When in North Beach, do as the Italians do
By Tom Molanphy
San Francisco Local Expert
The San Francisco restaurant scene is as stable as the city's earthquakey ground. With the latest tech-boom pouring money into the city, new restaurants are popping up left and right, each one declaring itself the latest and greatest in culinary delights. There's nothing wrong with innovation, but once you've gotten your fill of the California cuisine craze, take a trip back to the old country, to a place and time when the only questions about how to prepare food was how much and how hot.
North Beach, San Francisco's iconic Italian neighborhood, can bring you back to those simpler times. Whether you want the boisterous family style atmosphere of Calzone's or a more intimate table for two at L'Osteria del Forno, North Beach has every occasion covered. Put yourself in the hands of a culture that eats, drinks and breathes - in that order. The North Beach neighborhood reflects the Italian understanding that a meal is not just made of food on a plate; it's made of the atmosphere, the service, the smiles and the laughter that make that experience unforgettable. If you want to be surrounded by people who love food for food's sake, pick a restaurant on our list, unloosen your belt, and head to North Beach.
10 Michelangelo Ristorante & Caffe
When you visit Michelangelo Ristorante & Caffe which is located in the heart of North Beach, you're in for a real special treat. First, We welcome you as part of the Family with warm greetings and cheer.Then we start you off with our Famous Bruscetta appetizer, Fresh Bread and a mixture of marinated Italian Olives on the house. You will experience our off-the-pier-fresh seafood, fresh vegetables, scrumptious sauces and many of our mouthwatering dishes.Our chef is renowned for his creative combinations of fresh spices and sauces that make up the Authentic Italian food recipes. The Gnocchi and Lasagna is homemade to give you a flavor of real Italy's taste. Our warm and charming atmosphere and service will instantly relax you while our Host and owner spoils you with generosity. Daily menu specials offer unique flavors and memories of Italy. (4159864085)
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 Mona Lisa Restaurant
If you're not in the mood for some quiet, off-the-beaten-path cafe that only a few have heard of, then make it a Mona Lisa night. From its auspicious spot in the heart of North Beach, everything about this place clamors for your tourist dollar. The pastas and salads are as loud and generous as the inside furnishings, which includes busts of Caesar and Italian flags draped in almost every corner. The staff are all trained to expect not just your dollars but your questions, so don't be shy about asking not just about your meal but about tips on the best places to visit in North Beach. (415-989-4917)
Calzone's blinding red neon lights might remind you of a certain fast food joint, but don't worry: behind all the flash is quite a bit of substance. If you're looking for a full meal, try their oddly shaped, oblong, thin-crust pizza with tasteful toppings like marinated eggplant and goat cheese. Or their unique Italian potstickers, an inventive take on the ancient Chinese delicacy. If you're just in the need of a drink, you can usually find a spot at their generous bar. But if you're a professional people-watcher, it's hard to beat Calzone's outside tables that run along boisterous Columbus Avenue. Grab a cappuccino and sit down for a feast for the eyes! (4153973600)
6 Chiaroscuro Ristorante
Located on the edges of San Francsco's North Beach, Chinatown and the Financial District, Chef Alessandro Campitelli is proud to welcome you to the next evolution of chiaroscuro ristorante. His classic Roman style Italian cuisine is balanced with a redesigned sleek and modern ambiance that refreshes the Italian scene in San Francisco. Chiaroscuro (Italian for clear-dark) is a term in art for a contrast between light and dark. The term is usually applied to bold contrasts affecting a whole composition, but is also more technically used by artists and art historians for the use of effects representing contrasts of light, not necessarily strong, to achieve a sense of volume in modelling three-dimensional objects such as the human body. (4153626012)
5 Golden Boy Pizza
If all you want to do in North Beach is eat pizza, head to North Beach's pizza institution, Golden Boy Pizza. Peter Sodini started his pizza enterprise in 1978, and it's expanded to several other locations. Sodini's sons have taken over the business, but they still keep to Sodini's simple approach to pizza: foccacia bread, cheese, and pizza toppings. The adherence to this simple recipe for over thirty years has been the secret to the place's success, creating a loyal, local fan base that spreads the word about Golden Boy Pizza like they're talking about their mother's kitchen. Get your hot slice here! (415-982-9738)
4 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)
3 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)
2 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)
1 North Beach Restaurant
The time and energy that North Beach Restaurant did not expend on its name, they have fully used on their atmosphere, staff training, menu and preparing an overall dining service as close to Italy that you'll find in San Francisco. Lorenzo Petroni and Bruno Orsi have worked tirelessly since 1970 to perfect their own version of Tuscan cuisine, and not just through the freshest and most authentic ingredients, but also by adding Florentine floor tiles, Carrara marble, Venetian granite, hand-crafted cherry wood paneling, and vaulted ceilings created by Italian craftsmen. If you're looking for a full-blown Italian meal, you should head straight to North Beach Restaurant. (4153921700)
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.