Risotto, a Wednesday specialty humbly broadcast on the chalkboard, is an eye-opener: dense with creamy, swollen rice and a savory intensity earned only when built from scratch with good stock and served within minutes of the last stir. Seafood is often a catch here, as Huisinga hauls out to the airport three times a week for shipments from San Francisco’s respected Monterey Fish Company. You won’t find fresher, springier, more delicate sautéed calamari anywhere. But I’d also come back for creamy chicken livers, winy, potent and spilling over an enormous slab of toast like a great sloppy joe from heaven.
Of course, Bar Mingo is not the only restaurant keeping Italian tradition alive. And elsewhere on the menu, some of the more ambitious entrées fall short, and only one dessert qualifies as a worthwhile sin: gelato-bulging profiteroles armored in good dark chocolate. But no place, not even Bar Mingo owner Michael Cronan’s beloved Caffe Mingo next door, pulls off homey Italian cooking at this level, for these prices. Only one dish breaks the $20 barrier, while most hover in the $8–15 range, with impressive $5 happy-hour deals and well-priced wines, many from reliable Italian and Oregon producers.
The setting for Huisinga’s second act is far from Genoa’s intellectual food chamber, where waiters once delivered oral menus as if imparting wisdom picked up in the Himalayas. Bar Mingo is as upbeat as a Labrador retriever, with a happy soundtrack, low-slung couches and flowered pillows, and lots of regulars at handsome marble tables. The welcoming casual ease of the place is embodied by a chef who, when asked what makes his extraordinary meatballs float like fat clouds in the Umbrian sky, sounds more like the Buddha than a commanding voice in a competitive food scene. Everything and nothing are the same:
The meatballs? I don’t do anything. Just milk and bread, cooked like cereal. I use lamb, so I guess the meat is good. I treat them gently. If you slam them together they get all tight and weird. I make them to order, so they don’t sit in sauce. Maybe that’s different. They’re rolled in bread crumbs, fried in oil, simmered with tomatoes and mint—lots of fresh mint. And pecorino. Then more oregano and mint and cheese on top. That’s it. Nothing to it.