The news that the mysterious old Old Clam House has been transformed into the mysterious new Old Clam House prompted a discussion in the comments about another timeless (and mysterious) Bernal Heights restaurant: Caffe Cozzolino on Folsom Street, at the southwest corner of Precita Park.
Caffe Cozzolino is a spacioius Italian restaurant blessed with an unbelievably ideal location, but the place is never, ever crowded. In fact, it usually looks empty. And since it is always empty and suffers from horrific word-of-mouth, one part of the mystery is this: How does Caffe Cozzolino stay in business?
I live around the corner from Cozzolino. I’ve walked by it hundreds of times. But I’ve never dared to eat there. Someday, however, someone might swoop in to purchase Caffe Cozzolino and transform the space into the dining hotspot that the location so wants to become. In the name of science and inquiry, I felt obliged to sample the current cuisine, so that I might have a first-hand opinion to express if that scenario ever comes to pass.
Thus with an open mind and a spirit of adventure, I took my 3.5 year-old daughter on a date to Caffe Cozzolino. My simple hope was that the restaurant would serve up solid Italian-American cuisine. That means Italian food that’s less Mario Batali and more Tony Soprano. (I grew up in New Jersey, so I think I have a fair palette for that kind of grub.) Joe’s of Westlake does this well. Pasta Pomodoro franchised a totally acceptable version of it. Emmy’s Spaghetti Shack elevated it to a form of street art.
But Caffe Cozzolino doesn’t come close to pulling it off. I kept it simple by ordering spaghetti and meatballs. Spaghetti and meatballs! A staple! Here’s how it looked:
Lovely parsley. So how did it taste? Frankly, rather ungood. I’m convinced the sauce came from a can — and a very cheap can. I’ve had better spaghetti and meatballs at truck stops, sad to say.
My daughter ordered a pizza from the kid’s menu:
It was okay. No real complaints. But no inspiration either.
Put simply, the food at Caffe Cozzolino is unlikely to generate many wails of Proustian nostalgia if the restaurant were to close. That part of the mystery is now resolved. But the mystery of how Caffe Cozzolino remains in business endures.