Photo Credit: Eric WolfingerWith the rain hitting San Francisco hard this week, there is no better time for classic comfort food. The one dish that always soothes our soul and appeals to our tastebuds? A piping hot bowl of cheesy pasta. Not just any pasta, but our hands-down, all-time favorite pasta, carbonara. The traditional Roman pasta dish takes humble ingredients — eggs, bacon, and cheese — and turns them into a spectacular silky sauce for pasta. It’s a dish that requires technical skill as the chef must make sure to cook the eggs into a velvety sauce with a texture that is just so; if overcooked, the eggs will scramble and the dish is ruined. However, no need to worry about scrambled eggs: at the following five restaurants, the chefs have mastered the skill of making expert carbonara. Here are the best places to enjoy a plateful of eggy, cheesy carbonara goodness in SF.
Venticello, in Russian Hill, is a neighborhood meeting spot: It’s small, under the radar, and decidedly unsceney. The friendly and experienced host’s gentle greeting, delicious smells wafting from the kitchen, and sunset colored walls make the diner feel warm and welcomed. It’s sort of like walking onto a set leftover from the movie Under the Tuscan Sun. But you’re not here just for the relaxed rustic vibe, you’re here for the carbonara and Venticello’s is to die for! They make it with al dente spaghetti and crisp pancetta and serve it in a deep inviting bowl. The addition of peas and cream make Venticello’s carbonara less traditional, but that much more scrumptious. The pasta is so good it’s hard to stop eating. It’s rich, but that can easily be cut by a sip of unoaked chardonnay — we recommend a glass of the Copain, it’s a delightful pairing.
1257 Taylor Street San Francisco, CA 94108
For the opposite carbonara experience, head to Valencia Street’s Locanda. This always-packed restaurant from the Delfina team is a see-and-be-seen type of place with an exceptional atmosphere. The crowd is hip, the cocktails are flowing, and the open kitchen is bustling. Chef Anthony Strong is the mastermind behind the thick white sauce-coated rigatoni carbonara. After just one bite, you can tell that the pasta is unbelievably fresh, perhaps even made earlier that day. Besides the rigatoni, the remaining ingredients are pretty quintessential. The pork is guanciale, an Italian cured meat made from the pig’s cheeks, and it’s sliced into fat cubes that burst in your mouth. The cheese is pecorino which provides just the right amount of sharpness. Not only is the sauce smooth and delectable, but the texture of the entire dish is spot on.
557 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110
The most unconventional carbonara around is SPQR’s variation which combines smoked house made fettuccine with bacon, a soft quail egg, and uni. The restaurant and chef, Matthew Accarrino, are known for making superb fresh pasta and unusual inventive sauces. The carbonara is a signature example of his ability to take standard components and turn them into something modern and memorable. The uni (which is sea urchin roe) elevates the carbonara to a whole new level of luxury. The smokiness of the fettuccine and bacon add depth and complexity. Cracking into the quail egg and watching it ooze seductively over the pasta is the icing on the carbonara cake.
1911 Fillmore Street San Francisco, CA 94115
At Plin, Alexander Alioto’s new Italian eatery in the Mission, the carbonara is made with feathery and delicate fresh fettuccine. The pork, which is a local pancetta, shines throughout the dish and you hope each bite will be filled with the crunchy lardons. The sauce is made with egg yolk, but no white, which gives the pasta a likable sumptuous quality and notable lightness — it’s refreshingly less rich than the other carbonaras. The atmosphere is not happening, but it’s not stuffy either. The potent craft cocktails are served in elegant glassware, so why not order one to pair with your pasta?
280 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94103
5 E Tutto Qua
Over on the corner of Broadway and Columbus in the heart of North Beach is E Tutta Qua. This busy restaurant is splendidly staffed with attractive Italian men who greet female guests with a kiss and compliment. It’s large and crowded, but there is somehow always an open table or spot at the small bar. The carbonara consists of a dry rigatoni pasta (that's cooked to al dente perfection), house cured guanciale, eggs, and pecorino. The portion is massive and the guanciale fantastically rendered to crisp awesomeness. It’s especially wonderful when the pork falls inside a tube of rigatoni and you don’t realize it’s there until it’s in your mouth. The sensation brings to mind Christmas morning and there’s nothing more comforting than that.
270 Columbus Avenue San Francisco, CA 94133