is the road from Rome to Naples or the road from Naples to points south, Autostrada 16 (the Autostrada dei Due Mari) traverses the interior countryside of Campania from the east in Naples to Canosa Puglia to the west. It's cuisine is very unique in the region with some influences from as far flung as Albania (there is an ethnic Albanian population in the region). It's food with its hazelnuts, chestnuts, egg pastas, game & cured meats resembles more the cuisine of its Northern Italian neighbors than its Southern regional paisans.

However that does not change the fact that the majority of the 5.8 million Campanians live in the densely populated coastal towns & villages. The coastal foods are the foods widely associated with the region and are vastly underrepresented by a restaurant who boldly claims to bring Campania to the San Francisco Marina.

Why do I care? Honestly, I don't.

Obviously, the chef & owners are entitled to do what they like with their restaurant. They are under no obligation to represent all the food of an entire region. I wouldn't really care if they called it Atlantis and were serving hot dogs & hamburgers; as long as the food was delicious and the staff was pleasant and efficient.

I am not in the restaurant business nor am I only a seeker of culinary truth. I just like eating where there is good food & a convivial atmosphere.

My "bone" of contention is that this restaurant breaches its promise to the public. It's not some small pizza joint trying to eke out a living. It's received accolade after accolade for its allegedly excellent regional Italian food and has a responsibility to maintain that excellence.

But it fails on that count, with a culinary experience that has steadily deteriorated since the departure of Christopher Hille who manned the helm at A16's inception. His restaurant was fine casual dining at it most relaxed and transcendent. That was then, this is now.

The truth is eating at a casual dining establishment like A16 with mediocre food and arrogant staff is like dating an unattractive man who is both abusive and penniless: you can't help feeling that you might do better elsewhere.

If the staff was accommodating & the food was inexpensive & mediocre, I wouldn't complain. I wouldn't go back but I wouldn't complain.

If the food were fantastic & the staff was obnoxious, I'd enjoy my food & move on. I wouldn't go back but at least I had a good meal so again, no complaints.

However, when a restaurant has enjoyed a well-established reputation for excellence, and both the service and the food are now well below par, I feel like an injustice has been done to the public. (Especially when reserving a table at a reasonable hour requires them calling at least a week in advance.) Be assured, I will complain.

About everything. Things both large & small.

Large things like major public health inspection violations (rodent infestation in the 10/07 inspection report according to Clean

Small things like selling the Neopolitan vibe while practically restricting the menu to Irpinian cuisine, an incredibly elegant yet simple style of Italian food from one of the least populous areas of Campania that, unfortunately, the cooks at A16 don't always do justice to either with food that is often unbalanced in flavor and disappointing in texture.

Chefs far & wide admire the cuisine of Irpinia, ex-executive chef Christopher Hille and Oliveto's ex chief Paul Bertolli studied there under Chef Antonio Pisaniello. Rocco Di Spirito brought the man to his failed reality T.V. restaurant; maybe A-16 should send its line cooks to cook with him, too.

To most Americans, rightly or wrongly, the food of Campania means Naples, Capri, Sorrento, the Amalfi Coast. The name A16 throws no light on the real focus of the cuisine because most Americans can never understand the tangled spaghetti that are the roads in Italy nor seemingly do most critics in the press.

Maybe A 16 should just change their name to "Mesali", a word in the local dialect of Avellino as well as an organization of restaurants in Avellino dedicated to Irpinian cuisine, to better reflect the intent of their menu. Mesali literally means "tablecloths", a way of indicating hospitality. Perhaps then, the staff at A16 will show some and their guests will all eat happily ever after.

Ya think?

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The Campania Region

Ovo-lacto vegetarians will be fine here but vegans beware this is an Italian place after all, cheese is king! I saw several couples with babies here. This is really not a child friendly atmosphere. The noise level is high, the conditions are cramped. Lots of people are imbibing. Take the kids to Za's, Giorgio's or Amici's. They'll be happier & so will everyone else.

The prices are not at all exorbitant but the small plates can add up quickly. Pizza's are $15 & can be easily shared. The wine list proffers selections almost exclusively from the south of Italy, not particularly revered for its winemaking; but, California selections are also available as well as beer. Many wines are available by the glass & the sommeliers take particular pride in directing you to various selections. A 16 does not have a hard liquor license, so no pomegranatini's, kiddies.

A 16
2355 Chestnut Street
between Scott & Divisadero Street
(415) 771-2216

Wednesday - Friday 11:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m.

Sunday - Thursday 5:00 - 10:00 p.m.
Friday & Saturday 5:00 - 11:00 p.m.


Anonymous said...

Well for someone who seems to be a know it all, how about realizing that A16 goes through the region of Irpinia and while all the foods you mention as being from Campania such as eggplant, lasagna, and scungili are from the coastal areas, Irpinia is a mountain region that uses lots of chestnuts, meats, and yes crespelle and fresh pastas. Take a little trip you will learn something. My family hails from Avellino. I as born there. A16 is authentically Irpinian. You clearly have a bone to pick.

Lori said...

Thanks for enlightening me, anonymous. I will adjust accordingly.
Just one question, do you enjoy the food & atmosphere at A16?

Anonymous said...


Yes, I like A16 very much I have been going to it about 6 months after they opened. The food is better now with Nate Appleman than with Christophe Hille. So sorry you do not like it, but it is true to what it states it is. Pizza is good like Da Michele in Naples too. Have talked to all sous chefs at A16 and all have cooked at top restaurants in Irpinia like Di Pietro. You should know that Antonio Pisaniello is now making very modern fancy food and not as good as other places like Di Pietro, Taverna Vulgi and other restaurants that are in the Slow Food guide in Irpinia region.

I generally like your blog very much, but think you are very wrong about A16.

Lori said...

Thanks, Anonymous, for another informative comment. I'm so flattered that you like my blog despite our difference of opinion.

One of the great things about a civilized life is that people can agree to disagree on certain subjects yet still find the discourse both illuminating and worthwhile.

I must say I envy your easy knowledge of restaurants in the Avellino region. You must go back home frequently. Good for you! It sounds like a wonderful place to go home to especially if you are a gourmand as you likely are. (I'd love to be there for Easter next week!)

I want to try SPQR. I know it by rep only and I just haven't gotten there yet. I think since it's Nate Appleman's new baby and his concept it might have more of his enthusiasm & focus until Urbino (or whatever the name of the new Team A16 venture will be) opens. I don't fault him for it; it's human nature to be more interested in your latest project. You won't see me writing about it until I've eaten a few lunches & dinners though, so don't look for my opinions anywhere, anytime soon. Not that you will anyway but a blogger can dream..... ;>)

Shelley Lindgren said...

I very much apologize that you had such distasteful things to say about your experience. I would never want anybody to do anything but thoroughly enjoy their wine selections and overall experience and never feel an honest underpinning to say what you did. It doesn't follow our philosophy whatsoever. We work very hard to do our best and will continue to improve. I hope you return to have a wonderful experience. Please let me know if I can be of any service to ensure a great experience to anybody reading this in the future. Sincerely, shelley Lindgren

The Gourmet Chronicles said...

Thanks, Shelley, for the thoughtful comment. I really appreciate you taking the time & energy to do it and the offer.

I do need to return to A16, but, I'll do it on my own & I'll make sure I send you a copy of any comments I have first. Now that SPQR is up & running smoothly (which btw is a fab neighborhood joint, I adore it!)
I'm sure it'll be easier to right the wrongs. On thinking about it now, the threesome of Italians I witnessed in re the wine experience were, in all honesty a bit cynical, and I think inclined not to enjoy you're selections, no matter what. Had you been Giancarlo Paterlini they may have been more willing to experiment. That could be the case.

My disappointment with the food was genuine. I remembered good things from the past, & my last three visits did not measure up; but, you guys were working on the new venture & who knows sometimes things fall into the cracks. I may also have failed to order the Irpinian-style of cuisine that A16 may very well excel at & I intend to go & try that very soon.

Your restaurant is universally regarded as a winner & you are certainly to be congratulated for being a successful woman in a boy's world. So kudos to you!

I've been wrong before. Hope I'm wrong again. Especially if it means, yummy food for all!