One of the best wine bars in San Francisco is mostly overlooked. That's because most people think of it only as a restaurant. But Incanto Restaurant and Wine Bar is indeed one of the better wine bars in the city, and not just because it offers the opportunity to partake in Chef Chris Cosentino's food while enjoying an excellent glass of Italian wine. Even without the food, I would still be a regular customer, based purely on the merits of the expressive and constantly changing wine list.
If you are interested in experiencing Incanto as a wine bar rather than a restaurant, you and whatever friends you might have in tow simply need to bear left as you go through the door, and belly up to the big stone bar or several high tables that are separated from the main room of the restaurant. There you will more than likely be enthusiastically greeted by Edward Ruiz, the wine director who always seems to be the guy behind the bar. I'm sure they give him a day off once in a while, but it's never when I'm there, I guess. Which is a good thing for me, and for other patrons who are interested in his confident support navigating the frequently updated list.
Incanto's menus are printed daily, and so is the all-Italian by-the-glass wine list which offers twenty or so wines by the glass, plus five different "flights" of three wines. One of these flights is the "Mystery" flight, which might just as well be called the "Edward Special," as it involves him choosing several wines for you at random.
The wines on offer sometimes change daily, and often change weekly as Edward finds new gems to put on the list. There are a few predictable things about the by-the-glass list, all of which are good. There is usually one aged red wine on the list (on my most recent visit it was a 1996 Cascina Morassino Barbaresco Ovello), a couple of sparkling wines, and a few wines that are guaranteed to please most everyone (a Brunello, a Pinot Grigio, etc.). Just as predictably, though, the list also includes extremely interesting, eclectic, and sometimes esoteric wines. The other night I had my first taste of the varietal Timorasso, and likewise earlier in the year, a sampling of the favorably named Favorita variety.
If the by-the-glass list is clearly evident of a passion and exhaustive exploration of Italian wine, the bottle list is equally impressive, with representation of most of the top Italian wines, along with dozens of more affordable options for those not looking to break out on a 1990 Barolo just yet. As a wine bar, Incanto is clearly dedicated to helping patrons learn about and explore Italian wines. This is evidenced both by the contents of the list, as well as the meticulously printed (or occasionally handwritten) tags that encircle the stem of their oversized Riedel wine glasses. In addition to helping the staff and patrons keep straight the several different wines in front of them, they are handy little keepsakes for when you inevitably find a wine that must be located and purchased for later consumption in larger volumes.
Should patrons arrive to find Edward on one of his rare days off, there is little to worry about. Incanto runs a tight ship when it comes to service. The staff have nearly always tasted the wines by the glass, and whoever is working the bar will generally have a very good command of the wines on offer. Wines are available by the 2.5 ounce taste, 5 ounce glass, and in a fabulous offering, many are also available by the half-liter carafe.
One of the joys of Incanto is, of course, the fact that in addition to a playful and high quality wine list, there is plenty of excellent food on offer, whether it be small plates of house made salumis, salads, or for the hungrier wine lover, any one of the main dishes on offer that day. For me, a small salad, the tasty tapenade that comes with the house bread, and a dish of pasta can easily make for a fabulous evening when accompanied by three or four tastes of different wines.
Because it is a restaurant, and not patronized by a "bar" crowd, Incanto never becomes a scene. Of course, this is partially because there are realistically only about 16 or so seats in the bar area plus a little standing room. It's not set up for a group of thirty friends to descend on it for drinks. But of course, this means that if you and a couple of friends are just looking for a nice place to grab a glass of wine and a nibble before (or after) a night out, Incanto is hard to beat.
Incanto Restaurant and Wine Bar
1550 Church Street (at Duncan)
San Francisco, CA 94110
Open for dinner and wine starting at 5:30 Wednesday through Monday, closed Tuesdays. Casual dress. Reservations recommended for dinner.
Parking can usually be located easily in the neighborhood, and the J Church MUNI line stops a block away at 27th Street.
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