Art philistines that we are, my dining pals and I were unfamiliar with sculptor and architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680). We were abashed to learn that he is hailed as the greatest sculptor of the 17th century. How'd we miss that? We made a point to view his incredible masterpiece, the Carrara marble "The Medusa," on Sunday at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco (the last day of its exhibition).
How does this relate to dining? We had time to research Bernini only a few hours after learning that we would be in San Francisco at Albona restaurant Friday night with Franco Mormando. He's the author of the critically acclaimed "Bernini: His Life and His Rome" (University of Chicago Press, $35, 456 pages) and a professor of romance languages and literature at Boston College.
The straightforward Albona serves four-star dishes from the Istrian Peninsula. That strip is now part of Croatia, which explains the bottles of Terzolo vinos on the wine list and a few menu items involving sauerkraut. Its historic connection with Italian culture explains the other 90 percent of the menu (pasta, seafood, braised veal shank, Adriatic fish stew, $6 to $29).
Nine diners sampled a range of excellent dishes, from earthy mushroom soup and delectable broiled scallops to sautéed salmon and seafood-laden risotto. The star of the table? Sublime house-made ravioli stuffed with three cheeses, pine nuts, golden raisins and ground nutmeg, served with fried sage in butter sauce.
During dinner, Mormando remarked that the years spent researching and writing the biography had left him depleted, but he is feeling fine now.
What did he do to recover?
"I had Japanese acupuncture and came out feeling light on my feet," he said. "Now I go back each month for maintenance."
Albona, 545 Francisco St. in North Beach; (415) 441-1040, www.albonarestaurant.com.
Breakfast at Town's End
We went on walkabout Saturday and Sunday, up and down the alleyways and boulevards of San Francisco, tracking breakfast, lunch, dinner and dessert. Follow our lead and you won't be disappointed:
Not only is breakfast at Town's End delicious and well-presented, the experience is entertaining in the way a stage play can be each actor commits to a designated role to create a unified effect.
Locals come in before or after strolling along the nearby Embarcadero. Servers maneuver tight quarters in choreographed movements. The cooks in the open kitchen are a blur of motion. Add the art deco feel of the room and you've got a Tony Award.
Among the breakfast items are omelets, Benedicts, scrambles and pancakes made from top ingredients ($4.50 to $16). Crisp bacon crunched with every bite; the "messy scramble" (organic eggs, cheese, tomato, scallion) was a delight of tastes and textures; even the fresh fruit was impressive. We demolished a basketful of currant-studded scones and cranberry mini-muffins, and emptied the apple-butter jar.
But two dishes flubbed their lines: The hash browns were semi-raw and the grilled polenta left any flavor at the backstage door.
Town's End, 2 Townsend St.; (415) 512-0749, www.townsend.drb.com.
Lunch at Yank Sing
For dim-sum lunch, we found Yank Sing in Rincon Center, the complex of offices, shops, restaurants and condos. We sat in the massive indoor courtyard near the "waterfall" and braced ourselves. Waves of servers immediately wheeled their carts to our table, showing off dozens of freshly prepared dumplings, bacon-wrapped prawns, softshell crab, pork, beef, duck, sticky rice in ti leaves, curried chicken turnovers. On and on.
Among our favorites were delectable Shanghai ginger pork dumplings. Directions: Using chopsticks, pick up a dumpling and place it in the ceramic soup spoon. Add red wine vinegar and thinly sliced ginger. Eat. Repeat.
Yank Sing, 101 Spear St.; (415) 781-1111, www.yanksing.com.
Small plates at Straits
We rode escalators to Straits on the fourth level of the 1.5 million-square-foot Westfield San Francisco Centre. The chic restaurant's speciality is Singaporean cuisine, a melange rooted in Malaysian, Indonesian, Chinese and Indian cooking ($6 to $45).
Our dinner spread came off the "small plates" menu and included spiced ground beef-stuffed grilled Indian flatbread with curry dipping sauce; segmented spring roll filled with Chinese sausage and veggies; fat chicken drumettes glazed with sweet and spicy sauce; and meltingly fresh sashimi of ahi and salmon, perked up with wasabi, soy sauce and shreds of moist ginger.
845 Market St., (415) 668-1783, www.straitsrestaurant.com.
Room for dessert?
In a city bulging with acclaimed restaurants and great meals is the little dessert store with the peculiar name. Beard Papa's, an international bakery chain headquartered in Japan, claims to serve "the world's best cream puffs." True enough.
845 Market St., (415) 978-9975, www.muginohointl.com.
DININGFor more restaurant news and reviews sacbee.com/dining
By Allen Pierleoni