Another evening, we started with an arugula salad with pecans, sweet white onion slices, and puffs of rich gorgonzola in a light vinaigrette. My partner and I debated whether to gamble on eggplant rollatini, which can be disastrous. I won, and we loved Apertivo's version: The eggplant is cut thicker than normal, providing more succulence and less grease. Instead of a roll, the slice is folded over like a book, holding a stuffing of sautéed chopped Swiss chard and clean-tasting Montrachet goat cheese. It arrives from the oven topped with tangy melted mozzarella and a bit of marinara sauce.
The pastas are point and shoot: you pick your sauce, then choose your pasta from a selection of capellini, spaghetti, linguini, fettucini, and penne. (They're not house-made but boxed by the excellent DeCecco brand.) The sauces are variations on three themes: aglio e olio (garlic and oil) or butter, a thin marinara, and cream sauce.
With the spaghetti puttanesca, the amended marinara sauce was light, the olives and capers powerful enough to lend a nip. (I'd have liked more and higher-quality anchovies than the sparse, flavorless bits in this dish -- but then, many customers would sooner skip them entirely. And one can't ask for pearls at a price of $4.) Another evening, we tried the bolognese sauce. This is a far cry from the elaborate recipe detailed in Italian cookbooks (with veal, milk, and hours of cooking). Instead, it's a simple, dairy-free meat sauce, like the one made by the chef's frugal Genoese grandmother, with sautéed ground beef and vegetables, garlic, red wine, and marinara. Its flavors didn't seem quite complete, but then we remembered the do-it-yourself style of the restaurant and applied Parmesan from the table condiments. That pulled it together.
The vegetarian three-cheese lasagna is a bit unconventional, with fewer noodles, less sauce, and much more cheese than usual. For $1 extra, they'll paint some meat sauce on top. It's worth a buck to get the contrast of chewy texture against the mass of goo.
The specials here can be fun. One evening, a thick, tender calamari steak was given the full piccata treatment, with a powerful white wine, lemon butter sauce strewn with capers. I liked this sauce even better with squid than with the customary veal scallops. Another night's offering was five ounces of beef tenderloin for $7, which I ordered very rare. Marinated in olive oil, it arrived charred on the outside, cool red velvet on the inside. (It's only Select grade, but this is the most tender large cut on any cow.)
All the desserts are made in-house from scratch, even the pound cake that appears regularly as a special, topped with whipped cream and fresh berries. I prefer my desserts ethereal and barely sweet, and a lemon cheesecake mousse brought joy to my heart and mouth. It's so fragile that it can't stand up straight -- that's why the chef calls it a mousse. Made with whole milk ricotta (not cream cheese) and lemon zest, it almost floats off the plate. Crowning this faerie queen is a handful of fresh blueberries and a pouf of unsweetened whipped cream.
The cooking here is consistently likable; it makes me feel like I'm eating at the house of a friend who cooks joyfully and well, but doesn't get all neurotic over it. The food is serious but not grave, and offers tremendous value for a tiny price.
ABOUT THE CHEF
Ken Cassinelli and his wife Janie Losli are co-owners of Apertivo. Janie is usually the hostess, while Ken, the chef, is the energetic, ponytailed fellow who often trots through the restaurant, pouring water and greeting regular customers by name.
"We're from Portland, Oregon, originally, and we've worked in the restaurant business for almost 30 years," says Ken. "We've both been restaurant managers, and I've been chef and bartender, too. We moved to North Park eleven years ago, and four years ago we bought a home four blocks away....The house is where we got the money for the restaurant. It's quadrupled in value, and we got the money from the equity."
Ken started cooking in childhood and honed his skills throwing frequent dinner parties. Whenever he went to a restaurant with an unfamiliar cuisine, rather than invest in a single entrée, he always ordered combination plates. This gave him the idea to serve "tapas" at Apertivo.
"I do all the prep, every bit. I'm here from eleven to eleven, I spend the day cooking stuff," he says. "The food is pretty much what I'd be cooking at home, and the specials are mainly what I feel like eating that day. I think it's all about simplicity and about the quality of the ingredients you deal with. I buy good canned tomato products from back East; we use imported pasta. I use a cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil from Italy for sautéing and salad dressings. I don't buy organic food, but all my produce is from Specialty Produce, which carries locally grown vegetables. I don't have much refrigeration, and they deliver produce five or six days a week. It's fresh! You'll never get something here that's more than two days old -- other than the meat sauce. That, I freeze [to let the flavors blend].
"We can keep our prices low because my wife and I do everything. We're on a shoestring. We have paper napkins, Formica tables, cheap-cheap-cheap carpet on the floor. That's how we can sell the wines for $3 a glass. I buy whole pieces of meat and cut them myself, mainly because I don't like the quality of precut Cryovac-packed meat. At the beginning, I even washed the dishes myself. But when we opened up here, my wife stole a really good line cook from La Dolce Vita, where she'd been working. We also have a salad chef, a dishwasher, and extra cooks on the line on weekends, so I can come out of the kitchen for a couple of minutes now and then.
"I've been exposed to wine all my life. By the time I was highschool age, I'd been to Italy twice, and I knew lots about Italian wines. My family wasn't really sophisticated about it, but then, wine shouldn't be sophisticated or standoffish -- it should be enjoyed! My wife and I knew a wine distributor here, Marco, and now he's the head Italian wine specialist for Southern, the big Goliath -- the largest spirit wholesaler on earth. When we got our license...we called all the distributors in town, and when they heard we were in North Park, they treated us like red-headed stepchildren! But Marco sat down with us and put together a wine list, everything very inexpensive, and we had the wines within four days. Now, we have three distributors we buy from regularly. Two of them are little guys we became friends with. It's not all Italian wine. We buy locally grown wines like Orfila, we have a Tempranillo from the Guadalupe Valley, and right now we have a really nice, sort of effervescent Portuguese Vinho Verde.