Cotogna Restaurant

beef tenderloin at cotogna cotogna pizza maker

I’m going to get this out of the way right off the bat: I worked with Mike Tusk at Chez Panisse – he was a cook upstairs in the café and I was downstairs in the pastry department, and although I knew he was a good cook, I was blown away the first time I ate at his restaurant, Quince.

Quince restaurant in San Francisco warm ricotta with figs

I went there shortly after it opened, when it was in a residential neighborhood in San Francisco. The kitchen was nice and rather large if I recall, and he explained to me that he was figuring out how to do everything that he wanted to do in that space. I had dinner later that week in the dining room, which is run by his wife, Lindsay, and was really delighted at the wonderful meal I had, especially the pasta dishes.

As the years passed, the restaurant matured a bit, and grew into a more sophisticated restaurant. I ate there again, and I was blown away by the pastas as I had been on the previous visit. They weren’t giant plates heaped with noodles and sauce, but pillows of tender ravioli so light I almost wanted to cry when I ate them. Wide, hand-cut pappardelli noodles, slippery with good butter and fresh herbs.

The sauces that bathed the pastas were light but with deep flavors from just a few simple, but excellent, ingredients, that’s don’t hit you over the head with richness or heaviness, but proves what a great chef can do when presenting simple food, but with exactly the right touch when putting a dish together. Every pasta I had was saturated with flavor and honestly, I’ve not had better bowls of noodles anywhere, except in Italy.

Cotogna restaurant

So when I was in San Francisco, I was anxious to try his more casual venture, located next to the elegant Quince, which moved downtown to Jackson Square, to larger, and swankier, digs.

Transamerica pyramid warm ricotta with figs

I’m going to refrain from using too many superlatives from here on out, yet one of my most frequently asked questions that people ask is what I miss about San Francisco. And for some reason, they’re always surprised when I say – “The food.”

pesto tomato pizza

Am not sure why, but Cotogna (which means “quince” in Italian, and is the more casual sister restaurant to Quince) demonstrates exactly what I’m talking about as it represents the best of what’s happened to American cooking over the last decade or so. Ingredients are sourced locally and the chefs and cooks look to the ingredients to guide their cooking. Sometimes they’ll borrow from other cultures and countries – like Spain, Italy, France, and the Middle East, to name a few – to coax and highlight flavors out of top-notch ingredients. You won’t find gimmicks like leafy salads served in jam jars, rims of triangular plates dusted with stale porcini powder, or incongruous scribbles of balsamic reduction on whatever plate the kitchen thinks needs to be jazzed up.

But what you will find is food that’s honest, rustic and earthy—catchwords that are woefully overused. But in places like Cotogna where the food is cooked over an open fire, or Camino, where I dined on lamb grilled over smokey flames, its rich fat dripping into earthenware dishes of fresh shelling beans and smeared with anchovy butter, well…that’s the kind of food that proves my point.

caramel ice cream caramel ice cream

At Cotogna, my friend and I shared a bowl of Warm ricotta with roasted figs and smoked almonds, which had just been pulled from the pizza oven and handed over to us, hot and bubbly, with a pile of toasted croutons. I had to have at least one pasta and the Triangoli with corn and chives was a perfect example of the simplicity I was mentioning earlier, each ingredient contributing to a truly perfect bowl of pasta.

While the roasted meats looked great, because we were dining at the bar (overlooking the fireplaces) when I saw the pizzas coming out of the oven, we dialed in on those and split a Cherry tomato, mozzarella, and pesto pizza. It came to us with a heavily blistered crust, with irregular bubbles of dough slightly charred on top, just enough to give it the right hit of dark crunchiness.

chocolate cake

Desserts are relatively simple and although I took a walk through the kitchen to see the fancier desserts they were preparing for the adjoining restaurant, we had a simple Blackberry and polenta clafoutis, which was similar to a crisp, but a nice finish to the meal, no matter what culture had inspired it.

A few other things I appreciated about the restaurant. In their quest to keep things casual and simple, all wines are $10 by the glass and all bottles are $40. We stuck with Italian whites. Although we didn’t use it, another is that they use an online reservation service, which makes getting a table a little easier – although Cotogna is booked well in advance. But still, I found that many restaurants in the states, even the best ones, are using online reservations, which just makes everyone’s job a little easier.

A while back I was speaking to a representative from Open Table here in Paris. I had no idea they were even in France and when I asked him why it hasn’t taken off, he said, “No one here wants to give up control of their reservation book.” While I understand places like to keep spaces available for variety of reasons (and understand the reluctance to change around here), it’s really problematic trying to get into popular places, not just for people who live out of town, but for those of us who live here. Many of the small places are simply overwhelmed answering the telephone from people calling to make reservations.

dessert at cotogna restaurant cotogna checks

Yes, restaurants do need to feed the locals as well as visitors, but it seems like online reservations reduce the panic and frustration that both guests and visitors feel when locked out of certain dining rooms, and am hoping that places start adopting a similar system in the future. In fact, next time I go back to San Francisco, I’m going to book a table well in advance at Cotogna. Because it’s going to be one of the first places on my list.

490 Pacific Avenue
San Francisco, CA
(415) 775-8508

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  • September 5, 2011 7:32pm

    Sounds good! Hope you won’t be too jet-lagged to enjoy the best London has to offer in terms of food tomorrow!

  • September 5, 2011 7:49pm

    I love (and use) Open Table quite often as we travel in the US about six months of the year. I would say a few restaurants have probably lost our business because they DO NOT have Open Table and DO NOT answer their phone until too late in the day to book.

    Thanks for telling us about Cotogna – it will be on our list the next time we are in San Francisco.

    • September 5, 2011 7:57pm
      David Lebovitz

      A few chefs and restaurants owners have pointed out that Open Table (like other online reservations services, perhaps) take a percentage of their potential profits. However even super-busy places like Chez Panisse and Cotogna use it, which likely reduces the need for a bank of people answering the telephone. When chef Grant Achatz went to selling “tickets” to his restaurant online, which bypasses paying a third-party, he said “We now pay three or four reservationists all day long to basically tell people they can’t come to the restaurant.”

      Just about everyone who comes to Paris sends me a list of restaurants they want to eat at, and they’re always places that are completely booked. So I think online reservations are one solution to dealing with reservations, so restaurants can pay staff to cook food and wait on customers, rather than pick up the phone all day.

  • Jean Marie
    September 5, 2011 9:11pm

    Both of Chef Tusk’s restaurants sound amazing but what I really want is that warm ricotta dish. Open Table is great. I use it all the time for reservations in the D.C. area and NYC and use it to help plan vacation meals in other cities too. It’s easier for the customer and, one would assume, easier for the restaurant.

  • September 5, 2011 9:42pm

    Got married in SF a few years ago & had our wedding dinner at Quince (the original location). Seared in my memory are a ravioli filled with a perfectly poached egg, and a nettle soup. Looking forward to returning to the new site and to trying Cotogna, too.

  • Lynn D.
    September 6, 2011 1:26am

    I love the phrase “incongruous scribbles of balsamic reduction.”

  • September 6, 2011 6:45am

    “Honest, rustic and earthy” sounds about perfect to me. Thank you for the SF recommendation!

  • Simian
    September 6, 2011 3:37pm

    Gladly I’ve never been served a salad in a jam jar! I definitely prefer booking online, but I think places always should have tables for walk-ins reserved for regulars or those who don’t mind waiting a bit. In fact many places I love, like Marlowe & Sons and Diner in NY don’t even take bookings which means on busy nights you might be “forced” to have a few cocktails (and oysters perhaps) in the bar….But I also think it’s a bit of a generational/cultural thing. I once were in a queue that took a bit of nasty turn waiting for the “No Reservations” 9 o’clock seating at Le Chateaubriand and saw how it made those of middle age and beyond utterly stressed out by the uncertainty. At my favourite restaurant “St Johns Bread & Wine” in London I’ve often called and been told they are full, but then by turning up is often space anyway….which I always a welcome surprise.

  • Betsy
    September 6, 2011 4:50pm

    Aaah…so many SF restaurants, so little time. Thank you for this review. Since Cotogna is about 30 minutes away from my house, I’ll definitely be there ASAP.

  • Sharon T
    September 6, 2011 5:18pm

    That sounds so lovely and delicious! I used Open Table to book all of the restaurants we ate at last year when we visited SF, Napa and Sonoma. It made things so much easier for me to schedule everything while working and planning the rest of the trip. Thank you for the great post!

  • Lisa
    September 6, 2011 6:27pm

    “pillows of tender ravioli so light I almost wanted to cry when I ate them”!! Thank you so much for highlighting the food culture of San Francisco, this is a city I have been curious about for a long time, specifically for the reasons you mention in this post. Savored your writing and photographs, felt I was actually there and compelled to actually buy that flight ticket (Also baked your lemon bars yesterday and hands down, the best lemon bar recipe I have tried, the best I have eaten!) Love from Tokyo*

  • September 6, 2011 7:46pm

    Dirty Little Secret: I love balsamic syrup glaze. I lap it up like candy.

  • Liza
    September 6, 2011 8:19pm

    Love your blog and recipes. I wonder if you would consider compiling your favorite San Francisco restaurants (in your spare time, of course) like you do with your Paris ones. Thanks again for all the great posts!

    • September 6, 2011 10:22pm
      David Lebovitz

      Hi Liza: All the San Francisco dining posts are compiled and archived in one of the Categories sections of the site to it (in the right sidebar.) I also linked to it at the end of the post as well.

  • Doukissa
    September 6, 2011 8:40pm

    This is livin’~~yum, yum!

  • Lien
    September 6, 2011 9:07pm

    Thanks David for writing about Cotogna/Quince. I’ve heard so many good things about them and have to try next time i go to the Bay area. I agree, San Francisco has some of the best food, imho. Love chef who works with locally source, top notch ingredients and eating at this kind of restaurants become a sacred act for me.
    I use OpenTable a lot and wish that it will eventually take off in Europe.

  • September 6, 2011 9:41pm

    great summary! I actually went to Quince before I even moved to SF and it was great, but definitely not a place I’d be able to go to on the regular… I still have Cotagna on my list of places to check out. we went to Flour + Water this past weekend and it was pretty good. Never thought I’d try a “pasta tasting menu”, but surprisingly, I wasn’t stuffed at the end, so there is that!

  • September 6, 2011 11:57pm

    This all sounds delicious, especially the pizza. I love to cook and live in NYC and weekend in the Hudson Valley, so eating in and out can be quite fine. But my dream is to eat at Chez Panisse and Zuni. Looks like I might have to add another establishment to that list when I make my longed for trip to Northern Califonria.

    I just made ricotta for the first time, using buttermilk and will be using it to make manicotti tonight. I know the recipe you guest-posted on Simply Recipes called for yogurt. I am wondering how you think using cow’s milk with sheep milk yogurt would work. Luisa says sheep milk ricotta is what they eat in Italy. I can get sheep milk yogurt easily but not sheep milk.

  • September 7, 2011 12:13am

    Have used Open Table for Becca, Esca and just this weekend lunch at Lupa. It is so much easier. I wouldn’t chance a walk-in after driving 50 miles to get there. I so envy you this trip to SF. Haven’t been there in over 10 years and I know everything has gotten better in that time. Thanks for letting me live the foodie life vicariously through you, once again.

  • September 7, 2011 1:31am

    mmm, it all looks good. but that pizza especially…yum.

  • September 7, 2011 5:17am


    Just got back from a 6-day stay in the City, during which I ate myself bowlegged. My Friday dinner at Incanto was the best by a long way – impeccable, imaginative food, immaculate service. To tie this into the subject at hand, they use a non-Open Table on-line reservation service, and have very specific reasons for doing so:

    So sorry I just missed you at Omnivore Books, which, coincidentally, is within easy walking distance of Incanto. Visiting there before dinner made for a wonderful day!

    • September 7, 2011 8:01am
      David Lebovitz

      Yes, I linked to that post in the my first comment. But it seems to me like a lot of popular restaurants are using these services and somehow making it work. And as I noted also in that comment, Grant Achatz said he hires people to sit at the phone and tell people they’re fully booked, which can’t be cheap in terms of staffing, so they’re selling “tickets” for tables via their own website, cutting out any middleman.

  • Shannon
    September 7, 2011 1:19pm

    We had our wedding reception at Quince. Everything was perfect. Perfect food, perfectly paired wines, perfect service. Perfect day. Cotogna is also wonderful. My best friend and I snagged two places at the bar one night and proceeded to selfishly spend 5 hours eating, drinking and talking. We had no idea how much time had passed (which conveniently spared us from feeling guilty) and no one ever made us feel like we should move on to let someone else enjoy the warm glow – though I’m sure we should have. I second everyone’s thanks to you for sharing your trip with us. Thank you, thank you.

  • David Taylor
    September 7, 2011 2:14pm

    I found your blog as I was looking at The Times 50 best food blogs in the world. I am so glad I have found it. I love the use of imagery and the insight you have brought to my attention. I will be keeping an eye on this little gem! thank you and keep up the brilliant work.

  • September 7, 2011 5:12pm

    You just convinced me to dine at Quince (and Cotogna!). My husband and I will be in SF in Nov and we’re having a tough time deciding which Michelin star restaurants to dine at. We joked that we have to extend our 1-week visit in order to cover all the coveted restaurants.

    I use OpenTable alot in Chicago, and even in other cities we travel to when possible. Many restaurants who are not on OpenTable have lost our business. I understand that some restaurants don’t want to give up their reservation book to a system, but if other restaurant competitors are increasingly joining the bandwagon and adapting to the online system, the restaurants that opt our have more to lose in the end. Diners are always looking for rewards. If I could dine at an equally reputable restaurant AND receive OpenTable points, then there is not much incentive for me to dine at another equal restaurant but without any reward points.

    But of course buying tix to dine at Grant Achat’s Next restaurant is a totally different story! And one that I’ve participated in the frenzy!

  • September 8, 2011 1:50am

    I was so excited when Cotogna opened. I had been a fan of Quince and definitely love the more ‘casual’ menu.

  • September 8, 2011 2:36am

    Cotogna is a few blocks from our office, we’ve had lunch there several times and love it!
    I enjoyed your review- might just book it again on Open Table while it’s on my mind-Thanks!

  • September 8, 2011 3:14am

    +1 on Open Table. I’m not a big believer in overplanning a vacation, but knowing that dinner will be fantastic makes getting lost all afternoon great fun for me.

    Your writing pulls up the most amazing visuals and tastes no matter whether you are describing something deliciously compelling or just something terrible to which we’ve all been subjected. Thanks so much for that.

  • Miss Bee
    September 8, 2011 5:30am

    I love San Francisco & I love your writing David. I was in San francisco for a weekend and truly enjoy the food, the restaurant culture – had a genuine feel to it. I was at the Urban Tavern and had THE BEST Cucumber Martini …incredible flavor all natural freshly made in front of you, nothing of this extract BS ~ so yes I agree what I miss the most of San Francisco is the food…. and the martinis!

    love you David

  • September 8, 2011 12:08pm

    You’ve brought back so many memories of San Francisco and foodwise it still seems to be on the button. Maybe I need to pay another visit.

    I was interested to read that on-line booking is not taking off in Paris. We’re sometimes able to book on, for instance when we’re planning a visit to one of our favourites Le Cristal de Sel near Metro Commerce

  • Giles Dickerson
    September 8, 2011 9:13pm

    Looks so delicious!

  • September 9, 2011 7:04pm

    My return to Paris delayed because of emergency surgery, I will be spending my upcoming birthday in the Bay Area and Cotogna was suggested as the perfect venue to celebrate the success of the operation as well as my reaching yet another year’s anniversaire.

    I’m off to make a reservation using Open Table, which I love for its convenience, not to mention the occasional dining check returned to the user when enough reservations have been booked through the service.

    Missed seeing you at the various Chez Panisse celebrations. My favorite was a potluck dinner party at which guests were asked to bring dishes that would never have appeared on the CP table. My offering of Great China’s lean and crisp Peking duck was a hit!

  • kelsey
    September 10, 2011 3:47pm

    Ahhh, you’re really inspiring me to go to San Francisco, which I just can’t afford. I have so many other places I need to visit first but with each new post it sort of creeps up my list. The tomato, mozzarella, and pesto pizza looks divine, along with the ice cream, and figs, and everything else. here I come.

  • Jane
    September 20, 2011 12:03am

    Looks so good :)
    I must visit this Restaurant as soon as possible.

  • Liza Perpuse
    September 30, 2011 2:10am

    Hi David. Thanks so much for pointing out the link and categories section. Excited that we got Chez Panisse reservations for one of our nights out!