At Che Fico, chef David Nayfeld returns to his roots to buck trends, break rules, and bring Jewish-Italian food to the fore
In his previous posts – Eleven Madison Park in New York, Joël Robuchon at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas – chef David Nayfeld spent his workdays crafting fine-dining dishes to the exacting standards demanded by each kitchen.
His new San Francisco taverna, Che Fico, which opened in a former auto body shop in the NOPA neighborhood last night, is a complete departure: relaxed and welcoming, it speaks to his love of rustic, Italian cooking and fresh seasonal ingredients from Bay Area farmers markets.
It also offers – to Nayfeld’s knowledge – the first Judeo-Italian menu to appear in a U.S. restaurant.
“Over the past few years, thinking about opening this restaurant I wanted to find something that I could connect with – something that is about me, my people, and my heritage,” says the S.F. native, who has partnered with former EMP colleague, James Beard Award-winning pastry chef Angela Pinkerton, Sonoma County native Matt Brewer (formerly of L20 in Chicago) and former Flour + Water chef Evan Allumbaugh on the concept.
While dishes such as Carciofi alla Giudia, deep-fried artichoke, have transitioned from Roman classic to mainstream fare, the Cucina Ebraica – the Italian Jewish kitchen – has remained a little under the radar for anyone not in the community, even Nayfeld.
His parents were Jewish refugees who fled Communist Russia in the 1980s to Rome, where they were able to eat what they enjoyed, free of rationing and censorship. Once settled in America – where Nayfeld was born – Cucina Ebraica was a culinary cornerstone of their new community, but it wasn’t until he was an adult that Nayfeld undertook some more in-depth study of the cooking that spoke to his childhood.
He spent hours drinking espresso with Joyce Goldstein, who literally wrote the book on Cucina Ebraica. On prolonged trips to Rome, he dug deep into millennia-old traditions of using scarti di mercato (“waste of the market”) cuts of meat as well as inexpensive fish such as anchovies and sardines, dried fruit, vegetable scraps, and ricotta cheese.
“Cucina Ebraica really spoke to me about my whole ethos of cooking: tertiary cuts, innards, and a lot of vegetable cookery and big flavors. It's fun to find things that you have an emotional connection with,” he explains.
At present, this dedicated menu at Che Fico – a name which translates literally to “What a fig,” an Italian expression of enthusiasm and admiration along the lines of “oh, how cool” – includes a chicken heart and gizzard salad with peas, pickles, aioli, cerignola olives, and confit marble potatoes soaked in a chicken fat vinaigrette inspired by a dish he’d eaten at home. Supplí, cheese-stuffed fried rice balls, are a long-time street-food favorite; a spicy ceci (chickpea) and pomodoro stew is served with an egg from partner Matt Brewer’s Sonoma County family ranch for a Californian touch.
The remainder of the single-page menu – which emphasizes utilization of the whole animal and quality seasonal produce, regardless of how it looks – is brief, but ambitious, and Nayfeld admits he’s out to break every rule in the book.
For one, Nayfeld is certified to cook Neapolitan pizza by the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana but his archetypal, highly textured “San Francisco Margherita DOC” – a dish and a denomination of origin of his own invention – goes against everything his mentor pizzaioli taught him: crafted with West Coast flour and produce, it’s a sourdough pie, baked deliciously crunchy so that you can slice and share it without it getting soggy.
Another great divider: his fermented chili, red onion and pineapple pie (gasp). Nayfeld is optimistic that die-hard traditionalists will come around; even Che Fico’s wine director, Italian Francesca Maniace, who promised she’d never work in a restaurant that puts pineapple on pizza, is willing to stretch to “it’s quite good.”
“My life goals are to break as many rules as possible. I really don't give a shit about what other people think, and if I think that something's super delicious and fantastic, then that's what I want,” says Nayfeld, adding that for a truly horrorifying experience, Italophiles might try a family dish his mom used to make during those early days in America – spaghetti boiled for 20 minutes and finished with ketchup.
Thankfully, that didn’t make the cut on Che Fico’s pasta menu, where the tagliatelle al ragu is fatto a mano (hand-made using knives and rolling pins) and the fava-leaf-pesto-hazelnut-dotted mafaldini is fatta a machina in casa (made by machine, in-house), and labeled accordingly.
(Nayfeld thinks the restaurant industry has been slack at communicating what is hand-made and what is house-made by machine and wants to keep his clients noodled in as to how much love and labor they’re getting.)
Soon, Nayfeld plans to buy in dried pasta from artisanal producers, partly to change diners’ perception that dried pasta is somehow substandard and partly because it’s a great product.
“Some of the best Italian chefs in the world use dried pasta because it's delicious; 99 percent of people in Italy eat dried pasta, 99 percent of the time,” he explains.
Secondi dishes in family-style, sharing-size portions include slow-roasted lamb leg with wood roasted potatoes and lamb dripping; and half or whole wood-fired chickens with agrodolce, chilies, alliums and creamy polenta.
Even the restaurant’s setting, light and airy thanks to vaulted ceilings, skylights and floor to ceiling windows, feels homely, especially for Nayfeld.
DLC ID Designer Jon de la Cruz – who also conceived interiors at SF eatery Leo’s Oyster Bar – has used striking black, white, orange and red chevron floor tiling and custom fig-print wallpaper to frame raw wood tables and red leather booths for an old-school-Italian-meets-Modern California aesthetic.
A custom bathroom wallcovering collage of vintage album covers from Adriano Celentano – the first pop singer the Nayfelds ever heard.
His mom lives a few blocks away and the neighborhood is a familiar hangout for his high school friends, so he can expect to see a familiar face, most nights.
“When your mom can come by with a friend, or you get to make a bowl of pasta for your friend that you've known since the third grade…There's a connection there that's relevant to me," he explains.
Even if you’re dining elsewhere, bar director Christopher Longoria's herb-and-spice-forward cocktail program is worth a pit stop, either for an aperitvo with bergamot-forward Italicus Rosolio, Seedlip’s Spice 94, Jardesca California Aperitiva and soda; or post-dinner digestivo of cold-brew coffee, montenego and absinthe pick-me-up.
Pinkerton’s home-made gelati – which appears in dessert signatures like bittersweet chocolate budino with salted caramel gelato, olive oil, salt and pepper walnuts; and olive oil cake with malted yogurt gelato – is, somewhat dangerously, available to go.
And while the restaurant won’t start offering its house-made salumi for at least another month – last week, the team processed 1200 lbs of pig that will gradually turn into mortadella, prosciutto, bresaola and other salty treats – for now you’re welcome to pop by to peek past the marble chef’s counter, wood-fired grill and pizza oven (nicknamed Loretta after the sourdough starter, which is, confusingly, also named Loretta) into the red-lacquered-walled room to see what’s curing.
When he looks at the restaurant, Nayfeld says the last four years of preparation pale in comparison to his excitement about cooking here with the team every day.
“At the end of the day, Che Fico is the restaurant we want to spend time in. When guests come into the restaurant I want to make them super happy and make them super comfortable. And every time somebody walks in and I see their eyes widen, it makes me realize that everything we did was exactly right.”
Che Fico, 838 Divisadero Street, San Francisco, is open for dinner Tuesday – Thursday, 5.30 p.m. – 11 p.m. and Friday & Saturday, 5.30 p.m. – 1 a.m. (415) 416-6959; www.chefico.com