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Flour+Water's New Italian Destination Is a Must-Visit – thebolditalic

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Virginia Miller
2 days ago·5 min read
Flour+Water debuted in 2009 in the Mission and I remember the difficulty getting reservations and the ever-packed houses from the beginning. While many of my friends raved about chef Thomas McNaughton’s pizza, it was his pasta that won me over. His Bologna pasta training showing—alongside his past at pasta meccas like Quince—is pitch-perfect pasta from Italy’s food capital, in a country where every region is food heaven.
Flour+Water is undergoing a remodel with plans to reopen refreshed this winter. Meanwhile, Flour+Water Hospitality Group, McNaughton and fellow restaurant partner and exec chef, Ryan Pollnow (who came on board in 2013; in his early days, Ryan staged at none other than Mugaritz in San Sebastian, Spain) opened Penny Roma in mid-October 2021 in the former Central Kitchen space.
My husband, Dan, and I entered the Penny Roma courtyard on a Wednesday to a line checking in at the host station, every table full, with diners glowing under candles, each backdropped by greenery, and next to a fountain dotted with floating rubber ducks. A playful auroa dominated in the reborn space as diners filled up on crudo and pasta. The restaurant opens into Flour+Water Pasta Shop, which sells their housemade pasta and all manner of Italian imports, gourmet local foods, and Italian and California wines.
The menu is seasonal, sectioned under crudi (raw fish/sashimi-esque dishes), antipasti/starters, pasta, secondi/mains, sides, and dessert, but it’s the subtle regional travel around Italy that makes the focused menu sing, whether Sicilian ingredients in a crudo or Emilia Romagna-worthy (the region centered by Bologna) pasta.
I was transported straight back to my Sicilian roots and our three weeks in that incomparable island just before pandemic when I took a bite of Penny Roma’s albacore tartare, punctuated with Early Girl tomatoes, Calabrian olive oil, and Sicily stapes of capers and pistachios. Crunch, contrast, the briny caper hit, silky tuna, it was the ideal way to start, especially paired with the passionfruit-orange blossom-floral beauty of 2020 Erggelet Brothers Malvasia from Contra Costa County produced by German immigrant brother winemakers.
Long-time Flour+Water Hospitality Group wine director Samuel Bogue has created a super-smart wine list that pleases my organized sense of symmetry, grouped by five classic and five natural wines in every category from light, medium and fuller reds to orange/amber, on to crisp and textured white wines. His thoughtful pairings hit heavy on Italy, California, and a little France, featuring balanced natural wines and small producers.
Marinated beets showcased both earthy red beets and silky-sweet golden beets over creamy ricotta, under a dusting of ricotta salata and basil. We moved on to pasta when what I’ve long loved of McNaughton and Pollnow’s cooking came into focus. Comforting tagliatelle alla Bolognese took us right back to our weeks in Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region, but even more so with their tortellini di zucca: tender tortellini stuffed with roasted autumn squash, under layers of brown butter, sage, and aceto balsamico vinegar.
Yet it was agnolotti dal plin that made me close my eyes and sigh with (more than a little) food ecstasy. It encapsulates what makes up the best stuffed pasta dishes: a rustic simplicity that can only be born of practised expertise. Beef and pork melt in the pocket of the agnolotti pasta, savory with sugo d’arrosto (its own meat broth/jus), generously dusted in real Parmigiano Reggiano. Straightforward and simple on one hand, its perfect elements and execution are what rustic cooking is all about. Damn, that dish made me miss Italy.
Sam Bogue jumped back in with just the right pairing: a 2019 La Cascinetta Grignolino Rocco from Piemonte, Italy.
Its rosy-pink hue looks more like a dark rosé than a red, and, in fact, it’s ideal slightly chilled. Crushable and complex, this baby could pair with everything from burgers to Korean food. It was just right with pasta.
Moving on the mains, seared Mt. Lassen trout (seriously, the best trout I’ve ever eaten — and eat by the hundreds — from NorCal) was cooked to perfection. Its signature silky texture held sway, not quite rare but not over-cooked even by a hair, topped with a crispy sheet of its own delicious skin, contrasted by chanterelle mushrooms and apricot mostarda. But it was cotechino, aka a house Emilian-style pork sausage laced with spices in a hearty “stew” of turnips and Umbrian lentils, that recalled Northern Italy — or even France’s Alsace region and dishes like choucroute garnie — with its Germanic heartiness and Italian sensibilities. Utter comfort, this dish is made for chilly nights (though we feasted on a mild, balmy night). Bogue was on point again with a hearty yet delicate, slightly chilled 2020 Lamoresca Frappato blend from husband/wife winemakers in Sicily.
Swimming in the wine-pasta-crudi-etc. glow, I tried to give a clear answer to the couple next to us who asked what we were eating for dessert — fior di latte gelato in olive oil and sea salt, by the way — and then asked what fior di latte was. I barely articulately explained that it’s one of three levels of mozzarella (buffalo, fior di latte, burrata), before getting lost in the gelato’s cheesy, blessedly-not-sweet, lusciously savory elements. Our accompanying pomegranate and bay laurel sorbetto was palate cleansing and gorgeous in its own right, but sorry, sorbetto. The gelato stole the show. It was like having gelato, a cheese course, and a taste of Italy in fresh, velvety bites.
Dan and I agreed: the fior di latte gelato was the right sign-off to a night traversing just a few regions of our beloved Italia, cooked with mama-worthy, familial comfort married to trained, expert chef precision. I’ll miss the range and vision of the kind of dishes that came out of Central Kitchen over the years, but Penny Roma feels more focused, warmer and crowd-pleasing.
Welcome to the new Italian kid on the 20th Street corridor block. I’ll be back, no doubt.
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Founding The Perfect Spot in 2007, Virginia is World’s 50 Best Restaurants’ Chairperson, judging & writing/editor at 60+ publications on dining & drink globally
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