Starters are simple, and highlight key ingredients. A dish of deep purple roasted beets, jewel-like in an olive-oil sheen, is adorned with salsa verde and chopped hazelnuts. A perennial favorite bruschetta of chopped asparagus, garlic, and rosemary has a spread of tangy fromage blanc, a fresh sheep's cheese. Little arancini, filled with a sausage of pork and sweet pepper, crackle and steam when broken open, their rice tender and soft. Salads of distinctly flavored, but delicately leafed fresh greens are dressed with a light vinaigrette and petals of shaved hard cheese. Many of the vegetables are grown seasonally in the restaurant's back garden.
Mains are elegant and unpretentious, and surprisingly large for their humble prices. Golden-seared rockfish—with saffron-braised cardoon, salty olives, and a touch of an oregano pesto called salmoriglio—is grilled over oak, then finished in the wood oven, never turned. It is delicate, flakes easily, and is perfectly fresh, time and again. Porchetta-style rotisserie pork shoulder, atop creamy Rancho Gordo white beans and braised greens, is served in a shallow dish of jus and nearly big enough for two. The roasted joint is sliced into a generous wheel and hit hard in hot oil, which gives it the intensely flavorful, caramelized exterior of carnitas; the interior is as good as roast pork can be: moist and tender, slightly smoky, and rich without gratuitous fat.
Busetto, a life-long professional cook, spent several years at San Francisco's Restaurant LuLu roasting thousands of chickens, and his experience is evident in the crisp skin and to-the-bone tender meat. The half-bird, brined for two days and scented with thyme, is currently served on a bed of thick, house-baked bread and strong greens; the bread, again brushed with fromage blanc, becomes a juicy panzanella as it absorbs the generous drippings of the chicken. This is also easily a dish for sharing, and is the restaurant's most enduring signature item.
Though there are but four desserts, they are hardly an afterthought. A banana ice cream cake, rich and smooth and filled with shattered brittle, has a sweet, crunchy cornflake crust. The bread pudding, now with rhubarb, is pillowy yet custard-like. Again, servings are so ample as to encourage sharing.
Wines are largely Italian, and the majority are priced less than $30 a bottle. Draft beer, cocktails, and inventive house-made sodas, as well as a sophisticated yet—like the food—neatly edited menu of after-dinner liqueurs, are also available.
Firehouse is a deeply satisfying, rewarding example of focused, dedicated ambition. The staff, many of whom look familiar over the years, are unfailingly knowledgeable, friendly, and swift. The humble yet gregarious and sharp-witted Mr. Busetto presides over the kitchen nightly, greeting new guests and waving goodbye to well-fed, loyal regulars. It is a restaurant worthy of your time.-CHRIS ONSTAD