Polenta in Winter at Palio D’Asti
Culinarily speaking, we live in interesting times. Formerly aristocratic fares like white bread, roast beef, and refined rice are banned in favor of whole grains, wild fungi, and humble legumes. Turns out, those poor polenta-eating contadini knew their food.
Dan Scherotter, Chef/Owner of Palio D’Asti restaurant in San Francisco’s Financial District, recently winterized his Northern Italian menu with a variety of creative polenta dishes.
Thanks to his partially Russian ancestry, Chef Dan knows buckwheat kasha (which gives him some additional points in my book). His Taragna a Piacere has a hint of pre-Columbian authenticity. It’s a special polenta made of a corn and buckwheat flour mixture, and enhanced with brown butter, sage, and Parmigiano Reggiano. Naturally mild in taste, texture, and color, polenta is easily topped with an array of delicacies.
Let’s look closer at each of those taragna plates on Chef Dan’s menu, shall we?
Funghi – with roasted and braised wild mushrooms, red wine and rosemary. That’s one healthy meal that’s filling and satisfying. Slippery chunks of assorted shrooms provide a touch of earthiness and a nice contrast to polenta mash.
Maiale – slow cooked pork shoulder with tangerine, Meyer lemon and blood orange. Fork-tender meat is decorated with peeled citrus crescents lending a great color scheme to the dish, but combined juices of the fruit make one want to lick the plate.
Salsiccie – Cotechino and pork fennel sausages with braised cabbage and grain mustard. Somewhat Germanic (sausage and mustard?), this dish is still unmistakably Italian thanks to Cotechino – a house-made fatty little sausage made of cooked pork feet meat. If it sounds like a mouthful that’s because you would want your mouth full of that delicious gelatinous mass, a result of slow cooking and pulling out all the bones and tendons from the delicate trotters.
Finally, Chervo is a mind-boggling combination of ingredients that only a genius would put together with such spectacular results. Spiced venison sugo with chunks of Gorgonzola cheese, roasted chestnuts and pomegranate seeds is a must try, even if pizza or house-made pasta is what you came here for.
A glass of smoky Nerello Mascalese Di Giovanna 2008 from the slopes of Etna – one of those chewy Sicilian reds, is a great accompaniment to any of the polenta combinations.
You might feel full by now, but don’t leave without tiramisu, made the same way as it used to be from the day Palio D’Asti was founded 20 years ago. As General Manager Martino DiGrande put it, every pastry chef at the restaurant meets the same job requirement: don’t mess with the traditional recipe. Lady fingers, espresso, rum, Zabaglione sauce, mascarpone cheese, and some chocolate shavings – your dream tower has arrived.
Another outstanding dolce, on a lighter side, is panna cotta, Pompelmo e Castagne – buttermilk pudding with pink and white grapefruit segments, candied grapefruit zest, and chestnut honey.
Chef Dan, a founding restaurant member of Slow Food San Francisco, 20-year veteran of Palio D’Asti, and chef extraordinaire, is fluent in Italian, has two years of working experience in culinary Bologna, and regularly visits Italy looking for more regional gems to add to his seasonally changing menu.
Palio D’Asti is located at 640 Sacramento Street, San Francisco. Reservations and information at their website or 1-415-395-9800.