Remembering Russian Hill – A very quick pasta for winter

When I first moved to San Francisco I lived in Russian Hill, which in retrospect was like living in a village within the city. Perched high up above North Beach and Van Ness, Russian Hill felt like a remote hill town in Italy. The bustle of San Francisco was all around, but that was at the bottom of the hill. At the top of the hill, embedded in the mass of apartment buildings, elegant townhouses and tiny parks were short strips of restaurants, dry cleaners and little dusty corner stores. Occasionally a tiny dress shop or gallery would appear…and then disappear. I was a regular at a bakery, a little brunch spot, my bus stop and a small, bustling restaurant.

It was at the intersection of Hyde and Union, and there were 3 or 4 little restaurants clustered at the corner. Intimate in size, not places to cross the city for (parking would just about kill you if you were driving ) but warm, welcoming and familiar. The restaurant corner was two blocks from my apartment. My favorite was the Italian one that was not called I Fratelli. I honestly can’t recall the name – I’m drawing a complete blank. This was not a restaurant that anyone (except me!) would ever write about. It was a very good place to meet another friend or two who also lived on Russian Hill. Which is one of the things I liked about it. In fact, one reason I loved that Russian Hill restaurant was because it was small and unpretentious and so completely removed from the chic, bourgeois, dressy Union Street and the funky, too touristy North Beach.

When I walked home in the dark after work (in my memory it is always wintertime – you would never go to this restaurant on a bright sunny day), I anticipated passing that little restaurant. The windows would be steamed up and there always seemed to be a seductive aroma ambling out the doors and down the street, drawing me in. The scent was of browning lamb chops and pepper, of arugula, shaved parmesan and spicy red wine – at least that’s what I always imagined. Even though the food wasn’t fancy, it was very good.  Through the window I could see the patrons, either tête à tête or in happy more boisterous groups. Everyone looked at home and relaxed. It was that kind of restaurant.

It was around that time that my friend Mark gave me River Cafe Cookbook (published in the U.S. as Italian Country). Rustic Italian cooking was a really big deal at the time and it seemed like everyone was talking, thinking, dreaming about it—including me. As I cooked my way through Ribollita, Cannellini Bean Soup, Pappardelle alle Lepre and the Polenta Almond Lemon Cake, I came upon Cloe’s Quick Sausage Sauce. I know, after all those pretty Italian names “Cloe’s Quick Sausage Sauce” sounds pedestrian and un-lovely. It’s not. The creamy fennel scented pork has a little hit of heat from the chilies, summery warmth from the tomatoes, richness from the cream and the complex tang you can only get from a good aged parmesan cheese. I’d had a similar dish at that little Russian Hill trattoria. On a wintery night, you could light the candles, pour a glass of wine and eat this; tête à tête or in a happy boisterous group. It will be wonderful I promise.

Cloe’s Quick Sausage Sauce, River Cafe Cook Book, Italian Country

Serves 6

  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 red onion chopped fine
  • 5 Italian sausages, spiced with fennel seed, removed from casings
  • 1 1/2 tbsp finely chopped rosemary
  • 1/4 tsp red pepper flakes
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 28 ounce can Italian tomatoes, drained and coarsely chopped
  • 2/3 cup heavy cream
  • 1 1/2 cups grated parmesan, divided
  • 1 pound pasta – I like cavatappi
  1. Heat the 2 tbsp olive oil in a 10 inch heavy sauté pan. sauté onions over medium high heat until browned.
  2. Add sausages, rosemary, red pepper flakes and the bay leaves. Mash the sausages over high heat until finely crumbled and continue to mash and push around for 20 minutes. They are done when they seem to have started to disintegrate. Don’t be lax here, and just break them up and leave them. Take the time to thoroughly break them up and keep going – it is key to the texture of the finished dish.
  3. While sausages are browning, start a large pot of water for the pasta. Once it is boiling, salt generously
  4. When 20 minutes is up, add the tomatoes to the sauce and return to a simmer. Remove from heat.
  5. When the pasta is cooked and drained, toss into the sauté pan with the sauce and add the cream. Heat until steaming, remove from heat and add half the parmesan.
  6. Serve immediately and pass the remaining parmesan at the table.

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