Plastic grapelights hang in the windows, glowing green and pink underneath the restaurant's old-school neon sign. Inside, the dining room's ceiling is crawling with fake grapevines and straw-bottomed chianti bottles hanging from the dusty rafters. On the walls are vivid murals depicting scenes from San Francisco and coastal Italy. Diners sit at tables spread with red-checked tablecloths, or at vinyl booths equipped with mini-jukeboxes, which are stocked with the likes of Chuck Berry, "That's Amore," and Mario Lanza — three songs to a quarter.
Basically, Gaspare's is the embodiment of a red sauce Italian joint in all its gaudy glory. Even better, its location at 20th Avenue and Geary means that it hasn't developed the sense of self-awareness, and the ironic crowd, that a location closer to the center of town might force upon it (though its appearance in Woody Allen's recent Blue Jasmine, and the fact that it's open until midnight on Friday and Saturday nights, ups the coolness quotient a bit). Gaspare's reminded me of the pizza places of my youth, the ones I'd go to after soccer games and swim meets, a time before I knew what it meant to be ironic.
Its food, it must be said, is also a portal back to a simpler time, one before American food culture matured — and Italian food seemed exotic. I wouldn't give the place any awards for innovation — the best dishes on the menu, from the lasagna to the tiramisu, are ones that taste like all the other versions of the dish you've had in the past. There's a lot of cheese, a lot of oregano-heavy red sauce, all of it comforting in its familiarity. It's exactly as good as you'd expect it to be, nothing more and nothing less.
Pizza is what Gaspare's is known for, and every table had at least one pie on a metal wire rack. The pies have a thin cracker crust and come in sizes up to 17 inches, which presents a problem when you try to pick it up, because the grease from the pizza makes for a flaccid, soggy slice. But it's still pizza, and still satisfies as a delivery system for cheese, meat, and tomato sauce. There are about 30 combinations on the menu, with the option to build your own. Bruce's Special was the most interesting combination I tried, heavy with linguica sausage and salami, sprinkled with mushrooms and a lot of garlic. Less successful, but still more than decent, was Gaspare's Special — it was topped with watery tomatoes and dull green peppers, but a sprinkling of feta livened it up a bit.
Skip the appetizers. With all the food coming, you don't need them, and at least the ones I sampled did not give me confidence in the rest. The Caesar salad was a pale imitation of the real thing — it had no hint of piquant anchovy and garlic, just of Parmesan and cream, and was topped with wan croutons. An antipasti platter held no surprises: slices of provolone, ham, and salami next to a salad made with chopped lettuce, black olives, tomatoes, and pepperoncinis with a standard-issue Italian dressing.
Entrees were cheesy, caloric, and some of the best parts of the meal. Veal parmesan came with a sheet of mozzarella over it, so white and shiny it looked like a piece of plastic, but once you parted the cheese curtain and had a bite of the fried veal, all was okay. ("Fried" and "cheese" being two of the most pleasurable food categories ever.) You can opt for a side of spaghetti or vegetables; I ordered the latter, feeling like I needed to at least pay lip service to health, and was presented with a side of greens that had gale-force levels of garlic.
Lasagna is billed as a house specialty, and next to the restaurant's atmosphere, it was the high point of the evening. A thick layer of cheese obscured the ingredients within, but overall it achieved the kind of melting goodness that makes lasagna such a great dish. It was hard to tell where the pliable noodles ended and the cheese, meat, and sauce began.
After a few glasses of chianti and a few songs on the jukebox, the food faded into the background. Our group was cradled in the restaurant's rosy glow. Tables around us ranged from couples on dates to families with teenagers, a rare sight in many parts of San Francisco. Everyone seemed to be having a good time. When "Tequila" came on the jukebox, the whole restaurant sang along. On a foggy night in the Richmond or after a music festival in Golden Gate Park, wine from a straw flask, kitschy surroundings, and unbelievable amounts of cheese feel like amore.