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Cafe Vicino Rocks the Cioppino

Hanging at the North End's Italian Hideaway

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Cioppino is a "throw what you got in the pot" kind of soup. Similar to France's bouillabaisse--a fish stew featuring a medley of seafood simmered in Provencal herbs--cioppino was born on San Francisco's wind-bitten docks in the mid 1800s. As the story goes, Italian fishermen would return with their catch of the day--shrimp, crab, mussels, squid--and "chip in" to a collective pot filled with tomatoes, onions, garlic and wine.

Cafe Vicino, a tranquil Italian eatery in the North End, makes a cioppino brimming with enough sea life to put a smile on a San Francisco seaman's weathered face.

"It's a well-executed dish," said Chef Richard Langston. "In the kitchen, we love making it ... the smell wafting off of the dish is so good."

Cafe Vicino doesn't draw much attention to itself--a single, easy-to-miss door faces Boise Co-op's notoriously packed parking lot and a small, covered patio huddles on the restaurant's Fort Street-facing backside. Inside the place is equally reserved--dark wood shelves hold up neat rows of wine and starched white linens cover small, brasserie-style tables. Glancing around the small, surprisingly packed dining room on a recent weekday evening, I saw a number of familiar North End faces quietly draining bottles of wine and politely carving away at steaks. While Vicino is most definitely not a raucous spot, its menu is spot-on--in a simple yet innovative way.

Though dinner options include a couple of crowd-pleasers--like the grilled shrimp on risotto cakes or the potato-crusted salmon--the kitchen flexes its creative muscles with dishes like gorgonzola-stuffed figs wrapped with basil and prosciutto and drizzled with local honey or semi-boneless quail, stuffed with leeks, dried cranberries and pancetta on mashed yams. Even the sliced table bread comes with a garlic-and-citrus infused olive oil that leaves a lingering nip of thyme on the nose.

But the cioppino ($23) is anything but subtle. Long, liquorice-flavored shards of fennel snake around plump shrimp, chunks of firm white fish, clams, baby calamari rings and purplish tentacles in a thin, though under-salted, tomato broth. Slices of hard, garlicky bread float in the red stew like half sunk rowboats circled hungrily by the bobbing seafood.

In Italian, "scarpetta" describes the act of mopping up the last bits of sauce in your bowl with a hunk of table bread. Looking around at the composed Cafe Vicino dining room, I felt self-conscious swabbing up the last rivulets of my cioppino. Thankfully, those who prefer the wild arm gestures, scarpetta kind of Italian dining experience can soon raise their glasses on the Cafe Vicino patio.

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