When chef and owner Michael Tusk of Michelin-starred Quince wanted to expand his operations, he opened up a more casual dining venue, right next door. Overall quality was maintained, sales and volume increased and the new venture has received an enthusiastic response from customers and critics alike.
Cotogna, which means “quince” in Italian, is the little sister to the fine dining restaurant Quince, located in Jackson Square, on the border of the Financial District in San Francisco. The menu features antipasti, house-made pastas, pizzas, grilled and wood-oven roasted entrées. It’s rare to find anything on the menu over $20 and there is a daily three-course prix fixe for only $24. An affordable and resolutely Italian menu is just one of many smart moves that have contributed to Cotogna’s success.
Tusk worked at some of the Bay Area’s finest restaurants and spent time in the Barbaresco region of Northeastern Italy before opening Quince and then Cotogna. He is known for his exquisite handmade pasta, which is featured prominently on the menu at both restaurants. Aside from pasta, there is little to no chance of mistaking one menu from the other. The centerpiece of Cotogna is a Tuscan wood-burning grill fitted with a chimney that allows the restaurant to feature pizza and rotisserie items. While the menu changes frequently, a popular item that has stayed on the menu is spit-roasted pork with wild fennel and hot pepper for $20.
The look at Cotogna is industrial meets trattoria with lots of glass, exposed brick walls, rustic wood tables, chairs and paneling. Unlike Quince, which is only open for dinner, Cotogna offers all-day dining in a casual atmosphere. A cozy and lively atmosphere also sets Cotogna apart from the more formal and restrained Quince. It’s everyday versus special occasion. And while there is some overlap in terms of clientele—the restaurant brings in lots of professionals at lunch—in general the demographic is a bit younger and a bit more adventurous. This allows Tusk to sell things like squid, tripe and sea urchin that haven’t historically done as well at Quince.
Italian Focused Town
San Francisco has always been home to a plethora of great Italian restaurants. However, the last few years have brought an explosion of more regionally focused restaurants, with an accent on the cuisine of Southern Italy. Cotogna has a Northern Italian soul, and the wine list reflects it with most of the wines coming from regions like Piemonte, Alto Adige, Friuli and the Veneto. For now the list is all Italian, though wine director David Lynch doesn’t rule out adding California wines to it at some point. At Cotogna, wines are $40 per bottle and $10 per glass across the board, and the list has about 45 selections, almost half of which are available by the glass. “The list is a lesson in how to find value in Italian wines. At $40 a bottle, you’re not going to find a lot of blockbuster wines. I just want the wine to be good.” comments Lynch. Now is a great time for an Italian list, he adds, “We’re in a marketplace with a glut of wine, even with a strong Euro.”
The wine list’s focus is food friendly and features wines with good acidity and lower alcohol. The vast majority of the wines are lighter and brighter, designed to go with simple, more rustic food. Some notable wines include a bright, fresh, citrusy wine, Soave Classico Pra from the Veneto, Langhe Nebbiolo de Forville from Piemonte and Gavi di Gavi from Villa Sparina, a lesser-known wine with great concentration from Piedmonte, and a good balance of acidity and fruit. Because many of the wines will be unfamiliar to customers, staff training is crucial. Lynch says they taste all the time and he prepares a document that goes into depth for servers. “It’s a small enough list but there is no substitute for tasting and the wines that sell the best are generally the ones the servers like.”
Cotogna also offers Italian-style cocktails and signature drinks each priced at $10, often using Italian spirits like Amaro, Maraschino, Punt e Mes and Cocchi Americano. Lynch says the cocktail bar is not a major revenue center, but shows they’ve thought about every detail of the drinks program.