Penny Roma opened on 20th Street in October of 2021 by the Flour+Water Group, so right off the bat, you know it’s going to be good. It’s in the gorgeous former Central Kitchen space, but lightened up. It still has the open-air, heated courtyard with the retractable ceiling, but somehow the refresh of colors, skewing blue/gray with light woods, feels sunnier.
The kitchen is airier than before, framed with open shelving and plants, and seating at the bar gives you a great view of the whole scene. Penny Roma aims its sights on simpler, homier dishes, not quite as elaborate, perhaps, as the original F+W, but still serves all-house-made pastas (available to take home next door at their Pasta Shop, which also opened during the pandemic). Trick Dog, the trendy cocktail bar, flanks the other side. Quite a tasty conglomeration to be found on one short block.
We took our chances and arrived as walk-ins at 5:30 p.m., right when they opened. Despite it being Easter Sunday, with a line out the door (all had reservations), we got right in.
I started out with the yellowtail crudo, with mandarin orange, avocado, and espelette:
The yellowtail was light, lively, and super fresh, in a pool of bright mandarin juice and avocado aioli, generously sprinkled with fruity pimenta d’espelette. Even the fish-averse BF had a bite and grunted approval. I was in heaven.
Next, to share, a starter of proscuitto San Dainiel, Shinko pear, and Fiore Sardo.
Firm, crispy and juicy pear slices, ala Anjou, with delicately salty prosciutto, and umami-rich fiore Sardo, a Sardinian cheese, also known as pecorino Sardo. A perfect salty/sweet combination, a play on its perhaps more well-known cousin, prosciutto e melone.
Next, we had the agnolotti dal plin with sugo d’arrosto.
This came to us as a gift from the gods. Someone else had ordered it and we dove right in before we remembered we hadn’t asked for it. (Honest!) By the time the mistake had been discovered, they’d already gotten the other guy his own. Win-win! A very happy accident. The agnolotti were bathed in a roasted chicken broth (hence sugo d’arrosto, “juice of the roast”), thickened with butter, parm, and lemon juice. Utterly delicious. The perfectly al dente agnolotti themselves were light, savory morsels, and we never would have guessed the stuffing was a mixture of pork and beef.
Next, the dish we’d actually ordered, cacio e pepe:
Unfortunately, we both found this dish too salty. The pecorino Romano was laid on so thickly it was more of a sauce, but just a bit overwhelming. We took most of it home to doctor up for another meal. But the pasta itself was excellent, the peppery bites as invigorating as expected.
Finally, the half-chicken al mattone:
I don’t order chicken in restaurants very often, but the other entrée choices were swordfish (see fish-averse BF), lamb (also lamb-averse, grrrrr), and a $130 steak (hard no), so chicken it was. The spatchcocked chicken roasts in a wood-fired oven under a brick, and comes cut up over grilled bread, with charred lemon and sweet cipollini.
The thigh was perfect: Blackened, crispy, salty, fatty skin covering luscious, juicy meat, anointed with the warmed and caramelized lemon juice. But the breast meat was rather dry, and of course, that’s what the BF reached for first. I gave him the last bite of the thigh so he could taste the difference. “Better,” he said. Pfft! It was excellent! But sadly, that’s what I encounter too often with breast meat, and why I don’t usually order it when out.
The menu doesn’t appear to change very often, perhaps seasonally, but that would make me happy if I wanted to go back and immediately try something again, and there were certainly dishes we had that fit that description. I’d also love to try the risi i bisi, the marinated carrots with ricotta salata, the scallop crudo, and the lamb the BF eschewed. The grilled mushrooms with walnuts sound fabulous too, as does the nettle and ricotta ravioli.
Penny Roma’s wine list lingers between Italy, France, and California, and they also offer a selection of beer and Italian sodas. We tried a funky little Cab Franc from Bergerac, a Sicilian Nero’d’Avola (juicy and astringent — I loved it), and a flinty Picpoul which made a nice finish with the chicken.
Penny Roma feels like one of those neighborhood places for a special occasion, or because it’s Monday and you don’t feel like cooking, especially with the pasta and wine shop next door. You can stop in and sit at the bar, have a glass of wine and a plate of house-made pasta one night, and the next, pick up some fresh pasta to throw in a pot of water and toss with their homemade sugo, nibbling on their Calabrian salami as you wait. An embarrassment of riches, is what our neighborhood is.
Penny Roma (website)
3000 20th St.
San Francisco CA, 94110