North Beach, The Italian Quarter
By Nina Wu with contributions by Karen Solomon
Much more than just a popular tourist destination, this intimate Heart of the City still beats with the resonance of its Italian residents, though few Italians live in the neighborhood today. Also, contrary to the name there is no beach in North Beach, but there is plenty of warm weather to be enjoyed in Washington Square Park, and the vacation feel of the area permeates every grappa and espresso at every outdoor cafe. As far as the restaurants are concerned, many cater to tourists along the area’s tiny cosmopolitan thoroughfares. But for the intrepid, there are still plenty of family-owned gems that conjure charm and personal warmth. Locals and visitors alike will enjoy one perfect day in North Beach.
|Start your day in North Beach with a cup of coffee at none other than Caffe Trieste (609 Vallejo), the coffee shop of world renown started by Giovanni Giotta fifty years ago. Sitting at one of their cramped indoor tables, you’ll feel as if you have stepped back in time as you take in the black-and-white photographs and the LPs on the walls.|
|Follow the best coffee of the day with a late breakfast at Mama’s on Washington Square (1701 Stockton), voted by locals as the best breakfast in town. Owned by Debra and Michael Sanchez, Mama’s offers a selection of locally named omelettes or "momelettes," such as the Washington Square (Italian sausage, red bell pepper, tomato, hot pepper jack), the North Beacher, and Mama’s Children’s favorites. Eggs benedict, salads, sandwiches, coffee, and house wine are also on the menu. Mama’s is a comfortable place with floral tablecloths, an open-air feeling and plenty of local and visiting patrons who hang out in the morning with their newspapers and coffee. The waitresses will take good care of you, greeting anyone who walks in warmly and serving up the dishes with a hearty “Mangia!”|
|As lunch time rolls around, you’ll notice that North Beach offers a wide variety of choices, both simple and fancy, from almost every region of Italy, including Sicily, Calabria, Firenze, and Roma. If you’re pacing yourself for a North Beach day, lunch might be a simple, home-cooked dish, and these are found in pleasant abundance at the Original U.S. Restaurant (515 Columbus). U.S. stands for Unione Sportiva, and it’s also the Italian name for the San Francisco Italian Athletic club next to the post office. Alberto and Ann Cipollina were owners of the restaurant that has been in their family for 50 years. They reopened the Original U.S. Restaurant after losing their old spot at the intersection of Columbus, Green, and Stockton, where it had been located for four generations. Cipollina, who is originally from Sicily, has this philosophy about food: “If a person goes to a restaurant to eat, give them enough food so that they’re not going to go hungry.” One serving of their ample stewed rabbit, roast beef, ossa bucco, minestrone, and pasta and you’ll see that his mission is accomplished. As of September 1, 2004, the restaurant was purchased by Trinacria Corp., consisting of new owners Meagan Cunningham and Giovanni Favognano, and chef Benjamin Ruiz.|
Down the street, The Gold Spike (527 Columbus) has been a North Beach haunt since 1920, and it has always been owned by the Mechetti family. It began as a candy store that sold homemade wine in the backroom during Prohibition. Accidentally, it became a restaurant as well: The aromas of Natalina Mechetti's homemade meat and pasta dishes first lured the tenants of the building and then later, people in off of the street, who paid twenty-five cents a day to join the family for meals. Today, the pot roast, the meat sauce, and the minestrone soup are still Natalina’s recipes, and remain the star offerings of this popular restaurant and bar. "We never even had a menu until 15 years ago," recalls Paul Mechetti, third-generation owner. The dÈcor of the Spike is unique, timeless, and worn—the entire ceiling and most of the walls are plastered with business cards and old dollar bills. Mechetti loves to tell the story of how this legendary dÈcor began: In the early 1960’s, fitness star Jack Lalaine was ribbing a customer for his drinking and smoking, and during their well-spirited debate, he licked a cigarette and flicked it to the ceiling, where it stuck. The drinking man wanted his business card next to the cigarette, and paid then owner Atillio a dollar for the privilege. Other patrons liked the idea of a card on the ceiling, and also paid a dollar. Paul says his grandfather made $15 that first night alone. The bar’s unique decor was born.
Legend or not, what remains true today is that The Gold Spike still lingers with the aromas of old Italy and the feel and tenor of the real North Beach. Regulars come in for the remarkable six-course dinner of pasta, meat, salad, antipasti, soup, and spumoni, or just stop in for a beer. On occasion, a regular patron will order a Campari cocktail or spin a 45 from the Brat Pack classics on the jukebox.
|The Washington Square Bar & Grill (1707 Powell) is one of those places where everybody knows your name—and where you can dine at a table or sit at the bar for a dose of good food, drink, and conversation. Originally opened in 1973 by Ed Moose, whose moniker is better known as the proprietor of Moose’s across the way, the WSB&G, also called “the Washbag” was sold to Peter Lomack in 1990 and then Peter Osborne in 1995. Today it’s owned by chef/proprietor Guy Ferri, who has brought back a classic Italian menu suited to the location. The lunchtime and afternoon crowd is made up of regulars from the neighborhood (and talkative old-timers in tweed jackets) along with a few out-of-town visitors who wander in. Bartender Michael McCourt sings as he pours you a drink, but don’t ask the native of Limerick to recite a limerick, because he doesn’t actually like them. He’s a good source for tales and is happy to answer questions about the area; he'll even scribble names and places on bar napkins for you. The "Washbag" has jazz music every night.|
|Another longtime resident gem is Capp’s Corner (1600 Powell) just around the corner. It’s another old-timer with lots of character and charm, and it’s always good for conversation. The bar is afloat with photos of all the folks who have visited Capp’s over the decades. Bartender Ray Boatright says Capp’s is one of the few old-school, family-style places left in North Beach. The menu features amply-prepared classics like spaghetti with meatballs, linguini with steamed mussels and clams, calamari steaks, osso bucco with polenta and grilled steaks. The food is pretty good, but it’s the vibe and the ambience—and the value for the money —that keeps customers coming in. “We get two to three generations of people coming here,” he said. The walls are also covered with black and white photos, the prerequisite for any real San Francisco place. Boxers, baseball players, and celebrities from the famous Beach Blanket Babylon show next door. Every other Thursday, there are jam sessions with cast members from Babylon and other local entertainers. “You never know who might show up,” Poatright said.|
|Those who want the authentic feel of being in Italy can try the sidewalk seating at places like the Steps of Rome Trattoria (362 Columbus and not to be confused with the Steps of Rome coffee and dessert shop at 348 Columbus) or Figaro Ristorante Italiano (414 Columbus), both of which feature Roman Italian food. Figaro’s founding Chef Luigi Dominici is from Rome, and the menu offers crispy, thin-crust Roman-style pizzas, fresh pasta, risottos, meat, and seafood. Figaro, which takes its name from Rossini's opera, “The Barber of Seville,” has a nice garden patio in the back for San Francisco’s rare sunny days. Take note of the ceramic-tiled floor and beautiful 87-year-old fresco of angels on a blue background painted on the ceiling. If you happen to walk by during the afternoon, you’ll probably find Alessandro Pedani standing outside to usher in new customers. If you ask, “How long have you been here?” he jokes, “I have been here 75 years.” He recommends Figaro’s potato soup and their housemade gnocchi.|
|Though many people in town know North Beach Restaurant (1512 Stockton), few may know that co-owner Lorenzo Petroni has made his own wine out of Sonoma Valley since 1998. (In Search of the City: Wine, Women, and War.) He’ll be happy to tell you all about it, “From the hills of Montalcino to the heart of Sonoma.” A few bottles of Petroni’s wine, including the Poggio Alla Pietra, are visible at the restaurant entrance. According to Lorenzo, it’s the first Brunello ever produced in northern California, though technically he can’t call it a Brunello. More information on the housemade wines can be found at www.PetroniVineyards.com. Lorenzo also makes his own Petroni Extra Virgin olive oil. Guests at North Beach Restaurant can vouch for the good manners that greet them at the door, and the fine, classic cooking of chef and co-owner Bruno Orsi. Maitre d’Hotel Joel Pierre Schweitzer knows how to treat customers, which is probably what makes the place one of ex-Mayor and socialite Willie Brown’s favorite haunts. And the menu speaks for itself: delicioso.|
|Those who are artistically or romantically inclined will enjoy the nearby Michelango Restaurant Caffe (579 Columbus) or Ristorante Mona Lisa (3353 Columbus). At Michelangelo, a large, cherubic angel face blows kisses from the wall, as do replicas of the famous David sculpture and the figures of the three muses. Owned by the two Salvatores—Salvatore Cortara and Salvatore Sarinelli—Michelango specializes in seafood and pasta. Cortara, who hails from Calabria, the end of the toe in southern Italy’s boot shape, says the cioppino (seafood soup) is their signature dish. “That’s my own recipe,” he said. “But no, it’s not secret.” He calls the place “continental Italian.” Art and food lovers had better bring cash, as no credit cards are accepted. Couples looking for a romantic night out might also fall for Ristorante Mona Lisa, which has replicas of the famous painting of the lady with the winsome smile on its walls (and a topless one as well!) along with a velvet, red decor. Open since 1979, Mona Lisa offers all the usual pasta dishes, along with a wide selection of wines. Owner Maurizio Florese took over the business from his father (there’s a portrait of his father near the doorway, and father and son look so alike it’s uncanny). From time to time, a shiny black 1951 Fiat 600 parks in front of the restaurant. It belongs to Maurizio, who had Mona Lisa’s logo stamped on the hood. Mona Lisa offers 65 selections of pasta, Maurizio brags, along with 70 types of risotto and 25 kinds of fish. Dessert’s not bad, either. At the end of the meal, entangle forks with a friend over a dish of Tiramisu.|
|Along the perimeter of Washington Square Park are some other astounding local mainstays, so hope you’ve saved some room. Moose’s (1652 Stockton) is a favorite for newspaper people and politicos. Ed Moose, himself a former newspaperman, greets customers by name at the door. He’s known to be a good listener who lending his ear to many a personal tale. Kind as he is, though, he can still draw a hard line: placards on each table forbid customers from talking on their cell phones or succumbing to their beepers. Moose explains: “The idea is to go to lunch, have a drink, relax, get away from the cares of the day and yourself.” Besides, he says, it’s rude, and chefs hate watching someone yakking away at the table instead of enjoying the meal they so carefully put together. Herb Caen was a regular (see the tributes to him on the walls), as are Walter Cronkite and Danielle Steele. Ed and his wife, Mary Etta, have created a community around Moose’s. In addition to jazz every night, Moose's puts out a newsletter, hosts special events like the hotel doormen and bellmen gatherings, and breathes life into the aging North Beach community.|
|A longtime anchor at another corner of the Square is Fior d’Italia (601 Union), the oldest Italian restaurant in The City. Dating back to 1886, the place hasn’t changed much. That’s because Fior d’Italia doesn’t try to keep up with trends. It offers unfussy traditional Italian cuisine; it always has, and it always will. Generations of Italian Americans from the neighborhood have eaten here, and some will tell you that their wedding took place there 20, 30, or more years ago. Chef Gianni Audieri says there will be no travesties like blueberry risotto at Fior d’Italia. He’s been there more than 20 years, and the menu has stayed virtually the same. Sports figures adorn the walls of the Fior d’Italia. There are signed photos ranging from baseball player Orlando Cepeda to cancer-survivor and Tour de France champ Lance Armstrong and 49’ers quarterback Jeff Garcia. As a matter of fact, three of Fior d’Italia’s waiters are serious bikers—they race the Grand Prix every year. Walking further into the back, the restaurant offers a large dining space with curved booths. The Tony Bennett room, dedicated to the original crooner of “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” displays photos of the star from his earliest days as a boy to the height of his stardom. There’s even a copy of a letter from Mrs. Lyndon B. Johnson, dated Nov. 28, 1977, thanking Tony Bennett for his performance at the White House. And a page from a short story by William Saroyan hangs on the wall that establishes the character’s identify by simply stating, "I am a waiter at Fior d'Italia." This is truly a part of North Beach history that cannot be overlooked.|
|Though it may not be the oldest, La Felce (1570 Stockton) refuses to be outdone by Fior d’Italia. Located right across the street from Fior d'Italia, La Felce dates back about 30 years. Owner Roman Marcucci will tell you through a thick accent that his place is popular among the locals. “Everything is good,” he says, but especially the veal and the pasta. And chef Liliano Salvetti puts extra care into the food. Marcucci worked nine years as a janitor before opening up the restaurant with his brother-in-law. This is the kind of neighborhood place where regulars are recognized and greeted like friends. Many neighborhood changes have transpired since Marcucci first opened, and he sighs when he acknowledges that North Beach is changing shape. Though it’s become more multicultural over the decades, the restaurateur takes pride in the core Italian community he’s a part of, and enjoys the annual Columbus Day parade.|
|Now if you take cocktails seriously , Enrico’s Sidewalk Cafe down the street on Broadway (504) is the place to go. Ever since this opulent, European dining hall and patio opened in 1958, it has been attracting the menagerie of masses who seek a cozy spot, a tasty, stiff drink, and a ringside seat to the pumping muscle of Broadway at Kearny, the main arteries of North Beach. Named for its original owner Enrico Banducci, perhaps more famous as the owner of the 1960's comedy club hungry i, which launched the careers of Woody Allen, Lenny Bruce, and others, this popular nightspot was closed for a few years in the late 1980's and early 1990's. It was reopened again by the owners of Chez Panisse and Oliveto, and the menu received a jolt of Mediterranean flair, with favorites like the anchovy-stuffed fried olives, crab cakes, meat and pasta dishes, that keep luring tourists and locals alike. But it is the bar that dazzles. The cocktail slingers pour some of the best drinks in town. Ward Dunham, the big man behind the bar, has been mixing cocktails and throwing out drunks ever since Banducci opened his doors (Dunham's now one of the shareholders), and he always has a great story to tell. Award-winning bartender Dave Nepove (left), bar manager and a passionate mixologist, would be happy to take his custom-made muddling stick and gnash you one of the freshest, most unusual cocktails you’ve ever tasted (listed on the cocktail menu as "Stick Drinks"). His energy and enthusiasm spill over as he takes fresh kumquats, sugar, ice, and vodka and magically creates his seasonal specialty, the Kumquat Caipirushka—a cocktail he colorfully describes as a "screwdriver on acid". Summer brings on other specialties mixed with watermelon, kiwi, or housemade blueberry and lavender liquor. Nepove advises his best customers to, "Look at the bar to see what fruits are out. That will tell you what’s going on behind the bar." Nepove, the self-proclaimed "Mr. Mohito", offers other fiery and original cocktails to accompany the restaurant’s menu. But, as he points out, "The restaurant and bar are their own entities, but they work well together." Just imagine the taste of tequila, Liquor 43 (flavors of vanilla and honey), muddled jalapenos, fresh lime juice, and sugar. It's called Sweat Heat. Or wrap your lips around the succulent fruit of the Cactus Pear Margarita. In the airy ballroom of Enrico’s dining space, in the warmth of a spring afternoon on their expansive front patio, or clamoring for an inch of bar space on a crowded weekend night, those expertly created flavors truly make Enrico’s a potent elixir.|
|Tommaso’s (1042 Kearny) is another favorite local spot that draws in tourists—many who are grabbing a hearty meal before browsing at Black Oak Books, or perhaps more likely, catching "the show" at one of the nearby strip shows off of Broadway. This joint, which originally opened in 1935 as Lupo’s, features original frescoes depicting Naples. Now owned and run by the Crotti family, the restaurant was founded by the Cantalupo family from Naples. They sold the place to their longtime chef, Tommy Chin, but only on the condition that he would change the name, and Chin christened it Tommaso’s. When current proprietor Agostino Crotti bought the place in 1973, he saw no reason to change the name again. Now Crotti, his two sisters Carmen and Lidia (who is the chef), and his son, wife, and three nephews run the place. He brags that Tommaso’s is home to the oldest wood-burning oven on the West Coast and that it is the one that first inspired Alice Waters at Chez Panisse and later, Wolfgang Puck of Spago’s. The fare here is “old-fashioned, rustic Italian” and the flavors are simply magnificent. Wood-fired pizzas with hand-twirled dough, lasagna, manicotti, baked sea bass, clams, oysters and eggplants are also popular here. A selection of 42 wines from both Italy and California makes the perfect accompaniment to your meal, and make this the perfect finale for a wonderful day exploring SF’s Italian roots.|
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