The execution of a restaurant concept involves many parts, but the menu is undoubtedly one of the most critical. When hustler restaurateur Adriano Paganini and chef Freedom Rains settled on a handmade, affordable pasta concept for A Mano, their upcoming Hayes Valley spot, the menu was top of mind.
With an opening set for the second week of May, a final menu is ready — but it’s been over a year in the making. Since the process began Rains and Paganini conceived over 35 dishes, whittling them down over the months through tastings and process of elimination.
Eater tagged along to catch a sneak peek at exactly how a plate of pasta passes the test and reaches the table. Here now, a look inside the process, plus the final menu.
For every opening — of which there are many, considering Lolinda, Beretta, Delarosa, Super Duper Burger, Belga, and more are all part of his empire — Paganini holds roundtable tastings to offer critiques and real-time feedback on potential menu items. It’s an intimidating process. Paganini himself, plus six of the top chefs and directors at his hospitality group, Back of the House, sit down to try the first, second, and all iterations of dishes with one goal: Figuring out what’s wrong with it.
It was no different for A Mano, which held its tastings at Paganini’s Cow Hollow restaurant Belga through February and March, as the May opening drew closer.
“Sometimes the dishes are great and sometimes they’re not,” Rains told Eater. “If you don’t hit it out of the ballpark, then you just keep creating.”
Since, like so many other San Francisco restaurant openings, A Mano took longer than anticipated to open, Rains spent the past year working through a menu in his mind and running it by Paganini — but not actually cooking anything. “I wrote roughly 35 dishes. It’s a lot of thinking. I always carry a book with me.”
And then he saw the kitchen, which dictates what can actually be executed in the space. “I had a double deck pizza oven, a deep fryer, the plancha, and the pasta station. So it’s like, I can write a great menu, but how can I execute it in this kitchen?” Rains said. “It put a curve ball in my thinking.”
Once he knew what he was working with, Rains coopted the Belga kitchen to start testing, trying not only different types of flours, but also sourcing from different purveyors for each type. He finally settled on durum, which is a finer ground semolina. (“Semolina” was the other name option for the restaurant, but A Mano won out.)
When he was finally at a place to begin presenting the dishes, the tastings began, with each one focused on one or two antipasti and two pastas.
“We talk about the positives and negatives, and we’ll go back through it again — or if it’s a total wash, then it’s a wash,” Rains said. “But if I feel really strongly that I can execute this dish, then Adriano is really understanding and we’ll taste it again another time with a smaller group.”
Other considerations during the tastings are price and the presentation. Each dish is served on three different plates, and presented with a potential cost. Paganini is particularly focused on value throughout. “It’s crazy what has become of a simple plate of pasta with three ingredients that’s too small for $25,” Paganini said. Value is a tenet of all of his restaurants, and something Paganini is “passionate about providing.”
Once the tastings are over, a menu is slowly finalized, taking everything — taste, presentation, value, logistics — into account. A type font is chosen. Adjustments are made. A year after the process began, there’s an opening menu.
The Tasting Notes
The Idea: Rains developed the tuna conserva, served with arugula, cannellini beans, celery, red onion, and caper berries, as a lighter counterpoint to the heavier pastas.
Tasting Notes: The tasting team thought the tuna needed to be a little more moist, perhaps benefiting from using albacore.
Conclusion: Play around with the tuna type, but otherwise a good dish.
The Idea: Since arancini is so rich, Rains paired it with a cauliflower agrodolce to cut the fat.
Tasting Notes: Paganini wasn’t a fan of the combo — he thought they should be two separate dishes, and that each were good on their own. Also, more salt.
Conclusion: The arancini are indeed served alone on the final menu.
Brussels Sprout Salad
The Idea: Since A Mano isn’t strictly Italian, Rains introduced this “warm salad” as a more Californian play. The vegetable will change with the seasons.
Tasting Notes: Tasters loved the freshness, and that the brussels weren’t fried, as is so common around town. It’s a fresh and light option that they think will be very popular.
Conclusion: As it’s been a few months, the vegetable is now asparagus on the opening menu.
Agnolotti dal Plin
The Idea: Rains went for a sort of potsticker approach to the agnolotti, putting the roast chicken and pork though a grinder first.
Tasting Notes: The agnolotti was the day’s most controversial dish. Much of the discussion around this dish centered on what plate to serve it on — the white plate pictured above is a more Italian identity, while a gray option errs more Californian. Additionally, Paganini didn’t love the meat texture, calling it grainy.
Conclusion: Rains has tinkered with the version that appears on the final menu, which looks similar but benefits from a few tweaks.
The Idea: Rains went traditional here, following a classic amatriciana recipe with San Marzano tomatoes, chili flakes, garlic, onion, red wine vinegar, and pancetta.
Tasting Notes: There were almost no notes here — one taster called it “freaking delicious.” At the tasting, the dish was priced at $13 and most felt that was too low for the generous portion.
Conclusion: The final price is $14, and the pasta is unchanged.