Italians—and their cuisines—have been in San Francisco since the 1880s, when Ligurians settled in North Beach; they saved the neighborhood during the 1906 earthquake and fire by uncorking their wine barrels and swaddling the houses with blankets soaked in vino rosso. North Beach has since turned into a warren of Italian restaurants of widely varying quality. (Tourist: Do not venture unguided, and beware Michelangelo murals.) While there have always been standouts from the red-sauce crowd, over the years the cuisine became less authentically Italian and more what people expect from any city’s Little Italy, which has more to do with New Jersey than Naples. Over the past few years, though, the city has undergone a sort of Italian renaissance, with a host of new restaurants returning to the roots of regional Italian cooking, and to the values of preparing simple food with great, seasonal, local ingredients. Here, in alphabetical order, are our ten favorites.
A16 Restaurant
A16 Restaurant, which opened in 2004, focuses solely on Campania, the area around Naples and the Amalfi coast. (A16 is the autostrada that runs through the region.) The restaurant serves chewy, wood-fired pizzas with blistered crusts, house-made salume, and seasonal vegetables (the roasted young favas with green garlic, mint, chiles, and lemon make you glad to have been born) and is always slammed on Meatball Mondays, when diners realize that meatballs (beef/pork with ricotta and prosciutto, say) can actually be light, savory, and delicate. A16’s approach to authenticity is very research-based, with all the staff spending time in Italy, sometimes doing stints at Amalfi restaurants. They’ve also brought back seeds to coax their local farmer to grow frarielli peppers, for instance, which are roasted whole and tossed with tuna conserva. (2355 Chestnut St.; 415-771-2216;
Beretta, opened in April by Ruggero Gadadi, chef-owner of three other San Francisco restaurants, serves up healthy pan-Italian food—and high-quality libations—for the Mission’s cocktail crowd. “It’s a down-to-earth place, like I grew up with in Italy, not fine dining,” says Gadadi. A wide menu of $5 appetizers includes Sicilian cauliflower with capers and sage, eggplant caponatina with oozing burrata cheese, and braised Umbrian lentils with guanciale. Thin-crust pizzas are the mainstay, along with a few risotti—“there are enough pasta places already,” Gadadi says. (1199 Valencia St.; 415-695-1199;
Delfina, which opened in 1998, was one of the first to offer rustic Italian fare in a hip, non-checked-cloth atmosphere. Named after Ristorante da Delfina in Artimino, Tuscany, where chef Craig Stoll worked in 1991, the restaurant brought an artisanal approach to the table, curing its own meats and hand-making its pastas. The uncomplicated dishes—such as a simple grilled calamari with warm white bean salad; a plain but wonderful spaghetti with plum tomatoes, garlic, extra-virgin olive oil, and peperoncini; a delicate halibut with melted leeks and Meyer lemon–caper butter; or a robust squab with a giblet crostino and Garnet cherries in Nebbiolo—let the exceptional ingredients speak for themselves. (3621 18th St.; 415-552-4055;
Ducca, located in the Westin Hotel, is aimed at the swanky downtown crowd but feels more like Italy inside—and on its sunny outdoor terrace. The menu is mainly Venetian, and diners can watch the cooks prepare rustic cicchetti snacks (fried anchovies, salt cod crostini, fried olives stuffed with sweet gorgonzola) at a 12-foot marble bar. The arancini make you wonder that chef Richard Corbo wasn’t born in Italy. The décor pays homage to the Doges Palace and its duca, and the dishes are likewise traditional and a touch aristocratic—yellowtail crudo with pine nut-currant agrodolce and mint; a fluffy soufflé-ish lobster and friulana polenta sformato; a simple pasta e fagioli soup; veal chop Milanese; and a sublime halibut cheek stracotto, with sepia, chickpeas, and a mint and green-chile marinara served over black polenta. (50 3rd St.; 415-977-0271;
Farina, just down the block from Delfina—but considerably flashier—opened last June and features Ligurian cuisine; chef Paolo Laboa is from Genoa. His menu seems like it could have come straight from any of the small restaurants where he cooked in Liguria, beginning at age 13. The focus is on the pasta—especially with pesto, of course—and diners can watch the chefs churn out wide ribbons of tagliatelle or pinch veal-filled tortellini from their perch at a marble counter. The foccaccia de Recco, with Stracchino cheese, is unleavened and practically floats. The cuisine is decidedly authentic. (When the bill comes, it also seems as if it has been converted from Euros; a little foccaccia, appetizers, and a couple of glasses of wine can run $100.) (3560 18th St.; 415-565-0360;
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