I’m a food guy, and as anyone in my orbit can attest, this is nothing new. I’ve always been this way, largely due to my Italian grandmother’s influence. For Grandma, food was the primary activity; when I was growing up, she almost always had a houseful of appreciatively hungry offspring, talking, arguing, but mostly waiting to eat. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my grandmother was teaching me fundamental lessons about food–and about living. In her house, meals were not something to be rushed, or to be fit in between other priorities. They were the priority.

It took some time for me to fully absorb this truth, and even longer to make it a part of my daily life. But now, years later, I run my kitchen much like Angelina Bonadio did. I cook fresh food from the farmer’s market, heavy on the vegetables, just about every day (Grandma didn’t have a farmer’s market to go to then, or that’s surely where she would have shopped). There is always something on the stove. To this day I still show up with food wherever I go, and half of my recipes hearken back to something this sweet, diminutive woman made for me at one point or another.

A plate of Petrale sole at North Beach’s Sotto Mare. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

I say this by explanation: these are just a few of the reasons that I’m such a rabid fan of San Francisco’s Sotto Mare. I’ve written extensively about them in these pages, but I don’t know that I’ve ever done a proper review of the place. Having visited a couple of times just recently, I think this is as good a time as any.

With no exaggeration, I can’t imagine having a much better piece of fish anywhere. – Joe Bonadio Click to Tweet
The place sits on Green Street roughly in the center of North Beach, in a narrow space crowded with photos and souvenirs; there is so much memorabilia and bric-a-brac inside Sotto Mare, it’s hard to believe they’ve only been here 11 years. The main idea here is seafood, as fresh as can be found, prepared simply, Italian-style. The special board is updated every day: salmon, Petrale sole, sand dabs, black cod–and everything caught that morning.

This past weekend, my order was simple, and I confess to being a creature of habit in this regard: if Sotto Mare has salmon on the special board, I’m having it. I specify medium rare, and get the butter-garlic-caper sauce on the side. With no exaggeration, I can’t imagine having a much better piece of fish anywhere. Served up alongside seasonal vegetables lightly sautéed in olive oil (it was broccoli rabe and golden beets this time around), it’s one of my favorite meals in San Francisco.

Sotto Mare’s stellar seafood linguine waits at the pass. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

My tablemate wisely opted for my runner-up choice: the Petrale sole. A delicate fish that has been harvested off our Pacific coast since the late 1800’s, Petrale suffers in the hands of an inferior chef, and is often overcooked. At Sotto Mare, the dish shines. I’ve heard more than one friend claim this is the best sole they’ve ever eaten, and having eaten my share, can’t disagree.

Lest I forget, we started our meal with an all-time favorite appetizer of mine: Benita’s Baccala. A whitefish that is air-dried and stripped from the bone, then pulverized into a brandade or spread, this is one of the most flavorful dishes on Sotto Mare’s menu. If you’ve had salt cod, this is very similar–but in an Italian style. A proprietary family recipe, it’s served at room temperature, and meant to be eaten with the fresh house bread (a sweet loaf made specially made for Sotto Mare by Boudin Bakery). It’s simply spectacular.

Eight pans, three pots and a penny for your thoughts: William bosses the kitchen at Sotto Mare. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

Of course, the thing that made these guys famous is their Cioppino. The Best Damn Cioppino is the motto that has graced Sotto Mare’s menu since they opened the place eleven years ago, and trust me, it’s not just marketing. You need a wingman to tackle this dish (they say it’s for two, but even that’s generous), so I don’t order it very often. But a recent visitor from the East Coast was not to be deterred, so on a fair Friday in March I found myself bellying up to their bustling counter, strapping on an apron.

Cioppino, if you are unfamiliar, is a tomato-based seafood stew of sorts that combines crab legs, prawns, scallops and cod in a rich brodo that cooks for 16 hours. The name sounds Italian, but it’s not: it comes from the Italian fishermen who used to dock in the Wharf, who would “chip in” some of their catch to make a stew for everyone.

At Sotto Mare the dish is an event in itself. It arrived in a steaming, fragrant tureen that took over the table, a tactile challenge of a dish, and we dug in. We had just completed a 3-day tour of the city, and naturally had shared some fantastic mealsbut this dish blew my guest away. I honestly thought he was going to take a container of the stuff home on the plane.

On another visit, I enjoyed the Seafood Risotto, and it’s probably the heartiest rendition of this dish I’ve had. The chefs handle the rice perfectly, but the secret is in the quality of the seafood: the dish is chock full of prawns, calamari, bay scallops and clams, all as fresh as you can find them.

Suffice to say, Sotto Mare lives up to its stellar reputation. My favorite place in North Beach, my not-so-secret weapon. In fact, just the act of writing this review has made me terribly hungry.

Can I get a wingman?

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Sotto Mare
552 Green Street, San Francisco
415-398-3181