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Tosca Cafe didn’t want to be a pasta restaurant, winds up serving SF’s best

The lumaconi at Tosca Café in San FranciscoThe lumaconi at Tosca Café in San Francisco
The lumaconi at Tosca Café in San FranciscoPhotograph by Sonya Yu

Just for drinks. That was the plan when we stumbled out of dinner at a buzzy Spanish restaurant on San Francisco’s waterfront and trudged up the hill, past the neon glow of vintage North Beach cabarets, to historic Tosca Cafe. Just for drinks, but after a round of iced bittersweet Manhattans materialized at our table in the center of checkerboard floor of this lively, lovely saloon (resurrected last year under East Coast caretakers April Bloomfield and Ken Friedman), the aromas of sizzling garlic, pan-deglazing Marsala and roast chicken from the open kitchen got the best of us. Alice Waters and Ruth Reichl were having dinner in a red nautilus-shell banquette less than ten feet away. If they were eating, how could we not?

So out came the agrodolce pig tails. And the perfect bar sandwich, with petals of hot coppa and melted mozzarella pressed flat between shattering slices of baguette. As the whiskey flowed, the gondoliers plying the dining room’s mural of Venice seemed to be bobbing in the watercolor canals. Then came the lumaconi, a pasta master-class involving crispy cured meats, bitter winter chicory and toasted breadcrumbs charged with lemon, and everything went silent.

“We didn’t set out to be a pasta restaurant,” explains Bloomfield’s right-hand man at Tosca, chef Josh Even. “We’d opened with just two pastas, but people were ordering both all the time… so we worked on adding more. The lumaconi came about as a way to use up the prosciutto heels leftover after slicing the legs for our cured meat board.”

Inspired by a classic dish from Norcia, a mountaineering town in central Italy whose blue-green forests are stocked with wild boar (many of which become sausage every hunting season), the lumaconi begins with the prosciutto heels and other cured meat scraps Even and his cooks have amassed in a given week. “It’s primarily prosciutto, but also some finnochiona for something a little more fennel-y and speck, which is more smoky.” They’re all ground and formed into little patties, while the skins of the prosciutto legs are steeped in heavy cream with brandy and shallots. Even fries the patties like mini meatballs, breaking them up with the back of a wooden spoon, then adds the umami-infused cream to create a sauce that made our knees quake.

To order, Even sends the house-made lumaconi, a tubular short cut whose name derives from the Italian for ‘snail,’ into the infused cream, crumbled patties and a chiffonade of Puntarelle, a wiry heirloom chicory (Treviso plays under-study out of season). “All that gets into the noodles’ curved holes, the same effect of someone stuffing each one painstakingly.” Speckled with lemon zest, golden breadcrumbs are dusted over the pasta on the finish, adding texture and acid and “cutting through all the fat and salt.”

Home to fellow semolina sculptors like Matt Accarrino (SPQR), Evan Rich (Rich Table) and Massimiliano Conti (La Ciccia), San Francisco is one of the county’s best pasta towns. But Tosca’s lumaconi rises above its peers with its tightrope-walk balance of flavors and textures.

The dish has gotten so popular, for a while Even couldn’t take it off the menu: “We started ordering prosciutto just to grind, which felt really wasteful. It took away from the nose-to-tail spirit.” So he and his crew have gone back to saving the heels and running the lumaconi every time enough scraps have collected to create a batch, about every two or three weeks. “I’ve even told chef friends, I’ll buy your heels off you,” he laughs, “but I haven’t gotten any takers yet.”

So for now, it’s best to call ahead and see if Even is serving the lumaconi. Fortunately two nights after that first serendipitous visit, when we canceled a reservation at another restaurant to return to Tosca, he was.