Buon Appetito from North Beach!
A return visit to San Francisco's "Little Italy" hits the spot
It’s summer, and, like so many other people, we’re on the road again. Our travels brought us back to a favorite part of a beloved city—San Francisco’s North Beach. Historically a neighborhood with a large Italian population that is sometimes referred to as “Little Italy,” it also happens to border on the oldest U.S. Chinatown with one of the largest Chinese populations outside of China and is walking distance (everything is walking distance in this part of the city if you’re up for a few hills!) from the city’s famous Fisherman’s Wharf.
This is our third visit to the North Beach since the start of the pandemic. The first in the summer of 2020 was as depressing as could be, the area having turned into a near ghost town, with stores and restaurants closed, hotels empty, and tourists and workers almost completely absent. A year later, things were starting to perk up, though very slowly. The city has experienced some bad press over thefts and homelessness—something that is plaguing quite a number of American cities. But on this visit, we have felt safe, happy—and very well-fed.
North Beach is so colorful I thought I’d share some pictures of the marvelous food we ate while enjoying the scenery in this amazing part of the city (plus a little side excursion to the Mission District). It happened to be Gay Pride Weekend, with even the famous 210-foot Coit Tower lit up in rainbow shades.
My husband Jeff, collecting material for several Photowalks episodes, interviewed Nick Mastrelli, a fourth-generation owner/proprietor of the Molinari’s Delicatessen, at the same Columbus Avenue location since moving there following the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. (Below is Jeff’s excellent YouTube video, including clips from his late father Jerry Graham’s Bay Area Backroads North Beach episode from the 1990s. It’s a kick!)
If you crave a great sandwich—or any Italian food or beverage product for that matter—Molinari’s is the place to go. Jeff couldn’t help ordering the Molinari Special Italian Combo, which includes “one of everything” of the deli’s signature cold cuts, most made in-house. Of course it was delicious!
With a depressing number of restaurant closures in the area, including one of the oldest, Original U.S. Restaurant, and a favorite, Trattoria Volare Cafe, we feared we wouldn’t get our Italian food fix. Happily, we were wrong. We counted more than 30 restaurants, cafes and bakeries serving up everything from fresh-baked focaccia (Liguria Bakery) to Roman-style pizza (Piccolo Forno) to cannoli (Mara’s Italian Pastry, Victoria Pastry and Stella Pastry & Cafe, and more!) to a beautiful Spumoni Bomba (Luisa’s—see lead photo above).
A Side Trip to the Mission District
We took a break from all that pizza and cannoli to spend a morning in San Francisco’s Mission District, which locals usually refer to simply as “The Mission.” We visited the Mission San Francisco de Asís, known as Mission Dolores, after which the area is named.
Founded in 1776, the same year the Declaration of Independence was signed, it’s the oldest intact building in San Francisco—something which has more meaning when you consider that more than 80 percent of the city was destroyed in the fire following the 1906 earthquake.
The mission sits modestly next to its magnificent neighbor, Mission Dolores Basilica, built more than 100 years later, but is definitely worth seeing in its own right, along with the beautiful and heartbreaking cemetery in the back, filled with weathered gravestones, many marking the deaths of infants and young adults, a large number of them Irish immigrants who died in the mid-19th century. The cemetery, once much larger, is also thought to have been the burial site for almost 6,000 Native Americans.
While peering into a store window filled with art and mural supplies, we met artist Ernesto Paul, who has painted many of the murals in the area on commission, including one on the exterior and interior of a laundromat and another on the outside of a liquor store.
With all the homelessness and misery he sees on the street, Ernesto feels that the proliferation of murals helps promote health and well-being in the city, which includes some 1,000 murals.
“La cultura cura la locura,” he said, translating the Spanish for us: “Culture cures the craziness.”
Of course, I feel that eating local food is part of that cure—and we did a little of that in the Mission at a local taco bar that bills itself as the “best” in the city, Taqueria Vallarta. I sampled some delicious tacos—one with chicken and another with tongue—lengua.
And Back in North Beach…
We ended our visit back in North Beach where we shared—what else?—a glorious Roman-style pizza from Piccolo Forno called a pinsa, which is being touted as a new and lighter type of this favorite finger food. Apparently it’s not really new but a traditional way of making pizza in Rome, with a more rustic, freeform crust that’s pressed down with the fingers rather than being roll out. Our pinsa was covered in marinara, mozzarella, mushrooms and homemade sausage. We fought with each other for every crumb and licked our fingers afterwards.
Now that’s amore!
My brother Michael passed away exactly four months ago today. July 2 would have been his 63rd birthday, a day he was delighted to share with his son Josh. Michael died before his time. He had many dreams he fulfilled and others he didn’t, but he was a wonderful brother, father and friend. I miss him every day.
Thanks for reading this edition of Ruth Talks Food and for your “likes,” comments and, especially, for being a subscriber. If you enjoy this newsletter, please share it with a friend.
Wishing you all a safe, happy and delicious Fourth of July! See you next time.