California’s only Istrian restaurant, Albona Ristorante Istriano is situated on quiet, tree-lined Francisco Street on the upper end of North Beach. If you’ve never visited, it is small, elegant and timeless, and defies easy categorization.

Istria is a peninsula on the northern Adriatic Sea shared by three nations: Italy, Slovenia and Croatia. Along with the varied influences of the Adriatic coast, the cuisine shows elements of all three traditions, and Albona’s refined take on that cuisine has been thrilling San Francisco diners for 29 years.

Ravioli at Albona - Joe Content

Albona’s housemade ravioli in a sage and brown butter sauce. | Photo: J. Bonadio

Since 1997, the kitchen at Albona has been helmed by Chef Samuel Hernandez. His cooking is as lush as it is precise, and his cozy, quiet restaurant still garners shining reviews, drawing a coterie of adoring regulars. Earlier this week, Hernandez was nice enough to take time out of his busy schedule to talk with us.

It’s your 20th year in North Beach. Congratulations. Did you ever expect to be here this long?


How did you first come to the neighborhood?

I was working at Bix, and Bruno [Viscovi, Albona’s founder] came looking for me. He was looking for a chef, and I came down to Albona. I fell in love with the place at once.

Since 1997, I’ve been there cooking, and working–and loving it.

Chifeleti in sirloin sauce, a specialty of Chef Samuel’s grandmother. | Photo: J. Bonadio

So when did you take the place over?

2008. Bruno retired, and I became partners with Bruno’s nephew Michael. After two years, in 2010, Michael left to do something else.

So I took over the business, and my wife and I have been running it ever since.

You have a unique reputation in the neighborhood. In a place with so many restaurants, what do you think it is that makes you stand out here?

There are a few things. Of course, I love the food. But also, I love the fact that you can talk to people here. It’s not noisy. We have classical music in the background, it’s a nice quiet place where you can have a conversation. I find that people love us for that.

Another thing: my wife Beatriz and I are always in the restaurant. I’m cooking or doing something else in the kitchen, or I’m in the dining room making sure customers are happy. My wife is cooking, or baking or taking care of some other thing that needs attention. Every single night, with no exception. Today, that’s very rare.

Veal Chop at Albona - Joe Content

Braised veal shank on a bed of polenta at Albona Ristorante Istriano. | Photo: J. Bonadio

You’ve stayed in North Beach for two decades. What do you like most about this place?

North Beach has everything: the weather, the people, the food, everything. It’s one of those neighborhoods that doesn’t really change. You can go to a coffee shop today that is exactly the way it was thirty years ago.

Many times, we go to a restaurant and have the same waiter from ten years ago, twenty years ago. That’s what I love! It’s not like the Mission District where they’ve changed everything, so that you don’t even recognize it anymore. North Beach….wants to stay the same.

In the same way, Albona stays the same. Even though many years have passed, you’ll still find the same style of food I was cooking with Bruno back then.

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The city of Rovinj in Istria. | Photo:

How did you first get into fine dining?

Back in 1993, one of my good friends Aaron Noveshen (co-founder of Pacific Catch) was a chef at La Scene on Geary, and I worked in the kitchen with him. He moved on to work with Alain Rondelli, one of the country’s best chefs. They needed a pantry chef, and he called me.

So I moved to Alain Rondelli, and that was truly a blessing. [Editor’s Note: One of the most vaunted chefs in San Francisco history, Rondelli sold his eponymous Richmond District restaurant in 1998.] At the time I was 22 and Rondelli was 26, and we worked together. Back then we didn’t have Google or anything like that, and he taught me all the secrets of the kitchen. After we closed the restaurant we would stay late, and the whole time I was learning. How to make foie gras, how to make all this wonderful stuff. He was my tutor, my mentor.

And when they closed three years later, I found that having Alain Rondelli on my resumé meant a big-time opportunity. So I went to work at Enzo’s in Oakland Hills, and then I came to Bix here in the city.

Chef Samuel hosting a table of very happy diners. | Photo: Ellen W./Yelp

How long were you at Bix?

Not too long, maybe a year. Then I came to Albona.

I loved Bix, but when Bruno showed me the cuisine at Albona, I knew I wanted to do something like that. Because it was a different approach. Simple things with high-end flavors, that’s what I like. Just like Italian food.

Your menu changes seasonally. For someone who hasn’t eaten with you, how would you describe the food?

Well, our cuisine is Istrian, so you have to look at the weather there. You have only six months of sunny days there, and the rest of the year it’s very cold.

So we use things like sauerkraut, something that Italians don’t really use. We use a lot of paprika, and we use cumin and nutmeg. Albona’s food is food you can have any day. We like to do different things, because we know we have a different clientele. So if you want a nice pasta, we have a homemade pasta for you, but if you want a nice rack of lamb you can have that too, or filet mignon. But at their base, all of the flavors are Istrian.

Albona is open for dinner every day but Monday.

Albona Ristorante Istriano
545 Francisco Street
San Francisco, CA 94133