We wake from a late-afternoon nap, dress, and step outside. San Francisco is hushed, a quiet brought on by the deepening evening, the susurration of cars passing in the rain. And it is raining – alternating between a gray mist and insistent droplets. We pull our coats tighter, thinking fondly of the umbrella packed in case of such an unlikely occurrence, an umbrella safely stowed in our car, which is safely stowed in a parking garage six blocks away.
We laugh. It’s not so bad. Every third of a block or so we stop beneath a store awning, catching our breath, peering inside at the people peering outside at us.
Two blocks later we hail a cab, slide giggling into the back seat, patting rain off our heads. We give the driver the address of our eventual destination: 261 Columbus Avenue. It's raining harder when we emerge, and we take cover beneath an overhang, catching our bearings.
First, dinner. We head up one block, where North Beach begins its merge to Chinatown. There are wet figures on every corner, waiting for streetlights. Pizza-by-the-slice, topless shows, gelato. We pass a half-dozen Chinese restaurants and reverse direction. It's raining harder, now. At any minute what seems a romantic, half-waking dream will become the stuff of bad memories. What about that time you dragged me through half of San Francisco in that downpour?
The restaurant we are looking for seems not to exist, and no amount of reasoning with our Maps app produces results. Half a block in another direction, toward Russian Hill, we see a miniscule awning and make a run for it. It's either this or pizza-by-the-slice. It's either this or starvation.
The restaurant has fewer than twenty two-seater tables, and appears to be at capacity. But no, miraculously -- there is a table near the kitchen, and yes, we will take it. We shrug out of our coats, place a wine order, listen to the specials. "My mamma handmade that pasta this morning," the waitress tells us. Beginning to dry off, we look around, noting the family resemblance in the servers. There is the matriarch, slightly stooped, a black skirt past her knees, orthopedic shoes. The two daughters, in black pants. A pre-teen girl, obviously a granddaughter, bringing checks to tables.
The arrival of the patriarch coincides with the arrival of a crusty bread, to be dipped in olive oil and balsamic vinegar. "This is just what this place needed," my companion says. "A mafia don." And he does seem severe at first, in dark pants and overcoat, rainwater dripping off his fedora. Then the matriarch steps forward, using her thumbs to pat his face dry.
I realize that the table by the kitchen is the best seat in this house.
It would be too simple, too anti-climactic to say, And then the food arrived, and then we ate. Yet it would seem hyperbolic to say, And then the single best plate of food I have ever eaten was served to me.
There have been other good meals, some even fantastic. This one nearly made me cry with happiness, like a batty old lady in a children's book. To put a bite of this food (gnocchi pillows stuffed with ricotta and spinach, topped with a tomato and gorgonzola cream sauce) into my mouth was to realize that I had never really eaten before, and would probably never do so again. It was the most intense food experience of my life. My companion -- he of the flat-noodle pasta, tossed with Italian sausage, peppers and a tomato sauce -- fed me off his fork, and I returned the favor. We were full long before our plates were finished, but there was no choice but to press on, despite an uncomfortable fullness. It was simply a moral imperative.
The granddaughter brought our check, we drained the last of our wine, the owner thanked us, and we left, food-drunk and happy.
It was still raining, and the streetlights cast a faux glow over us. We linked hands; we made a run for it.
Paula Treick DeBoard