An old flame still shines bright in Nob Hill
Who knew meatballs were such a cosmopolitan food? Through a little webbing, I discovered that almost every culture has their own version of our much-adored spaghetti topper. In Norway, they are called kjøttkaker ("meat cakes") and are served with peas and potatoes. Indonesian meatballs are served in a bowl with eggs, tofu and noodles, and are called bakso. There are more than 80 types of regional meatballs made in Turkey, and in Italy, the forebear of our own American meatball, they are known as polpette, and are served as a course unto themselves.
It goes without saying that true connoisseurs of Italian food (Americanized or not) place a good deal of emphasis on the homemade meatball, but I’ve had my share of pre-formed, spiritless mystery meat nuggets. So I was tickled to the belly to taste a fantastic pile of house-made balls, thick with beef, pork, chicken and veal at Vivace in Nob Hill.
I went in to eat at a weird time—around 3 p.m.--which was just fine, because not only did I catch the final throes of the lunch menu, but I also got excellent service without distraction.
I wasn’t big on the interior. The liberal prints of Italian scenery were predictable, and the unfortunate reality of older buildings is a lack of some modern accoutrements (like track lighting). However, I put aside my modern materialism after hearing the daily specials. I would venture to say the imagination definitely shows in the menu.
I was immediately taken with the pesce del giorno (fish of the day, market price), which today was a pan-seared snapper with orange-vodka sauce. As per my old food saying, “master the fundamentals,” I also ordered the spaghetti con polpette ($9.95) and a house salad, or insalata mista ($5.95).
The salad was big enough for two, and it came topped with tasty marinated red onions. I could have benefitted from a few more of those delicious Kalamata olives (there were only two), but the balsamic vinaigrette was aromatic and tossed into the fresh field greens with a perfect dressing-to-leaf ratio. The bread wasn’t bad either, and it was imbued with herbs and quite soft.
While I waited for my entrée, I took in the homier touches of a somewhat utilitarian décor--namely, the combination of sturdy plastic tablecloths with mismatched (eclectic or necessity, you be the judge) bottles of olive oil. The starchy white napkins made me wonder who does their laundry, because I’d like for them to do mine.
My dishes arrived, and the fish looked every bit as good as it sounded. It tasted marvelous too. Anyone who’s cooked snapper either at home or commercially knows that this particular fish can go from tender to rubbery in no time, so I felt a pang of pride and appreciation as I ate that moist, flavorful dish. The sauce was tangy with orange juice and warm with vodka, aided by a liberal sprinkling of coarse ground black pepper. The side that accompanied my fish was another house salad, but I had been deprived of fresh vegetables for a few days, so I dug in.
My spaghetti portion was enormous, and the homemade marinara was chunky--lots of onion, lots of tomatoes and the meatballs it came with were the size of golf balls. I cut into one to find herbs and meat with no hint of soggy breadcrumbs or other filler. I had gone so long without a homemade meatball I almost forgot how good they can be. Almost.
I spied a few more dishes and salads to keep in the mental hopper (for the next time I tire of eating goldfish crackers dipped in peanut butter), like the cozze (Prince Edward Island mussels in Sambuca sauce), the mezzluna amalfitana (crescent-shaped pasta stuffed with seafood and lobster meat in a lemon-basil cream sauce) and the insalata nizza (like a salad Niçoise, with seared yellow fin tuna, egg, green beans and red potatoes). But really, the meatballs alone are worth the trip. Vivace may have been around the block the a few times, but going back to your old flame might be just the thing to revive an Italian love affair.