Nearly 25 years after it first debuted on the then-quiet stretch of 18th Street just east of Mission Dolores Park, landmark California-Italian restaurant Delfina is preparing for a long-awaited reopening. Co-owners Annie and Craig Stoll first opened Delfina with just 30 seats on a shoestring budget in 1998, and over the passing decades grew the single business into a restaurant mini-empire comprised of seven restaurants at its apex. “The first full day, we had two full turns,” Annie recalls of Delfina’s genesis. “We really picked the right neighborhood. We were packed from day one — until we closed for COVID.”
Since March 2020, Delfina has been mostly dark. The parklet for Delfina Pizzeria, which was previously located next door to the original restaurant, has been pumping out pizzas at a good clip for months, but Delfina itself endured a long pandemic-induced slumber. On Wednesday, October 26, when diners step inside for the first time in years, they’ll find the restaurants merged into one, though pizzeria fans will still be able to order pies for takeout only, alongside retail items including frozen pies for later on one side of the space. “The place looks completely different,” Craig says. “Restaurants take a beating, so after 24 years, I mean, it was getting a little worn down.”
The extensive renovation, completed by Sarah Fucinaro (Fucinaro Architecture) and Roy Hospitality, expands Delfina to an impressive 115 seats, including a new private dining room and the — in Annie’s words — “warm and cozy parklet,” which will stay but needs a few required upgrades. The couple says they’re excited to have added more windows to the front of the space, opening up the room to the street and letting in even more light. They also affixed new forest green tiles to the facade. The private dining room features a newly installed domed ceiling, golden and glowing, while in the main space tan leather banquettes bask under portraits of culinary icons including Julia Child and James Beard, both gussied up with sleeves of arm tattoos. The entire room blends modern touches like midcentury-style pendant lights and the tambour bar with classic Italian touches like the espresso machine, first built in 1972.
And before anyone worries: yes, the restaurant’s spaghetti pomodoro will be back. “It’s just spaghetti with tomato sauce but it has its own fan club,” Craig says, somewhat incredulously. “I literally got a tattoo — because it put our daughter through college.” And as has always been the case at Delfina, part of what made the restaurant such a staple of the city’s dining scene for 20-plus years, the menu will be ever-changing, “rolling through” the seasons, Craig says, with dishes coming off and onto the list as ingredients become available.
One new and permanent feature is the housemade focaccia, a bread Craig says he dreamt up and then worked with bread expert and author Michael Kalanty to perfect. It’s a cross between traditional focaccia and Roman pizza bianca, Craig explains, with a wide open crumb and a perceptible olive oil flavor, despite the fact that it’s also sourdough. Other highlights will include a whole fish (the specific variety depending on what’s available), grilled Monterey Bay calamari, and the insalata di campo.
There’s also, for the first time, a full bar — so alongside a list of wines and beer, bar consultant Colin Gallagher has created a cocktail menu built on a foundation of Italian spirits, bitters, and amari. Craig says they’ve also moved over the deep collection of amari from the now-closed Locanda for drinkers to explore, and though the wine list has been constricted for ease of use to some 50 selections, chosen by consulting wine director James Butler, there are myriad options on both fronts for anyone interested. In the coming weeks, the couple plans to add an apperitivo hour from 5 to 6 p.m. when diners can come in for a spritzy cocktail and a slate of complimentary small plates — think, cacio e pepe potato chips or white bean burrata crostini, all inspired by the Italian pre-dinner cultural institution.
Craig and Chef de Cuisine John Arcud will continue to work with local farmers and producers to drive the Delfina menu, but there will also be a number of plates featuring produce from the Stoll’s own Sonoma farm, Fryer Creek, in Sonoma. It was a pandemic purchase, the couple explains, and they’ve brought on consultants who also work for the French Laundry Gardens to help tend the more-than-1-acre property, which produces tomatoes, cucumbers, strawberries, peppers, herbs, eggplants, squash, honey, and eggs. “We barely know what we’re doing with that but it was super exciting to be able to use our own stuff,” Craig admits.
“We like to go overboard in our life,” Annie adds with a laugh.
Delfina (3621 18th Street) reopens Wednesday, October 26, and will serve dinner from 5:30 to 10 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays through Saturdays. The restaurant will be open from 5 to 9 p.m. Sundays and closed on Tuesdays.