As San Francisco’s Little Italy, North Beach is lined with first-class Italian restaurants, including Tony’s Pizza Napoletana and Mama’s on Washington Square. The eateries here eschew bells and whistles for classics you can always count on.
Restaurant, Mexican, $$$
Though North Beach is more known for its Italian food, Mexican restaurant Don Pistos is definitely worth a visit. The unmarked brick building is easy to overlook; keep an eye out for the red lamps above the windows and the animated crowd inside feasting on tacos and flavorful Mexican sashimi. Call to make a reservation and you’ll soon find yourself sipping on margaritas made with agave wine – Don Pistos only serves wine and beer. The hero at this bustling spot is the whole Maine lobster flash-fried in house-rendered and seasoned pork fat and served with rice, beans and to-die-for house-made griddled tortillas.
There’s great Italian food all over North Beach, but some of the best pasta you’ll find is at The Italian Homemade Company. At this counter-service spot, you get to pick your pasta and sauce. A small space with a few high-top tables, some stools and friendly staff, the restaurant may appear unassuming from the outside – but the reason there are almost always fast-moving lines out the door is because the food is simple, fresh and satisfying.
People have been lining up around the block for Mama’s famous brunch for over 50 years. Walking into the quaint diner, housed in a Victorian building, feels like stepping back in time thanks to the colorful, mismatched fabric tablecloths and kitsch decorative items lining the walls. The affordable food is the shining star, with a menu ranging from giant omelettes, an array of benedicts and the famous Monte Cristo sandwich. The freshly baked breads and pastries and the home-made jams are also popular, and best of all can be picked up to-go at the venue’s Bake Shop.
Molinari has been around since 1896, making it the oldest deli west of the Rockies. It’s also one of San Francisco’s most popular, which is evident by the constant crowds waiting to order one of the 35 loaded Italian sandwiches served on eight different kinds of bread. The Italian Combo, featuring a range of cold cuts and provolone cheese, is a classic. Order it on dutch crunch and then take it up the street to enjoy in Washington Square Park.
Park Tavern is a classic bar-and-grill with a stylish vibe and high-end bistro fare that’s worth every penny. The always bustling restaurant features dishes such as the Marlowe Burger and the crispy brussels sprouts chips, as well as classic tavern fare like steak frites. There are also homages to the Italian history of the neighborhood in the form of a mussel puttanesca and a ricotta and mozzarella ravioli. Prop up the marble bar with a cocktail or head for the Park Tavern’s patio, which overlooks Washington Square Park, where you can enjoy a lazy weekend brunch.
This small neighborhood spot with a nautical vibe offers excellent seafood and enormous portions. Everything at Sotto Mare is incredibly fresh, and much of it is wild caught. The oysters make an indulgent starter, but the highlight of the menu is what’s known as the Best Damn Crab Cioppino. This is a dish you won’t want to share, despite the fact that it’s more than big enough for two. A penne pasta bowl brimming with shrimp, clams, mussels, crab and scallops, it features a sauce so delicious you’ll be asking for extra sourdough to sop it up.
What else do you need to know about Tony Gemignani’s pizza other than that he is a 13-time World Pizza Champion? Tony Gemignani serves his famous pizza all over the Bay Area and as far afield as Nevada. However, Tony’s Pizza Napoletana in North Beach was his first-ever restaurant and remains the place to find the best slices in town. The restaurant has seven pizza ovens, including gas, electric, wood-fired and coal-fired, so that each regional style of pizza can be cooked properly. It’s well worth going back time and time again to find out which is your favorite.