Italian food in San Francisco has long been associated with North Beach, the neighborhood Italian immigrants first moved into in the late 19th century. Now North Beach is a tourist attraction, filled with neon-signed sex shops and checkered-tablecloth restaurants that emit a garlic smell so pungent passersby reach for breath mints. The much sleepier neighborhood of Noe Valley, on the other hand, is more like a suburban outpost of San Francisco, known more for family life than fine Italian restaurants.
With the opening of Incanto a couple of years ago, all this changed. Suddenly quiet, earthy Noe Valley became a destination for serious Italophiles and food lovers in the know. The man behind this transformation? Chris Cosentino, who has headed the kitchen since 2003. A guy with enough guts to ride single-speed bikes over mountains in 24-hour endurance races, Cosentino’s penchant for risk-taking extends to more than just daredevil cycling. He frequently features unusual ingredients, such as lamb tripe and beef hearts, on his menus, and last January he put on a “Head to Tail Dinner,” which included items like crispy pig’s ear croutons and pork-lard cookies. Drawing on techniques learned from his Rhode Island grandparents and their Italian ancestors, Cosentino makes the restaurant’s red wine vinegar from scratch and cures his own guanciale, pancetta, and lardo. His efforts have earned him high praise from the city’s food critics: “A new chef in the kitchen and brocade drapes have turned Incanto into one of the best, most charming neighborhood Italian restaurants in the city,” wrote Michael Bauer of the San Francisco Chronicle.
One look at Cosentino’s résumé explains his success. Upon graduating from Johnson & Wales University in 1994, Cosentino worked at Mark Miller’s Red Sage, and later, Kinkead’s, in Washington, D.C., before moving to Rubicon in San Francisco. Stints at several prestigious restaurants—Drew Nieporent’s Coach House in Martha’s Vineyard, Chez Panisse, Belon in San Francisco—soon followed, along with a job as a consultant to the Aqua restaurant group.
Now at home in Noe Valley, Cosentino has won fans all over the city. “The only problem with going to Incanto is that the menu changes so often that the dish you loved one time might not be on the menu the next,” wrote Bauer. “Yet in the hands of chef Cosentino, that’s a chance I’ll happily take.” In 2008 Cosentino opened Boccalone in Oakland, California and Boccalone Salumeria in San Francisco. At both restaurants Cosentino is co-owner and partner.