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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; a16sf.com)
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; berettasf.com)
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; delfinasf.com)
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; duccasf.com)
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; farinafoods.com)
Incanto, opened in 2002, emphasizes local and sustainable ingredients (the herbs are grown on the roof), with chef Chris Cosentino making a cultish philosophy of head-to-tail charcuterie. The restaurant has a Tuscan accent, though Cosentino says his region of Italy is “California,” since that’s where he gets his ingredients. The menu, which changes daily, features odd cuts and offal paired with in-season produce: porchetta di testa with capers, radish, and pecorino; pig’s trotter with foie gras, bacon, and strawberry-rhubarb jam; salsiccia with braised fennel, pickled pepers, and arugula; and pork shoulder with rhubarb and favas. This summer, Cosentino opens Boccalone Salumeria, in the Ferry Building Market Place; the store will sell a full complement of salted pig parts. (1550 Church St.; 415-641-4500; incanto.biz)
La Ciccia, tucked away in the unpretentious Outer Mission area, is the only Sardinian restaurant in town (and perhaps the only one west of the Mississippi). Chef Massimiliano Conti and partner/general manager Lorella Degan’s mom-and-pop place opened two years ago, showcasing Conti’s home cuisine (he’s from a small town near Cagliari), which is light and simple, emphasizing fresh fish. Sardinians flock to this restaurant for its bottarga; spaghetti with dried tuna heart; delicate sardines; calamari with broccoli rabe, capers, and peppers; and gelato of Pecorino and fig. “La Ciccia” means prosperity—and also a cute, chubby belly. You leave with a happy feeling of both. (291 30th St.; 415-550-8114; laciccia.com)
The huge, sleek downtown Perbacco focuses on northern Italian food, and chef Staffan Terje is dedicated to his house-made salume; the dishes range from non e un gran che (no big deal) to divine. Everything about Perbacco is sprawling: the menu, the wine list, the space; it has an authentically modern Milanese feel. After a tasting plate of house-made salume, and a few appetizers—slow-roasted veal in lemon and albacore tuna sauce with capers and arugula; burrata cheese with friarelli peppers and white anchovy on arugula; roasted pears with red and white endive, gorgonzola, and chestnut honey vinaigrette—come some hearty primi. Ricotta gnocchi with wild-mushroom brodo and roasted torpedo onion; borlotti bean minestra with cavolo nero; and hand-cut tagliatelle with five-hour pork sugo and porcini mushrooms have a strong Piemontese accent, as do the mains (sea scallops on the piastra, with Barbera bagna cauda; beef short rib stracotto). “Perbacco” is what Italians say when they want to emphasize a positive comment, and there’s a lot of perbacco about Perbacco right now. (230 California St.; 415-955-0663; perbaccosf.com)
Pesce, opened by Ruggero Gadadi in 2000, focuses, naturally, on fish. The emphasis is Venetian, with small cicchetti plates to share, simple pastas with fresh fish, and main dishes of whole fish—but Gadadi, a fan of Sardinian cooking, throws in some dishes from the islands, too. “When my son was three, he ate clams like a little sea otter, so I decided I had to open a fish place,” Galadi says. Octopus, oysters, anchovies, sardines, tuna—the whole school is here, practically still wriggling. (2227 Polk St.; 415-928-8025; pescesf.com)
SPQR, which opened on chic Fillmore Street in late 2007, devotes itself to Rome—the restaurant’s name is short for “the Senate and the Roman people,” the ancient city’s official signature. The tiny restaurant, with its no-reservations policy and elbow-to-elbow seating, feels intimate and chatty, like a corner osteria in Italy. The menu invites you to try a glass of wine—from lesser-known Italian regions—and a few small bites, inevitably leading to a meal. The appetizers are divided into “cold,” “hot,” and “fried,” and are priced at $28 for five plates—you could choose, say, fennel salad with tuna conserva, chiles, and anchovy; cellini beans with pork sofritto; grilled Pecorino with endive, radicchio, and capers; house-made pork sausage with braised fennel; and—definitely—the savory, caramelized fried Brussels sprouts with garlic, capers, lemon, and parsley. The house-made pastas are truly Roman, like pasta carbonara with guanciale, and those with truly hearty appetites can continue on to meat-concentrated entrées and light desserts. (1911 Fillmore St.; 415-771-7779; spqrsf.com)