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Old Italy on Grand Avenue

Pair classic Italian dishes with a nice glass of wine for a languorous evening at Ristorante Buon Gusto.

There's a certain charm that is often associated with an Italian dinner.

Entertaining service, a menu full of some familiar items and some new, and old world decor are just as important as flavorful pasta and full wine glasses. At least that's the tradition that Grand Avenue's Ristorante Buon Gusto shares nightly with its patrons.

Enjoying prime downtown real estate since the late eighties, Buon Gusto gives the look and feel of some of San Francisco's North Beach district's oldest Italian eateries, with romantic lighting, a classic stonework bar and historic photos adorning its walls.

On an otherwise quiet weeknight on Grand, I walked into a bustling dining room packed with hungry guests, laughing and sipping red wine amidst a moodlit backdrop of hanging lamps and wine bottle-lined walls. Passing by it on the street, I would have never guessed such a lively evening was happening inside.

Although the restaurant was fairly full, my guest and I were seated quickly at a cozy table near the front. A crisp white tablecloth and dark-stained wooden chairs greeted us, and our charming host scored immediate points by carding us both before offering up a wine list to go with our dinner menus, joking that he wished more people would card him every now and then.

With bread and half a carafe of house burgundy arriving quickly, we decided to start off the meal by splitting a bowl of soup and a salad. The tortellini in broth beat the salad to the table, giving us plenty of time to sop up the light, salty broth with our leftover bread. The kitchen staff had been kind enough to split the soup into two bowls for us – always a thoughtful touch.

Much like its name, this soup was a simple, straightforward dish: small, filled tortellini in a basic chicken broth, with a few random pieces of oregano floating around. Perfect as a starter, the soup gave a nice tease of what was to come with tasty, but not too heavy, tortellini.  The broth acting as an appetite-whetting complement, pleasing in flavor without being overwhelming.

For the salad, we had chosen the heart of romaine with vinaigrette pesto dressing, which came out as exactly that – an entire romaine heart topped with a pesto dressing, alongside three thick tomato slices (also drizzled in dressing), an olive and a whole pepperoncini. Elegant and prettily presented, every piece of the salad tasted crisp and fresh, perfectly coated in the balanced, slightly creamy pesto sauce.

Giving the meal the feeling of an evenly-paced and well-planned event, the waitstaff gave us a minute after finishing the first courses before taking our entrée orders. I decided on one of the night's three specials, the chicken marsala, while my companion opted for a regular menu item, the spaghetti eggplant.

A classic Italian dish, the chicken marsala did not disappoint. Two breast fillets, pounded thin and covered in sautéed mushrooms, were the main event, cooked in a marsala sauce with a thinner consistency than most I have had, but lacking nothing in flavor. In contrast to many marsala sauces that can sometimes come out a bit syrupy, Buon Gusto's version was subtle, with vague tones of sweetness from the wine without an overcompensation in alcoholic flavor.

Along with the chicken came a side of zucchini and carrots, lightly cooked to retain a nice firmness, and a helping of polenta. An interesting alternative to potatoes, the polenta was soft while still a bit grainy, and had a slight stickiness to it thanks to incorporated melted cheese. Flavors of corn gave it unique contrast to the subtly sweet marsala.

In a meal full of understated but not easily overlooked flavors, my dinner guest's spaghetti eggplant had by far the strongest flavor of the night. Tossed in a pungent and tangy marinara sauce, the noodles were interspersed with bite-size bits of eggplant, cooked until soft but not slimy – yet another simple, classic dish rich in complex flavor.

While every dish we ordered turned out to be delicious, my favorite aspect of the meal had nothing to do with the food. The pace and the feel of the night was so relaxing, so charming, so homey and comfortable, that I really got the feeling this was the kind of place that welcomes its guests to enjoy good conversation and stay as long as they want. Two separate servers joked that we couldn't have dessert until we cleaned our plates, letting me know that, even though it was getting close to closing time, they were not going to rush us out of there.

Buon Gusto may not be the place for a casual dinner, as it employs standard pricing for Italian fare, but the portions and ambiance you enjoy there make it well worth the money for a more special occasion. This is no "$25 for a tiny strip of meat and a leaf of lettuce" kind of place – they give a good amount of food. And when, at the end of the meal, a friendly older Italian gentleman brings out two glasses of marsala wine on the house, the bill tends to become a distant, insignificant memory.

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