Top Tastes

Bar Bambino's mellow, covered back patio

Top Tastes is not a list of all-time favorites (another thing altogether). Instead, I write about the best eats since my last newsletter, often from new openings.


Pumpkin Seed Spaetzle

BAR BAMBINO, Mission – I recall the days when Bar Bambino was one of the few Italian charcuterie restaurants around.  When I heard they were shifting to a Germanic focus, particularly on the regions of Tyrol and Friuli, I let out a squeal of delight.

I’ve been talking about my hunger for Tyrolean food ever since I traveled that region on my last visit to Italy. I stopped off for roadside sausages in the Italian alps, or ate heaping plates of pasta alongside sauerkraut and ham in the enchanting town of Merano.

My passion for Italy may reign supreme as far as European travel goes, but there is a special place for the Germanic in my gustatory loves. Maybe it’s my own Italian-German heritage? Or my pristine memories traveling through Austria and Switzerland? With the Tyrol region’s historically changing borders between Austria and Italy, I find the cultural blurring of lines a pleasure.

A complex aperitif: Mauro Vergano vermouth

Though not overwhelmed with every dish I tried on Executive Chef Lizzie Binder‘s new Bar Bambino menu, the experience hinted at great possibilities and is unlike any other menu around.

Surprisingly (or not?), the simplest item was the best, particularly when I expected favorites might be chewy, subtle Pumpkin Seed Spaetzle ($6), or a satisfying platter of seared then poached fish of the day with brown butter dumplings and braised cabbage ($23).

Memorable Alpine Bruschetta

But the one I am still craving is Alpine ham and cheese bruschetta ($12). Granted, Bambino has long done above-average bruschetta. This country bread topped with layers of ham, melting Montasio cheese, and horseradish kraut transported me straight back to sunny patios in the Alps, eating Alpine hams and cheeses for lunch.

Beet Parsnip Soup

A crisp February night was brightened by a vibrantly colored Beet Parsnip Soup ($8) with bacon, apple and creme fraiche. I was, however, disappointed in a fried cheese and cabbage special which sounded better than it tasted.

Paired with Bambino‘s winning wine selection (cheers for a $13 glass of 2009 Elio Grasso Gavarini Langhe Nebbiolo or beauteous starter of Mauro Vergano Americano Chinato vermouth, $9), I am ready to return for a plate of Topfenknodel.

Succulent Lamb Tartare

GITANE, Financial District/Downtown – Accompanied by Alex Smith’s sophisticated cocktails (see Imbiber), the ever-sexy Gitane keeps getting better. With Spanish-Moroccan influences as a base, Chef Bridget Batson creates heartwarming dishes with a touch of elegance. I find more to love in the small plates (many quite filling) than entrees. I’ve made more than one happy meal here at the bar, as it’s tough procuring a reservation in the tiny restaurant.

Lamb Tartare ($18) is an unexpected surprise. As a beef tartare fan, this one is up there with a great raw beef tartare. Despite my own qualms, the lamb lacked any gaminess whatsoever. Instead it is silky, fresh, succulent. The added bonus is three dollops of worthy spreads, from an eggplant compote to a mix of pomegranate, walnut, red pepper.

Grilled Calamari

After two recent visits, I violate my usual policy of always ordering something different to re-order Grilled Calamari ($16) stuffed with bacon and onion in a cast-iron skillet.

Swimming in an addictive, buttery garlic and herb broth, dotted with Manzanilla olives, cherry tomatoes and heirloom potatoes, I sop up the broth with grilled toasts, my breath happily redolent of garlic.