San Francisco's Italian Restaurants Cook Up the City's Best Comfort Food
By Tom Molanphy
San Francisco Local Expert
Do you love Italian food? We do too, and that's why we dedicate ourselves to finding the best places to enjoy Italian cuisine in San Francisco. We've diligently scouted out the top eateries, and we've listened to our readers and their reviews of San Francisco restaurants. We share the places that get great buzz, like Acquerello, and we showcase the ones that have proven themselves over time, like La Traviata.
With so many restaurant choices in San Francisco, it's important to think about what kind of meal you want. And not just what food you crave, but all the details of the experience, from atmosphere to the people you choose to dine with. A well-planned dining experience might be not just the highlight of a trip but a memory that can last a lifetime. So, if you're thinking about Italian food, be sure to take some time to consider the whole experience. We recommend Italian food on your vacation as a remedy for temporary homesickness, when you need that simple but universal taste of comfort food that only pizza and pasta can provide.
We also point out good neighborhoods for Italian restaurants in San Francisco - Cow Hollow, for instance. When the craving hits, we'll make sure you get your fix!
10 Ottimista Enoteca-Café
Playfully bestowed with the Italian word for "optimist" -- that is, one who always believes that the glass is half full -- this wine bar also has a way with Italian-inspired tapas. Offering more than 200 by-the-bottle options, Ottimista showcases a changing 25 by-the-glass selections, concentrating on northern Italian vintages. Choose your favorite, and couple it with items like truffled mushroom risotto, a hand-crafted salumi plate, artisanal cheeses, pumpkin ravioli, or a roasted half-chicken. Showing their playful side, this restaurant also offers "world-famous" corned beef hash during their brunches. The clean but simple space is not only great for dates but for casual dining, as well. (415-674-8400)
9 Trattoria Contadina
If you're not quite sure if you want a loud and boisterous Italian experience or a more intimate, calm dining experience, then head to Trattoria. There are more famous Italian restaurants than this modest establishment, but it's hard to find a more earnest and reliable one. Start off with a caprese, then enjoy their signature Carlesimo with rigatoncelli, pancetta, porcini mushrooms, peas, sun-dried tomatoes, spicy tomato cream sauce, then finish off with tiramisu or spimone. Other restaurants serve these dishes, of course, but the sincerity of the service here and the desire to get things just right really sets this restaurant apart. (4159825728)
8 Sotto Mare
Sotto Mare's old-school Italian ambiance and incredibly fresh fare receive rave reviews from North Beach natives and Bay Area visitors alike. The restaurant is known for its traditional baccala, savory crab cioppino and Boston-style clam chowder, but the menu also features oysters and clams on the half shell, seafood risotto and daily fresh fish selections. Imported beer and wine parings round out an excellent meal. Patrons can also purchase fresh fish for retail value. Sotto Mare is a wonderful example of San Francisco's bountiful bay meeting up with the Italian joy of cooking, so you'll get a healthy bite of both cultures at this memorable restaurant. (415-398-3181)
Elegant and subdued, this intimate restaurant (whose name means "watercolor") exhibits artistry in both cuisine and appearance. Its serene ambience and its vaulted, beamed ceiling evoke Acquerello's former incarnation as a chapel. Contemporary Italian dishes are the main draw, though, and a frequently-changing menu features dishes like parsley-encrusted pork loin, beef carpaccio with hearts of palm and black truffles, and tuna in fennel-dill crust with saffron sauce. The wine list features fine Italian and California vintages. And co-owner Mr. Paterlini, a native of Bologna, has an acclaimed talent for pairing food with the ideal wines, so don't hesitate to ask for recommendations. (415-567-5432)
6 L'Osteria del forno
Given the size of the kitchen, it's hard to believe that so much tasty food springs from a lone oven. Its bounty includes thin-crust pizzas, fragrant foccacia, skewered lamb, a daily roast and baked pastas. Another favorite, milk-braised roast pork, also elicits raves from regulars. The restaurant has only a handful of tables, so waits are common, but the owners prefer the immediacy of small groups and the pleasure of genuine attention. A short wine list is available, and prices are extremely reasonable. Not a good spot for large groups, but an excellent choice for couples who want an intimate dining experience. (415-982-1124)
5 Rose Pistola
This chic restaurant specializes in Ligurian fare, native to Italy's northwestern region. Seafood is prominent, and cioppino is especially well-prepared. Other possibilities include roasted rabbit, panzanella, and wood-fired pizzas. Plus, menu items change from time-to-time, regularly offering new options. Hip locals often frequent the establishment, taking advantage of family-style meals and lively atmosphere. A 2011 major re-design kept some of the beauty of the old architecture but opened up the space to allow for a more modern and lively atmosphere. You'll also find live jazz on the weekends. Of all the North Beach restaurants up and down Columbus Avenue, Rose Pistola is a consistent bet for a good night out. (415-399-0499)
4 La Traviata
As the name would indicate, this Italian restaurant takes opera as seriously as it does cuisine. Polished woods and opera-themed art set the scene for a wealth of delicious dishes, including veal, poultry, seafood, and pastas. Expanding the options are such specialties as gnocchi, sweetbreads, parchment-baked salmon, and grilled eggplant. The family-owned place is a great destination for romantic dinners too. The convenient location near 24rth and Mission puts you right by several MUNI stops and a main BART stop, so this restaurant is accessible no matter where you're staying in San Francisco. After dinner, the never-ending energy of the Mission District is right at your feet. (415-282-0500)
This casual French-Italian bistro is the perfect choice for a savory meal without all the fuss or gimmickry associated with some restaurants. Great food is the focus, as proven by succulent roasted chicken, duck confit, and a practiced preparation of steak frites. A small wine list is available by the bottle or glass. The space, albeit small, provides for easy interaction with other diners, a nice benefit of the cozy locality. If you're looking for a romantic night out, start off at Florio's and then wander up and down Fillmore, maybe catching some jazz at the brand new SF Jazz Center. (415-775-4300)
Simplicity and authenticity reign at this small, popular restaurant. Zinc tabletops and exotic hardwoods bear this out, as does the incomparable Italian fare with its top-notch ingredients. Treat yourself with grilled calamari salad, braised rabbit, steak frites, roasted chicken, or salmon with fresh vegetables. Although Delfina has garnered much acclaim since it premiered, the trattoria still delights with casual ambience, friendly service and satisfyingly reasonable prices -- all boons to dining aficionados. Delfina is highly regarded not just locally but nationally, so if you have time for only one Italian meal on your trip, you can't go wrong with Delfina. (415-552-4055)
Perbacco is a well-respected, successful Italian restaurant in San Francisco's Financial District. Perbacco, an Italian word expressing pleasure and surprise (as well as a reference to Bacchus, the god of wine), is the perfect name for a ristorante steeped in Italian culture. Located in the city's Financial District, Perbacco is a spot trusted by everyone from big-money bankers to those tourists who are looking for an authentic Italian meal. Chef Terje has created a menu focused on the refined cuisine of Piemonte; he offers pure, ingredient-driven dishes reflecting the commitment to handcrafted food. He often visits the local farmer's markets himself to make sure he's getting the freshest locally-sourced ingredients. (4159550663)
About Tom Molanphy
The only thing that Tom Molanphy loves more than the food, art, music, and culture of San Francisco is sharing it with others. San Francisco never gets old for Tom! Tom has lived in the San Francisco Bay area since 2000. He teaches writing, journalism and literature at the Academy of Art University in downtown San Francisco. His latest book, Loud Memories Of A Quiet Life, is available through Outpost19.
Read more about Tom Molanphy here.