By Gail Bensinger
To the unexpected accompaniment of large earth-moving machinery, the long-awaited Manzoni restaurant opened its doors Monday evening and filled up with Glen Park diners almost immediately.
Owner Manhal Jweinat, beaming high-wattage smiles at his new customers, and chef Raul Aguirre, a kitchen veteran of popular Noe Valley Italian restaurants, have designed a menu and wine list featuring food and drink from all over Italy. The menu, divided into antipasti, salads, pastas and main dishes (secondi piatti), makes choosing a single dinner challenging – the options all sounded, and tasted, so good.
Some examples: baked polenta with wild mushrooms and two cheeses from the mountainous northern region of Aosta, Mediterranean mussels and Parma prosciutto among the antipasti, gnocchi from the Piedmont region and Genoise pesto on house-made maltagliati (irregularly shaped pasta) on the pasta menu, and tiger prawns with a Sicilian sauce called salmorigano, as well as meat and chicken dishes.
Desserts sounded just as yummy: the familiar tiramisu and affogata (a shot of espresso over vanilla ice cream), a more unusual budino (pudding) – described on the menu as a chocolate hazelnut cake with vanilla custard and raspberry puree, and the traditional vin santo (sweet dessert wine) with crispy cantucci cookies for dunking. The wine list carries red, white and sparkling wines from all over Italy, and prices range from the mid-$20s to the $60s.
Everyone agreed that the food was terrific. First-night service was a little hectic, but pleased patrons were happy to cut the new operators a lot of slack.
Four years in the planning, the restaurant is the brainstorm of Jweinat, a one-time art student who studied set design in Milan. His touches are seen throughout. A graceful arch of brick and stone appears to divide the room in two, a theatrical illusion. The complicated wooden ceiling provides a warm atmosphere. Two of his paintings adorn one wall, and bare wooden tables and comfortable chairs add to the ambiance.
The restaurant is named for Alessandro Manzoni, an important 19th century Italian poet and novelist. When the Jordan-born Jweinat went to Milan to study, he helped support himself by working in restaurants. His fellow students had trouble pronouncing Manhal, so they called him Manzoni instead. The name stuck – and so did the idea of a restaurant.
On the first night, lots of Glen Park neighbors who had grown used to the newspaper-covered front windows noticed the place was open for business, and decided to check it out for themselves. Jweinat, looking tired but happy the day after the opening, said they served about 60 patrons that first night – more than they had expected.
Glen Park residents know Jweinat as the friendly crepe-maker at his Higher Ground coffee house on Chenery Street. Manzoni is a few doors up from Chenery at 2788 Diamond St. So far, the harried owner is managing both places, and he’s still trying to work out details about hours, staffing and the possibility of a closed day. But locals who have been awaiting a local Italian-food fix finally have reason to say: buon appetito.