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Italian revival: upscale Scalo reopens in Nob Hill with new owners, intriguing menu

Scalo’s tartare e carpaccio starter pairs chopped and thin-sliced raw beef tenderloin. (Richard S. Dargan/For the Journal)

The decline and fall of Scalo had enough intrigue for a Netflix miniseries.

A fight for control between the spouse-owners descended into allegations of substance abuse and embezzlement. The drama sapped the energy from the place, and its reputation eroded away until it abruptly closed in December 2018 after four decades in Nob Hill. The prime location, under a squat, octagonal cupola on the northwest corner of the historical Nob Hill Business Center, sat idle.

A year and a half later, Scalo has reopened under the ownership of the husband-and-wife team of Prashant and Christie Sawant, patrons of the old place who want to restore it to its former glory. They hired Gaetano Ascione, a Naples, Italy-born chef with international experience, to take over in the kitchen, and have been using social media to promote the reopening.

The efforts appear to be paying off. When I visited for takeout on a recent Saturday night, the patio was busy, the small parking lot full. It was heartening to see activity again at this corner of the circa-1946 shopping center, a marvelous relic of the golden age of Route 66.

The new launch represents a reset more than a rebuild. “Northern Italian Grill” is gone from the name, suggesting that a more comprehensive presentation of Italian cuisine is in the offing, but the menu is mostly similar to that of the previous incarnation. For casual diners who might blanch at the sight of dishes such as osso buco, rack of lamb and filet mignon, there are several pizzas and pasta dishes in the $12-$18 range. Vegetarian and gluten-free options are easy to find.

Starters tend toward the more upscale, such as grilled octopus for $14 and mussels and leek stew for $16. The tartare e carpaccio ($16) presents raw beef tenderloin two ways: chopped and thin-sliced. The underseasoned tartare, formed into a patty and topped with a raw egg, picks up sorely needed salt and acidity from the fat capers, halved cherry tomatoes and cornichons on the plate. If you can manage to load everything onto the accompanying pieces of crostini, you’re rewarded with a great bite.

Branzino alla Liguria ($34), one of three fish dishes on the menu, pairs skin-on, boneless fillets of European bass with black olives and tomatoes. In the takeout box, it looks like a pile of leftovers scraped off a plate, but these days you have to move past appearances and focus on flavors – in this case, a flaky, mildly sweet fish expertly set against the acid of the watery tomato sauce. The sauce has bit of heat that the halved purple fingerling potatoes avidly absorb. It’s bright and fresh, a fitting tribute to the sun-splashed Mediterranean region in its name.

Pasta dishes include preparations of gnocchi ($18) that vary daily. On the day I ordered, the special was a well-executed but rather mundane presentation of gnocchi in butter and oil topped with parmesan. A marinara would have put it over the top.

A side of fried kale at Scalo gets a charge from togarashi, a Japanese spice mix. (Richard S. Dargan/For The Journal)

The menu offers an intriguing selection of vegetable sides, including lacinato fritto ($5), fried black Tuscan kale in a roasted garlic vinaigrette. The kale, as crisp and thin as dried leaves, gets a kick from the Japanese spice mix togarashi.

 

 

Scalo’s Brussels sprouts side is tossed with pieces of bacon in a white vinaigrette dressing. (Richard S. Dargan/For The Journal)

Cavolini ($5), a dish of sautéed Brussels sprouts tossed with pieces of bacon in a white balsamic vinaigrette, was less successful. The outer layers of the vegetables presented an appetizingly charred appearance, but they were too tough to eat, and the bacon was undercooked.

Initial impressions of the ordering process were not good, as the person who answered the phone kept me on the line while seeking help, exposing me to this bit of dialogue: “Hey, can you take this guy’s order? No? Gawwwd.”

Fortunately, someone else took the phone, and things went smoothly from there. The food was ready in 15 minutes. Upon arriving, I pulled up to the curb and called the restaurant, and a server ran the food out to me.

The temporary prohibition on dining in has a silver lining for Scalo, which has some time to get up to speed before the crowds return. And return they will. Scalo has an intriguing menu, a matchless location and new ownership intent on reviving its once lofty reputation.


ON THE SIDE

VARA WINERY & DISTILLERY
3 stars
LOCATION/CONTACT: 315 Alameda NE, 898-6280, varawines.com

Vara Winery & Distillery in the North Valley occupies a tranquil spot off Alameda just west of the Balloon Fiesta Park entrance. The tasting room menu features more than a dozen wines. Prices are modest, starting at $17 for a bottle of r

In Vara Winery’s paella, bomba rice hides such goodies aschicken thighs and shellfish. It pairs well with tempranillo, a fruity red wine. (Richard S. Dargan/For the Journal)

osado, Spanish pink wine, and topping out at $32 for Viña Cardinal ($32), an aperitif Vara rolled out in February as its first 100% New Mexico wine.

Accompanying the wines and spirits is a concise menu that includes braised short ribs, chorizo macaroni, and cheese and ceviche. Everything is conveniently offered in small, as well as full, servings, so you won’t break the bank trying a few different dishes.

—Richard S. Dargan

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