When in San Francisco's North Beach, do as the Italians do

The San Francisco restaurant scene is as stable as the city's earthquakey ground. With tech-boom-and-bust money coming and going, 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 were 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 Cafe Jacqueline, 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.


Mama's on Washington Square

Act fast and early - if you're thinking about Mama's after lunch you're out of luck. And you certainly don't want to miss the array of perfectly prepared breakfast foods. Generous portions are standard, whether you order a fluffy omelet, a stack of hotcakes or light, fragrant French toast. If you need them, Mama's also offers healthy egg white creations. Quick service is a staple, but even so, weekend brunch has been known to generate waits thanks to the cafe's popularity. Mama's perfect location in North Beach means you'll be in the right spot for sightseeing and shopping once breakfast is over.

Recommended for North Beach's Best Restaurants because: Although known for the brunch, Mama's tastes great any time.

Tom's expert tip: Mama's offers a fantastic breakfast basket gift stocked with wonderful goodies to take back home.

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Cafe Jacqueline

Long-stemmed roses and candles set the ambience at this small, romantic restaurant. Unique to Cafe Jacqueline is its limited menu, consisting of souffles that serve two. Selections change daily, and such delicious ingredients as crab, truffles, and fresh fruit infuse main-course and dessert dishes with great flavor. French-born chef-owner Jacqueline Marguilis describes these souffles as original works of art. Since each shuffle is made by hand to order, be prepared for a wait. But it's well worth it, and a great reminder of a grander time when people were willing to spend more than just money to get fantastic, sensible food.

Recommended for North Beach's Best Restaurants because: Cafe Jacqueline is one of the most Romantic spots in North Beach - and that's saying a lot.

Tom's expert tip: Romantic restaurant specializes in both sweet and savory souffles.

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Golden Boy Pizza
Photo courtesy of Tom Molanphy

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: focaccia 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!

Recommended for North Beach's Best Restaurants because: Golden Boy has focused on just pizza since 1978.

Tom's expert tip: Impressive beer list for such a small place.

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Caffe Macaroni Sciue Sciue
Photo courtesy of Cafe Macaroni

If you want a simple, cheerful Italian Cafe that makes you feel like you've walked off the street of Rome or Naples, step into Caffe Macaroni Sciue Sciue. At the bottom of the long hike up Columbus Street, the main artery of North Beach, the cafe is in a quieter corner of this popular area. Serving Neapolitan cuisine in the heart of the City since 1990, the restaurant is small but boasts a thoughtful wine list, including a memorable Pinot Grigio. Pasta includes a hearty Spaghetti and beef/pork mixed meatballs, Neapolitan style. there are bigger, more boisterous and certainly more famous Italian restaurants in North beach, but not many can compete with Caffe Macaroni Sciue Sciue's simple style and understated elegance.

Recommended for North Beach's Best Restaurants because: Caffe Macaroni Sciue Sciue may not make all the tourist books as a "must-eat foodie destination," but it's beloved by those locals who know Italian food.

Tom's expert tip: To start, ask for the Pizzaccia, a house specialty mix between pizza and focaccia that changes daily.

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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 this North Beach Restaurant.

Recommended for North Beach's Best Restaurants because: North Beach Restaurant is really the next best thing to eating in Tuscany itself.

Tom's expert tip: North Beach gets its wine from the award-winning Petroni Vineyards.

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Mona Lisa Restaurant
Photo courtesy of Tom Molanphy

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 pasta 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.

Recommended for North Beach's Best Restaurants because: Mona Lisa is one of the most popular tourist restaurants in the city.

Tom's expert tip: Try the Rissota Cacciatore, a house specialty.

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Original Joe's
Photo courtesy of Eric Wolfinger

Founded way back in 1937 and having survived the Great Depression, Original Joe's is a great place to eat. The simplicity of the meals is only outdone by the portions at this Italian American staple, from the showstopping Chicken Parmigiana, which comes lightly breaded topped with signature Joe's marinara sauce and melted monterey jack cheese to Joe's Famous Hamburger Sandwich, served on a fresh sourdough baguette. The dinner menu offers a wide variety of dishes such as a classic House Made Baked Lasagna, Joe's Special (signature scramble of ground beef, spinach, onions, and eggs), and much more. The retro ambiance includes black and white photos of the many memories at Joe's, signature red leather booths, and legendary smooth cocktails reminiscent of the 1920s. Original Joe's has come to signify its own Northern Californian category of food and symbolizes classic Italian American comfort food at its finest.

Recommended for North Beach's Best Restaurants because: Original Joe's is a rare exception in the San Francisco food scene, combining traditional classics with a modern sensibility.

Tom's expert tip: The original location in the Tenderloin closed due to a fire in 2007. It reopened in North Beach in early 2012 with a modernized decor that still maintains its traditional style and beauty.

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Sotto Mare
Photo courtesy of Tom Molanphy

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 pairings 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.

Recommended for North Beach's Best Restaurants because: Sotto Mare serves an excellent cioppino, San Francisco's signature seafood stew.

Tom's expert tip: If you're able to cook fish at home or at your hotel, you can buy fresh fish at Sotto Mare, as well.

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Photo courtesy of Tommaso's

If you're serious about your pizza, head to Tommaso's in North Beach, just off of historic Columbus Street. When the Naples-born Cantalupo family first opened their restaurant in San Francisco's North Beach in 1935, it brought the first wood-fired brick oven to the West Coast and served closely-guarded Neapolitan recipes that their family had been passing down for generations. The simple but warm interior of Tommaso's feels like you've been invited into an Italian family's home for dinner, which is the highest of compliments. And the menu does not disappoint, with enough pasta, salad and pizza options to keep everyone at the family-style tables happy. If you want to experience why food and family are one and the same in Italy, bring your best appetite to Tommaso's.

Recommended for North Beach's Best Restaurants because: Tommaso's has been in North Beach since 1935 and is a highly respected family restarant.

Tom's expert tip: No reservations, so plan for an early dinner if you want to avoid a wait.

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The Stinking Rose
Photo courtesy of Stinking Rose

For those who love their garlic with a side of food, there's no other place in North Beach than the iconic Stinking Rose. Of their many novel and signature dishes, be sure to try the Bagna Calda, or "Garlic Soaking in a Hot Tub," which says everything about the restaurant's lively and fun approach to food. (Their commitment to garlic extends to an impressive Garlic Recipe cookbook, including "The Stinking Rose's 40 Clove Garlic Chicken.") If you're in the mood for a vibrant atmosphere, head to The Stinking Rose, where their playful approach to Italian cuisine serves up a fine meal at reasonable prices.

Recommended for North Beach's Best Restaurants because: The Stinking rose has old world charm mixed with a sense of fun, making for a memorable and unique San Francisco meal.

Tom's expert tip: The Stinking Rose moved up the street from their old location and took over Calzone's.

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Meet 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...  More About Tom