I’ve got my cappuccino, my laptop and a perfect view of the street. Sometimes I close my eyes and listen to the sounds of the city. Three old guys behind me are arguing about the state of politics in Italy. No wait, now it’s something about a soccer match. I open my eyes and readjust to the bright sunlight and to the reality: I’m not in Italy, I’m in North Beach, San Francisco’s Italian neighborhood.
Columbus Avenue, lined with lampposts painted with the Italian flag, stretches from Broadway all the way to Fisherman’s Wharf. I often myself coming here to get my much-needed, Italian “fix”. It’s not a cure for what ails me, but spending time here provides temporary relief. North Beach is a unique place full of history, weird characters and Italians – lots and lots of Italians. The following are my 7 favorite tastes of Italy…
In 1956 (years before Starbucks was a twinkle in Jerry Baldwin’s eye), Giovanni Giotta opened Caffe’ Trieste. “Papa Gianni” is credited with bringing espresso to the West Coast and starting what has become today’s coffee craze. Trieste was a meeting place for famous authors, artists and hipsters like Beat Generation writers Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Francis Ford Coppola wrote The Godfather, and Luciano Pavarotti performed arias from this little coffee house on the corner of Vallejo Street and Grant Avenue.
http://www.caffetrieste.com; 609 Vallejo Street, SF 94133 (415)982-2605
Taste No. 2: The National Shrine of St. Francis of Assisi
On the corner of Vallejo Street and Columbus Avenue sits a replica of “Porziuncola” the small chapel where Saint Francis found his vocation and rejected all his worldly possessions. La Porziuncola Nuova was dedicated in 2008, and declared the Fifth Holy Site of the Catholic Church by Pope Benedict XVI. Engraved into the steps outside the entrance are the words of the city’s namesake, “Voglio Tutti in Paradiso” (“I want all in Heaven”).
624 Vallejo Street, SF 94133; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WMxDdB2ElB8
Taste No. 3: Biordi Art Imports
Exit the gate of the Shrine and hang a right, but don’t blink or you might pass it. You have arrived at another North Beach institution (est. in 1946), Biordi Art Imports. Gianfranco Savio was 33 years old when he arrived from Florence, speaking Italian (naturally) and French, but not much English. He landed his first job at Holy Names School as an Italian teacher, then in 1977, he went to work for Emilio Biordi. Back then the store sold mostly Italian cookware (Chuck Williams of Williams-Sonoma bought pots from Biordi) and when Emilio decided to retire, Gianfranco made him an offer to take over the shop. With the “made in Italy” movement in its infancy, “Gian” siezed the opportunity to be the first to import Italian majolica ceramics to the U.S. Biordi’s exquisite artisan pottery has been featured on cooking shows such as Jacques Pepin and The Frugal Gourmet, and has donned the covers of hundreds of books and magazines. His daughter, Sonia, has worked in the store since the age of 7, and is now its photographer and website/catalog designer.
http://www.biordi.com/; 412 Columbus Avenue, SF 94133 (415)392-8096
Taste No. 4: Saints Peter and Paul Church (Ss. Pietro e Paolo)
Located on Filbert Street, across from Washington Square Park, this Roman Catholic Church is sometimes referred to as La cattedrale d’Italia ovest (The Italian Cathedral of the West). Generally considered the geographical center of North Beach, the church’s steeples can be seen from miles away. In 1999 Joe DiMaggio‘s funeral was held in the Church, and movies such as Dirty Harry, The Ten Commandments and Sister Act 2 were all filmed on location here.
666 Filbert Street, SF 94133
Taste No. 5: Molinari Delicatessen
Molinari’s homemade Salami is legendary, as are their made-to-order sandwiches. This classic delicatessen is a cornucopia of smells and tastes – a feast for your eyes, as well as your stomach. In the shop you can find products that you can’t find anywhere else in the city!
http://www.molinarisalame.com/; 373 Columbus Avenue, San Francisco (415)421-2337
There are two kinds of Roman trattorias: One has mean or indifferent waiters who fling plates of pasta at you before you’ve finished your appetizer. Ideale is the other kind. Owner and Chef Maurizio Bruschi created an authentic Roman experience just off buzzy Grant Avenue. The mouth-watering pastas and thin-crust pizzas are prepared with simple and fresh ingredients, and the sleek, contemporary interiors combine to make Ideale, ideal.
http://www.idealerestaurant.com/; 1315 Grant Ave, SF 94133 (415)391-4129
Taste No. 7: Caffe’ Greco
Modeled after the historic coffee bar near Piazza di Spagna in Rome, this Caffe Greco’s espresso and cappuccinos are almost as delicious (and half the price). Keats and Shelly were regulars at the Eternal City’s establishment, so it makes you wonder if one of the computer-pounding, Facebook-using bloggers sitting in the window will one day be a famous novelist or poet?
http://www.caffegreco.com/; 423Columbus Ave, SF 94133 (415)397-6261
I not only love this neighborhood, I need it. North Beach is a sovereign state-of-mind, a pseudo country contained within a 6-square mile radius. For those early settlers who built this neighborhood as their home-away-from-home, I doubt they ever imagined it would become a sort of sanctuary to many looking for a “little slice of Italy” in her own backyards.