San Francisco's Italian Restaurants Cook Up the City's Best Comfort Food

Photo courtesy of Florio
Photo courtesy of used in book.
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. Buca di Beppo - San Francisco

Whether your large group consists of family, friends or even people you just met on your San Francisco trip, Buca di Beppo is loud and proud about its boisterous-style of Italian cuisine. Since the meals are served "family-style" - large portions that are meant to be passed around and shared - the atmosphere of the meal lends itself to conversation, laughter, and a general sense of flexibility and fun. The food is simple but filling, perfect for those picky eaters out there. For example, who can turn down "Cheesy Bread Florentine," which features parmesan, mozzarella, provolone, spinach, roma tomatoes, garlic and Alfredo sauce melted on top of our house-baked Italian bread.

9. Spiazzo Ristorante
Photo courtesy of SinglePlatform

If you want quality Italian food but don't feel like fighting the crowds - or the hills - of North Beach, consider Spiazzo Ristorante in the quaint San Francisco neighborhood of West portal. Easily accessible by MUNI, West Portal feels like a village within a city, and a night at Spiazzo can feel like a trip to simpler times. The owners know what makes a classic Italian meal: healthy portions and happy service - and the extensive wine list, featuring both domestic and Italian wines, certainly doesn't hurt. The ambiance is warm and welcoming, and the overall experience feels very much like a family meal.

8. Trattoria Contadina
Photo courtesy of Florio

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.

7. Ottimista Enoteca-Café
Photo courtesy of Photopedia

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.

6. Sotto Mare
Photo courtesy of 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.

5. 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.

4. Florio
Photo courtesy of Florio

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.

3. Acquerello
Photo courtesy of Acquerello Facebook Page

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.

2. Perbacco

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.

1. Delfina
Photo courtesy of used in book.

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.