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 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 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 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.


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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Just when you think you couldn't try another bowl of pasta or one more slice of pizza pie, this trendy but warm North Beach pizzeria makes you an offer you can't refuse. This Tuscan-style restaurant feels like home because it's as tight and cozy as a home, with Mamma Steffania rolling the pizza crusts so thin and delicate it's amazing all the flavor they can hold on top. Add a generous carafe of red wine -but leaving room for their delectable desserts - and you'll be happy you made time for this happy and friendly North Beach Italian restaurant. Buon Appetito!

Recommended for North Beach's Best Restaurants because: Cafe Baonecci is a hidden gem often overlooked in North Beach that shouldn't be missed.

Tom's expert tip: Hard to go wrong with any of their specialty pizzas, but the Pizza Napoletana (San Marzano tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, capers, anchovies) is a top choice.

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Michelangelo Ristorante & Caffe
Photo courtesy of Tom Molanphy

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 Bruschetta 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 are 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 spoil you with generosity. Daily menu specials offer unique flavors and memories of Italy.

Recommended for North Beach's Best Restaurants because: Out of all the North Beach restaurants, Michelangelo is most famous for its gnocchi.

Tom's expert tip: Try the homemade pappardelle boscaiola.

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The Tenderloin

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: the classic Flatiron Steak and Eggs is three square meals on one plate. The breakfast menu offers a good variety of omelets, along with sausage, eggs, ham, and other traditional breakfast items. The retro ambiance includes waiters in tuxedos, and hamburgers come highly recommended. With its signature red leather booths, legendary smooth cocktails, and renowned Italian American menu, 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: Closed due to a fire in 2007. Re-opened late 2009 with a modernized deco that still maintains its traditional style and beauty.

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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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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!

Recommended for North Beach's Best Restaurants because: The bright lights of Calzone's dominate the top of Columbus Street and is an excellent spot for people watching.

Tom's expert tip: With a hopping bar and restaurant service until one in the morning, Calzone's is the perfect late-night North Beach stop.

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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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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.

Recommended for North Beach's Best Restaurants because: Trattoria is an effective blend of intimate space for couples and larger spaces for more social groups.

Tom's expert tip: They take their motto seriously: Lascia i problemi alla porta, or "Leave your problems at the front door."

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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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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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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