SAN FRANCISCO -- You can talk about California Cuisine anywhere but in California. In fact, if you ask at a San Francisco restaurant what kind of food it serves, the answer is likely to be "not California cuisine."

Alice Waters goes a step further. Nouvelle cuisine is dead, I remind her; has California Cuisine died too? California Cuisine never existed, she announces.

Ah, c'mon.

Waters explains: The word cuisine implies structure, tradition, codification. "This was all experimentation."

So what was Chez Panisse cooking all these years that we considered it the mother of California Cuisine? Waters calls it Seasonal Cuisine, or Cuisine of the Market. The origin is Provencal, she says. But it moved from there. What we have been ignorantly calling California Cuisine is actually Mediterranean cooking with California ingredients. Waters emphasizes that the ingredients make a crucial difference -- California is, after all, the place where you can find carrots in four different colors, and wild strawberries both red and white.

Joyce Goldstein, once of Chez Panisse and now of Square One, admits that California Cuisine has existed, at least as a category. But now, she says, "California Cuisine is a category that should be dropped altogether." Like France's nouvelle cuisine, it carries a stigma from the early weird combinations chefs attempted. What does she think it should be called? "Eclectic" scares people, Goldstein says, and "international" bewilders them. Her impression of the current California cooking is much like Waters': "Mediterranean cuisine with California produce."

A lot of Mexican-inspired cooking is being done in the California kitchen. But it has always has been part of the California repertoire, and now has spread -- under the guise of Southwestern cooking -- to experimental kitchens around the country. At last spring's gala tribute to James Beard in New York, said Goldstein, "There were chiles in everything."

And Oriental cooking is being reinvented by San Francisco's American chefs, but more on that next week.

But those are cuisines that are taken for granted in California. Nothing to get excited about here. There is, however, a new direction emerging. The strongest accent in San Francisco's experimental American kitchens now is Italian. Chez Panisse has a chef with an Italian name, one is frequently reminded. Zuni has Italian in its soul. Square One serves a regional Italian dinner every Wednesday.

Risotto has become commonplace. Polenta is everywhere from the vegetarian restaurant, Greens, to the Southwestern-early California restaurant, Tortola (which serves it with black beans and salsa).

No wonder. Italian polenta sounds a lot better than cornmeal mush.

Tabletalk The reason San Francisco has all those hills, I have come to realize, is to help people burn off calories so they can eat more of the Bay Area's food. The problem is that not only are there countless compelling restaurants, there are aromas and sights to draw you in for snacks on almost every block. It's hard to avoid stopping off for just a taste of something on the way down the street to your dinner destination. Here's some of what tempts me on the streets of San Francisco:

Italian bread bakeries are proliferating in San Francisco, and their repertoires are so extensive that a bakery in Rome or Florence would be hard-pressed to match the variety. As a tourist, I don't have a use for the big crusty loaves which look so wonderful at Il Fornaio bakeries. So I settle for a square of country-textured foccaccio, or maybe a square of each flavor of the day.

Many French pastries look much prettier than they taste, and La Nouvelle Patisserie falls prey to this fault, particularly in its quiches. But even in France I haven't found a better breakfast pastry than its apricot custard danish -- made not with the same spongy yeast dough as the sweet rolls but with flaky buttery croissant dough.

I'm from oyster country, but no oyster country can compete with the fascinating selection at Pacific Heights Bar & Grill, where on a bad day there may be only 10 kinds of oysters, on a good day twice that. They come from every coast of the U.S., and range from tiny Olympias to those giant ones sometimes called knife-and-fork oysters. The staff really knows its stuff, and you could hardly escape a snack at the Pacific Heights Bar & Grill oyster bar without considering it an education.

SQUARE ONE'S FEDELINI WITH PANCETTA, PUMATE, BASIL AND ONIONS (4 servings)

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 pound pancetta, diced (substitute bacon if necessary)

2 small red onions, sliced thin

4 cloves garlic, minced

8 whole pumate (sun-dried tomatoes in olive oil), julienned

3/4 cup basil, shredded, loosely packed

3/4 pound fedelini (or spaghettini or spaghetti)

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

Parmesan cheese (optional)

Heat olive oil in a saute' pan and render pancetta until cooked but not crisp. Add onions, and cook until tender, about 3 minutes. Add garlic and saute' briefly, but do not let it brown. Add pumate and 3/4 of the basil.

Cook the pasta.

Toss the sauce ingredients with the well drained pasta. Add black pepper. (Salt will probably not be necessary as the pancetta and pumate contain a lot of salt.) Sprinkle with remaining basil. Add parmesan cheese if desired.

1987, Washington Post Writers Group