It’s a quiet Tuesday night in Hayes Valley, the kind of blustery, cold, blah Tuesday night when you’d expect people to stay in and order pho from Caviar or cook up their latest Sun Basket creation. There’s nothing going on at the nearby Nourse Theater, no symphony performing at Davies, no pricey shoe boutiques still open. There’s no reason, really, for anyone to be out and about. And strolling by old-timer Cafe Delle Stelle (plugging free bottles of wine with bills over $60) and newcomer Nightbird, it looks as if, indeed, they’re not. Apparently no one is in the mood for a heady $125 five-course tasting menu.
But round the corner to A Mano, and suddenly: crowds, Saturday-night-level crowds, visible through a wall of glass as squeaky clean as the spanking-new condos above. There are people seated at every one of the 90 seats; people crammed into the sliver of a bar sipping Negronis; people spilling onto the sidewalk as a perky host quotes hour-long waits.
Everyone, it seems, is in the mood for a $14 bowl of rigatoni.
A Mano (Italian for “by hand”) opened in early May with the goal of bringing affordable handmade pasta to a city where mint tagliatelle with porcini mushrooms has tipped toward $22. It aims to be the everylady’s Locanda. Or Cotogna. Or Tosca. Or La Ciccia… The list of San Francisco’s rustic Italian treasures goes on.
A Mano is the latest “concept” from prolific restaurateur Adriano Paganini. And it’s a smart concept, if not an entirely new one. Pasta Pomodoro ring a bell? That was Paganini’s idea, too, back in 1994. At its peak, the chain had 40-something outposts, mostly throughout California, the last of which, under new ownership, closed last year. No big loss. It was a cheap, easy place to eat something edible and Italiany. It had no scene and it wasn’t supposed to.
But ever since, Paganini has been all about scene, or perhaps the proper word is packaging. In 2008, he turned his attention to pizza and figured out that if he enhanced the ambience and added exceptional cocktails — in a killer location — he’d be onto something. And he was: Beretta, on a sunny corner of Valencia Street, was an insta-hit, further popularizing the blistered crust-broccolini contorni trend that was already well underway.
Starbelly (Castro) and Delarosa (Marina) followed. He then wisely branched out to burgers, hawking humanely raised hamburgers for a reasonable $7.75 at Super Duper, which has 10 locations and counting around the Bay. And now — after adding a Belgian brasserie, tacos, and an Argentine steakhouse to his quiver — the Milan-born restaurateur has gone back to his roots: pasta.
The funny thing is, though, as I slid onto my stool, squeezing into the tightly packed communal table, my first thought was: This place reminds me of Pomodoro, just with sleeker digs and duck-liver mousse. And that was before I’d realized Paganini had anything to do with it.
Which they are. Filled with awkward first dates and rowdy tables of eight, everyone chatting, laughing, eating affordable food — which flies out of the open kitchen at a fairly rapid clip — A Mano feels like an adult cafeteria with cocktails. Call it arestauteria: a growing breed of eatery where essentially everything costs $16 or less; the kind of place that boasts all the accoutrements of a beloved San Francisco restaurant — but somehow lacks the soul of one.
There’s a muted red-white-and-green theme going on (Italy and all); bottles of Aperol and Campari lining the bar like artwork; track lighting (which they fiddled with throughout each night to get it right); and an especially warm, well-trained staff. Still, emotionally… A Mano feels kind of cold.
And, unfortunately, so did my pasta.
Not cold cold, in which case I would’ve just sent it back. More lukewarm, with pockets of varying temperatures, like a lake in summer. The problem, perhaps symptomatic of a slammed kitchen still finding its rhythm, plagued not just one pasta, but almost every pasta I had. (The agnolotti dal plin — rich, buttery pillows of pork, roast chicken, and chard — came out piping hot.)
The cauliflower bagna cauda was my favorite antipasti, roasted with garlic, lemon, torpedo onions, and chiles. The Monterey squid, too, which came in a tomato-rich stew of chickpeas and romanesco one night, summer corn another. Both were good, albeit not as good as similar iterations elsewhere.
There’s always a nightly special, like the Tuscan fried chicken with braised black kale, which was crisp and juicy and, at $20, the most expensive item on the menu. (If you really want to splurge, there’s a $95 bottle of brunello.)
The pizza at A Mano is not the focus. (Nor, after trying one topped with asparagus, green garlic, and anchovy, did it seem to me that it should be: the crust was doughy, and the asparagus mushy.) Which is why there are only two or three pizzas per night. And perhaps why, mysteriously, one evening around 7:30 p.m., we watched a delivery guy from Patxi’s, holding a box high above his head, work his way through the throngs to someone in the back.
The focus here, per Paganini’s plan, is on pasta. It’s handmade daily with durum, a finer ground semolina flour, under chef Freedom Rains, who cooked at Flour & Water and Incanto before heading the kitchen at Belga. He does seven generously portioned pastas nightly. They change frequently and always with the seasons.
Over three separate nights, I tried almost all of them. That agnolotti was the best of the bunch and probably what I’d order if I ever went back. (And I would, if I wanted more of a scene than, say, Souvla, before seeing Pop-Up Magazine or City Arts & Lecture.)
The spaghettini, tossed with clams and breadcrumbs, was firm, if dry, but flavorful enough to not render it a total mis-order. But while the pesto tagliatelle with pine nuts, fava beans, and English peas screamed spring — and was clearly made with fresh ingredients — the pasta itself tasted mealy. And the pesto was bland, as if Rains was told to play it safe.
Only the campanelle with broccoli di ciccio, a sweet heirloom broccoli, had any kick — and that’s because it was scattered with chile flakes. I actually witnessed more than one table request a side of chile flakes for their pastas mid-meal.
It’s what my rigatoni pork sugo needed, too. Like the others, it arrived sort of warm. While hearty, with hunks of braised meat, it lacked the depth and richness of a truly memorable sugo.
Therein lies the problem with a place like A Mano — there’s just too much in this town to compare it to. With every bite of my bucatini all’Amatriciana, I kept hoping it would become more like Locanda’s. (It didn’t.)
Paganini was quoted last year talking about what drives a successful company. “Why does someone open up one little retail store and somebody else becomes the Gap?” he said. Replace Old Navy with Super Duper and Belga with Banana and, hmm, maybe the Gap with A Mano, and Paganini has, in fact, built the edible version of the fashion empire —one that aims to please everyone without wowing anyone.
A Mano’s not going to win San Francisco’s heart, but when the bill comes around, suddenly a so-so sugo becomes a little easier to stomach.