Incanto is an understated, warm, comfortable restaurant in the Noe Valley neighborhood of San Francisco. Incanto in Italian means enchanted, magical, or charmed. This restaurant is a charming place. It is divided into two sections: a wine bar where you can eat and watch cooks prepare charcuterie plates and the main dining area dedicated to Dante Alighieri, Italy’s famous poet of the Middle Ages and composer of “The Divine Comedy,” considered to be one of the masterpieces of world literature.
We had dinner at the bar in a warm, relaxed atmosphere. Service is friendly but not obsequious.
Dante is considered to be a master of the Italian language and perhaps serves as an inspiration for Incanto’s chef Chris Cosentino. Chef Chris hails from Rhode Island and there is an East Coast or perhaps Old World sensibility to his cuisine. Like the poet Dante’s mastery of language, Chris appears to be a master of the use of organ meats in contemporary cuisine. I was nervous at the prospect of eating such things as duck hearts, calf’s brains, or cured tuna heart. However, I put aside my apprehension. Incanto is the first restaurant in San Francisco to be certified humane by the ASPCA for buying meat from locally producing farmers rather than from factory-farmed sources.
We began with the Antipasto platter for two ($20). All meats on the platter are house-cured at Boccalone, the restaurateurs’ other venture and, of course, include organ meats. The platter included, pate di campagna, a rustic style traditional paté made of coarsely ground pork meat plus tongue, liver, kidney, and blood; herb-spiced, thinly sliced mortadella; a large Italian pork sausage; roasted garlic; coppa, made from the meat of the head, plus the tongue; trotters, braised carrots, baby radishes, and house-made whole grain mustard. The platter did not wow me. But it was a good beginning to an interesting dining experience.
I next tried the Trotter Cake ($12). I am familiar with pigs’ trotters but never had I seen them presented the way Chris did. They were whimsically presented on a long plate accompanied by braised snails! The trotters are braised, the meat removed and formed into a small cake (like a crab cake), coated with a flour and breadcrumb combination and sautéed so that they are crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. Watercress is pureed and presented as a green trail along with the reduced braising liquid. I found the cake rather bland, though the snails were quite flavorful and had the interesting texture of meat, not the chewy escargot with which I am familiar.
Next came the Calf’s Brain ($13). I never thought I would, in this life, eat calf’s brain. It was good. This dish was presented as nuggets of calf’s brain coated with flour, egg wash, and breadcrumbs and sautéed to crisp perfection. On the plate is muglio–pinecone bud syrup and young Douglas fir tip oil, a blend of young Douglas fir with pure olive oil, which is then strained in all its green goodness. This combination caused my companion to exclaim, “It tastes like Christmas!” It indeed tastes like Christmas with a crispy outside and smooth calf’s brain inside.
This is an Italian restaurant so we had pasta. I had the Paccheri (half-size $10), a large tube-shaped pasta, with sautéed porcini, sugo (sauce), and nepitella, a mint-flavored Tuscan herb. It was good but lacked the wow factor. I also tried the Mint Malfatti (half-size $10), which means “badly made” and Beef Brasato. I had heard about a certain pasta dish made with tuna heart and was curious to try it as well. This was the Spaghettini with Sardinian cured tuna heart, egg yolk, and parsley (half-size $10). It was not what I expected. I was quite flavorful. The tuna heart is cured and shaved onto the pasta. A raw egg yolk is on top and is cooked by the heat of the pasta. The flavor reminded me of a carbonara pasta dish with a smoked fish taste—very good.
Incanto is known for its Braised pork shoulder ($23) with radishes, grilled onion, and preserved chillis. This is their signature dish. I wanted to try it, but I also wanted to try the Braised duck leg ($23) with grilled duck hearts, turnips, and cherries. So I had both. The pork was braised to perfection. It melted in your mouth. However, until I tasted the duck, my dining experience at Incanto was, until that point, just good. The duck made it great. The leg seasoned with salt and pepper overnight, seared, then braised until just falling off the bone. My dinner companion who has eaten at Incanto many times was floored. She had never tried the duck in all her times at the restaurant. In this dish was the wow factor I had been seeking. For this dish, I would return to sample more of Chris’ fare.
I have a guiding principle: When dining at any restaurant, try the signature dish. Then try another dish or two. You are sure to discover what the kitchen crew is made of. I was not disappointed with my dessert choice of the house specialty: the Bay Leaf Panna Cotta. It was silky, smooth, and creamy all at the same time with a subtle flavor of bay leaf, the best I have ever had. I also tried the duo of mint ice cream and an interesting combination of malted vanilla and strawberry ice cream. I shall return for more.
At $4 to $13 for starters, $16 for pasta ($10 half-plate), and $17 to $25 entrees, Incanto won’t break your wallet. There is also a three-course Cucina Povera Menu (poor kitchen menu) for $30, $39 with paired wine. Incanto has an excellent wine list thanks to their in house wine expert Eduard Ruiz. Dessert wines are also available.
The restaurant is located at 1550 Church Street in San Francisco and is open for dinner six nights a week. Its hours of operation are 5:30 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday evenings and 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Sunday and Monday evenings.