Going out for a special occasion doesn’t have to be a big event. You don’t need to be seen, bump into everyone you know, or order table-side, truffle-shaved, color-changing food that you’ll want to spend more time taking photos of than actually eating. Instead of feeling like one of those wild-eyed happy people in an Olive Garden commercial, sometimes what you need is a nice quiet meal where you can actually pay attention to the person across from you. When that’s the case, you’ll want to go to a place like Altovino.
Altovino is an Italian restaurant on the edge of Nob Hill above Chinatown, where there’s not much else going on except for a cablecar that passes by once in a while. The space is nice with a bright wine bar in the front and a dark back room if you want a little more privacy while you eat. If you walked in here on a whim or rolled in after falling off that cablecar, you’d be excited to tell your friends what you found.
With a long list of Italian bottles and a good by-the-glass selection, you could go to Altovino just for the wine. And while they do serve some bar snacks, like roasted almonds and deviled eggs, there are a ton of other wine bars around SF with just as good of options. It’s the full dinner menu here that’s worth sticking around for.
The food here can be a little bit pricey, but it’s worth it - just make sure the person you bring here is too. Pretty much everything on the menu is good to split with someone else, and you’d be fine just ordering a starter and a few pastas, like the pappardelle bolognese and squid ink raviolini. If you’re hungrier than that, the meatballs are a good, small entree and there’s also a 35-oz dry-aged porterhouse if that’s how the night is going.
You don’t go to Altovino for a crazy experience, like if it’s your friends’ first time going out since having a kid or you won tickets to a live taping of Maury. The food here is classic Italian, but not overly showy, and the restaurant itself is pretty is low key - enough so that if you were Maury Povich on vacation, no one would bother you for an autograph or inquire about a paternity test. It’s a good place to bring your long-term boyfriend or girlfriend, some clients staying up the hill at the Fairmont, or a visiting relative that you actually want to catch up with. You can save the endless breadstick euphoria for another night.
These olives are stuffed with braised oxtail and parmesan cheese before they’re fried. People who like olives will use these as the reason to finally start the Olive Wars - the people who don’t like olives should concede. If you’re just here for wine, get these, and if you’re here for a full meal, you should also get these.
Homemade striped pasta with super beefy bolognese. If you need something to tip the scales, there’s prosciutto in the sauce, too. You know what to do.
Olive oil-doused toast with a ton of chicken liver pate on top. Make sure you’re not the only one at the table who likes pate because it’s too much for one person alone.
The olives can be a little bit much, but the ocean-y pasta stuffed with halibut mousse is simple and good and the tomatoes and botarga take it up a few levels.
Cavatelli tossed with a mildly spicy lamb ragu. After a few bites of the sauce, you’ll be over it and ready to pass it to someone else.
Breadsticks with speck, gorgonzola, and pickled radicchio. Not mind blowing, but still good and if you’re here for just wine and want something to snack on, go for it.
Great pork meatballs with ricotta sitting on top of celery root puree and pork jus. This has everything you’d want from a plate of comfort food, and we’re considering copying this to cook for Thanksgiving instead of turkey and mashed potatoes.
Unless you’re in a place like Zuni Cafe, chicken is usually a cop out, but this is an exception. The leg is stuffed with trumpet mushrooms and guanciale mousse that can be a little bit salty, but is still really good.