When in San Francisco's 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. Cafe Baonecci
Photo courtesy of Caffe Baonecci

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!

9. 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.

8. 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.

7. Original Joe's
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia

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 ambience 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.

6. Golden Boy Pizza
Photo courtesy of used in book.

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!

5. Calzone's
Photo courtesy of Facebook

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!

4. 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.

3. Mona Lisa Restaurant
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia

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.

2. 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.

1. 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.