I Say Frittata, You Say Frittata While Getting my Rocc’s Off in San Francisco

Before heading up to Napa, I decided to scratch another triple D off the list by heading to Rocco’s Cafe on Folsom Street.  It is a classic Italian cafe offering  typical fare from pastas to Italian sandwiches. The timing wasn’t right for dinner so a breakfast visit was the next best thing.

The decor was old school Italian diner.  There is an open kitchen and more pictures than selfies in my daughter’s instagram account hanging on the wall. It has a friendly feel complete with happy cooks and equally pleasant waitstaff.  There is a certain magic about a true rundown/rustic Italian cafe and Rocco’s had the right semblance.

As much as I was tempted to go with the Grilled Homemade Polenta topped with Cheese & Marinara Sauce w/ Eggs any style with Italian Sausage,  I figured the mushroom, onion, basil, & parmesan cheese frittata ($11.95)  was authentic enough for an Italian cafe without the need to paralyze myself.  Now, the word frittata is up for interpretation. By definition, it means fried but there are all sorts of interpretations. Most of them fall somewhere on the spectrum between an omelette and a crust less quiche but usually dictate that some element of the filling is cooked within the egg.  Rocco’s offering was closer to an omelette and not quite what I expected.  Nonetheless, it had good flavour and seasoning and more than abundant fillings/toppings.  The potatoes had a slight off taste I just couldn’t identify but overall they were decent.

Mushroom, Onion and Parmesan Frittata with Potatoes and toast (not shown) $11.95
Mushroom, Onion and Parmesan Frittata with Potatoes and toast (not shown) $11.95

On the way to the subway I was craving an Americano so a quick google search told me Wicked Grounds was just around the corner.  Don’t get me wrong, I could have hit a number of other coffee houses on the way but I was intrigued at the thought of sneaking in behind the closed curtains to experience a fetish cafe in the early morning. I didn’t expect much at 830 am but there were a few customers and some very nice, courteous staff along with plenty of cuffs, paddles and other paraphernalia for sale. Most alarming to my virgin eyes was the option to have a drink served in a dog bowl for those who chose to be subservient on that particular day.  I was tempted to order a decaf and a paddle to go but I stuck with the former along with a granola bar which promised to be more awesome than a cat riding a unicorn.  It wasn’t and I left humming Chris Issak.

It wasn't
It wasn’t because a cat riding a unicorn is pretty awesome

My Take

I suppose there are worse things to do than search for a good breakfast and an amerciano  from a fetish cafe in one of the most liberal cities in the world.  What’s even better is when you get a decent breakfast and knock another DDD and getting a coffee from the same place I’d buy a blow up doll..screw you Walmart.  In the end, regardless of where  the frittata fell on the spectrum, it was a decent plate and the Wicked Grounds coffee was good even if I was able to get my Rocc’s off again.

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“Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town” and they “Do the Evolution” of the Diner

I tend to hit my fair share of diners in my travels. In the past few years there has been a resurgence of the old diner concept with new establishments popping up in even some of the chic metropolitan areas of big cities (places like The Little Goat in Chicago and Rose and Sons in Toronto).  Although the “evolution” of new school diners have grasped onto some of the concepts of their ancestors (such as vinyl booths and counter seating), nothing can replace some aspects that make the old school diner what it is.

Here are a few observations I have made about diners:

1. Ninety-percent of old school diners are either named after a person or some kind of geographical entity or location. In Sudbury, I grew up going to Gloria’s restaurant.  The Countryview diner in Chatham inspired me to write this blog.  There’s the Lakeview in Toronto, the Southside restaurant in London and the Elgin Street diner in Ottawa.  The fact that there is there is no view of a river at the Riverview or that  Alice’s is owned by some dude named Paul  seems a moot point in the diner culture.

2. Much like you can count on any Chinese restaurant to have either a cocktail menu or a horoscope written on  their disposable menus (which eventually will be laden with bright red sweet and sour sauce), diners slap down the generic bilingual Welcome/Bienvenue mats which quickly get soaked with egg grease or globs of strawberry jam.  The table is also adorned with a carousel of prepackaged peanut butter, strawberry jams and orange marmalade (which in fact may be the same marmalade that has been there since 1984), hard butter packets and creamers which  not only lighten the less than stellar coffee but serve as building blocks for bored 6 year olds who eventually shove one or two in their mouths and pop them much to the chagrin of the accompanying family members.

4. As much as the show “Two Broke Girls” annoys the hell out of me, it’s a fair depiction of the old school diner.  The blackboard is reserved for the soup of the day plus/minus today’s special which tends to be a classic comfort dish.  My personal favorite is the “hot hamburg” (the “er” on the end of hamburger is entirely optional for some reason) in which  a hamburger patty in placed between two slices of white bread and laden with rich gravy and served with frozen crinkle cut fries and “homemade” slaw. The special also comes with soup or juice as a side.  I’ve always been intrigued by how the provision of a 3 oz shot glass of juice even compares to a steaming bowl of “homemade” soup. The same show also depicts the reality that the minimum age to work behind the cash in a diner is 70 (perhaps this was the inspiration for Pearl Jam’s “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town)”.  This person is clearly the quarterback of the organization despite the fact they take ten minutes to enter the price of each of the hand written orders into the Casio cash register and verify with the waitress that I indeed ordered the addition of grilled onions on my homefries for $0.45.  The process is interrupted two or three times when the cashier engages in a conversation with the three of four regulars about the size of Mabel’s homegrown pumpkin or the fact that toilet paper is on sale at the local grocery store.

5. Rice pudding and jello are mandatory desserts in any old school diner.  Furthermore, the pudding must be topped with an amount of cinnamon equal to a Rob Ford stash and the red or green jello must be cut into squares with architecture I.M. Pei would envy.

6. Small town diners ultimately have a dichotomy of staff.  On one side is the surly old woman who could tell you the number of pieces of gum stuck under table twelve, the amount of force you hit to hit the chugging ice machine with to keep it fully functional and the name of every regular who has walked in since the sixties.  On the other is the 17 year old “friend of the family” waitress whose angst is evident in the nose piercing (which later becomes the focal point of conversations at the counter when she’s not there).  This angst is partially rooted in the slight reality that she, like her coworker, may never leave the tight web of a small town and be forced to marry some guy named Billy and have a stag and doe the whole town will attend.

In the end, I adore diners.  They scream Canadiana in the same fashion as snowbanks and poutine.  Whether they have stayed the same for 50 years, evolved over time (including replacing old staff with hipsters with an equally surly attitude) or recently opened with adherence to an old school philosophy (like Mae’s in Detroit), they are a fundamental component of the food service structure and deserve respect. I think of the numerous food network shows in which the celebrity chefs cite the perfect fried egg as the pinnacle of culinary expertise yet it’s second nature to many of the seasoned veterans who grace the grills of diners across the country.