North Beach has long been San Francisco’s mainstay for Italian dining, but over the last decade our little neighborhood has become much more. In addition to half a dozen distinct regional Italian cuisines, our restaurant scene now boasts Mexican, Ethiopian, New American, Istrian, Indian, French and Persian offerings of the highest quality–and there’s no end in sight.

The result: our culinary hot streak has made North Beach a true dining destination once again. Thanks to such places as Gigi’s Sotto Mare and Tony’s Pizza Napoletana (both of which grace the list this time around), our precious, picture-postcard of a neighborhood is back on the San Francisco food map.

Of course, with plenty of choices, there comes the need for a little guidance. You can’t go to every single place, can you? (For those answering yes to that question, get your triglycerides checked.) But seriously, despite the upward trend, there are still a host of mediocre eateries in the Beach, and Columbus Avenue in particular remains a minefield for diners. In the spirit of good eating, we’re here to help you navigate the neighborhood noms with the second article in our series: 10 Things To Eat In North Beach Right Now.

Sotto Mare (aka Gigi’s) – Prawn/Scallop Sauté
North Beach’s comeback as a food destination can be traced directly to the 2007 arrival of Gigi Fiorucci and his iconic Sotto Mare. With the freshest seafood anywhere in the city, combined with a no-frills vibe that suited the locals just fine, Sotto Mare (Gigi’s 13th restaurant) was quickly embraced by North Beach.


The Prawn/Scallop Sauté at Sotto Mare

Of course, now Gigi’s is everyone’s favorite, with lines winding out the door nearly every night. As any local will tell you though, it’s more than worth the wait. The kitchen here is expert in the preparation of seafood, and the special board is a godsend: it doesn’t matter if it’s snapper, sole, monkfish or salmon, if it’s on the board it’s the best there is. The regular menu is not to be overlooked either, and it includes one of my favorites: the Prawn/Scallop Sauté. Simplicity itself, the dish relies almost entirely on the quality of the shellfish and the chef’s deft touch, and it dazzles.
Pro tip: Put your name on the list, and amble across the street to Belle Cora to relax with a glass of wine while you wait. Cheers!

Taqueria El Farolito – Super Al Pastor Burrito
Until the arrival of Pete Mrabe and Don Pisto’s in 2009, North Beach was a forsaken land for true lovers of Mexican food. Aside from a couple of forgettable taquerias down by Broadway (no names need be mentioned), there was nothing in North Beach that even hinted at the splendor to be had just a few miles away in the Mission. These days we aren’t nearly so deprived. Case in point: one of SF’s most legendary purveyors of the Mission burrito has recently set up shop right in our backyard: Taqueria El Farolito.

True, it’s a bit of a stretch to call this location North Beach rather than the Wharf–but it is Beach Street, am I right? Personally, I’m not one to argue when there are tacos on the table. Or burritos for that matter, particularly the Super Al Pastor Burrito from El Farolito. Yes, this is one mighty food tube, so unless you’re coming directly from a triathlon, you might want to forego the chips. Barbecued pork straight from the grill, crispy and redolent of achiote, is star of the show, and these guys have mastered it. Fold in some rice, beans, avocado and crema, toss that baby on the grill for a few minutes, and voila! You’ve got one of the most delicious burritos anywhere. Don’t miss it.
Pro tip: for reasons unknown, this location is only open until 4:30 pm. Pero por qué?

Tony’s Pizza Napoletana – The New Yorker Pie
When Tony Gemignani opened Tony’s Pizza Napoletana in 2009, he brought a lot of hype to town with him. He was the first American winner of the World Pizza Cup in Rome, North Beachers were told–and our expectations were commensurate.


The New Yorker Pie at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana

He didn’t let us down: since day one, Tony’s has been turning out some of the best pizza to be found anywhere. His margherita pie is flawless, his Sicilian awe-inspiring, and his menu is an astonishing paean to all things pizza. Nobody tries harder than this guy, and the effort pays off handsomely. Witness The New Yorker: a 16” pie baked to crisp perfection in a 1,000° coal-fired oven (Tony’s boasts 7 different types), and topped with mozzarella, ricotta, pepperoni and both Calabrese and fennel sausage, it reminds me of the stellar pizza I used to enjoy at Lombardi’s in New York. It is truly not to be missed, and if you’re a vegetarian, there’s no need to fret: simply opt for the coal-fired Tomato Pie, and get whatever toppings you please. Delicioso.

Don Pisto’s – Hamburguesa
Pete Mrabe is an odd bird in San Francisco’s restaurant scene. He started North Beach’s original Don Pisto’s at 23; since then, he has only picked up speed. Seven years later, he has just opened his sixth restaurant (Don Pisto’s Tequila Bar in the Marina), and has plans to open a bakery on Grant Avenue later this year. As one might expect with such a schedule, he never sits down, so he wears sandals at all times. He drinks like a fish, and is possessed of a weird sense of humor, which he might share with you if you catch him in the right mood.

But all of this is irrelevant to the matter at hand: the food. Pete can cook like nobody’s business.  Whether it’s the fried chicken at Chubby Noodle or the ethereal pork chop at Don Pisto’s, everything the guy touches comes to the table delicious. Today’s champion is Don Pisto’s Hamburguesa. A deceptively simple Mexi-burger crafted by marinating a beef patty in bacon and onion, grilling it to temperature, and topping it with the house’s killer guacamole, the hamburguesa is a compelling argument that California should still belong to Mexico.
Pro tip: Though it’s beer and wine only, the house margarita is made with a chardonnay liqueur, and it’s a winner.

Il Casaro Pizzeria & Mozzarella Bar – Norma Pizza
If you’re going to talk about pizza in North Beach, you’ve got to give props to the people at Il Casaro. Casaro  means “cheesemaker” in Italian, but they’re making a lot more than cheese in this kitchen. True, the burrata, served with a pile of perfect arugula, is the best I’ve had in the neighborhood. But there are a lot of stars on this menu, most of them emerging from the beautiful wood-fired oven that anchors the comfortable, light-filled space.

Today’s honors go to the Norma Pizza: a no-nonsense pie topped with mozzarella, ricotta salata and slices of fried eggplant, this one is my go-to. It’s awfully hard to say no to the margherita here, but the smoky eggplant and salty tang of ricotta salata on this pie just put me over the edge.
Pro tip: snare one of the counter seats directly in front of the oven where you can see the pizzaiolos prep your pie, and watch it bake right before your eyes. Buon Appetito!

Le Chat Rouge Bakery – Mango Lattice Pastry
A welcome addition to a busy stretch of Grant Avenue, Le Chat Noir has been a long time in the making: owner David Carbonell cleared over a year of permitting hurdles to finally get the place open. French to the core, they bake bread from a recipe passed down for 240 years, and the space is designed to evoke a vintage Parisienne shop. The bread is undoubtedly delicious (if pricey), but my plaudits today are reserved for their viennoiseries, or Viennese-style puff pastry. The best known examples of these are croissant and pain au chocolate, but this cat has scores of them, incorporating everything from lemon to fig, apple and mango. And that brings us to the item in question: the Mango Lattice Pastry. Tangy, just barely sweet, and nestled in layers of buttery pastry, this is one of the tastiest morsels I’ve consumed at any North Beach shop. A must-have, and there is a lot more here to love: madeleines, caneles de Bordeaux, brioche and a dozen other buttery things to get excited about.
Pro tip: they have $2 mini-pastries, so make up a little basket and go visit someone you love.

Central Station Deli – The Captain
Pete Mrabe’s latest North Beach contribution, Central Station Deli opened up in February on Vallejo, right next to the real cop shop. Six months later, it feels like it’s been there for years. The sandwiches are only part of the story here. They also offer great salads, along with savory baked items, desserts and plenty of other goodies. This is a busy kitchen, and there is always something new in the case.


Central Station Deli’s ‘The Captain’

I’m here today to sing the praises of the best sandwich I’ve had this year: The Captain. Mesquite-smoked turkey, thick cut bacon, avocado and swiss cheese on a double dutch crunch bun, this is one delicious gut-buster of a sammie. As always, Pete sources his products well, but he also understands that a sandwich is only as good as the bread it’s made with. He bakes his own, and this bun is flawless, with just the right amount of crunch and pillowy dough to bring the whole thing together. Grab one of these and head over to Washington Square Park to bliss out.
Pro tips: Get yours with pepperoncini instead of pickles. And your eyes are bigger than your stomach; wrap up half and save it for later.

Da Flora – Sweet Potato Gnocchi
One of the most unique and charming spots in all of North Beach, Da Flora has been doing their thing on the corner of Filbert and Columbus since 1994. Flora Gaspar’s artfully appointed dining room and handwritten menus were ahead of their time in the ’90’s, capturing the imaginations of local diners and securing Da Flora’s position in the SF dining firmament. Some 22 years later,  its red walls and cloistered elegance still make it one of the most romantic spots in the city.


Da Flora’s Sweet Potato Gnocchi

Da Flora has recently been sold, but don’t expect too many changes: the new owner is longtime master chef Jen McMahon, and Flora remains in control of the (exceptional) wine list. Their Venetian menu is market-driven and beautifully prepared, and it’s hard to go wrong here, but the one dish I never miss is the Sweet Potato Gnocchi. Perfectly light and a pale burnt orange in color, these come swimming in a lush sherry cream sauce studded with bacon, and dusted with parmigiano reggiano. Does that sound good? That’s because it is! Go get it.
Pro tip: If the bacon is a turnoff, order it with the sage instead. Still good!

DeLise Bakery – Devil’s Chocolate Cupcake
A small, out of the way bakery on the north side of the neighborhood, De Lise has been quietly turning out some of the tastiest pastries and desserts in North Beach since 2009. Owner Eloise Leung cut her (sweet) teeth at Bong Su and Citizen Cake, and she has clearly done her homework. She bakes everything from scones to macarons, all from organic and sustainable ingredients. My favorite: the Devil’s Chocolate Cupcake. Petite things, these are devilishly dark and moist, frosted with dulce de leche and lightly dusted with pink peppercorns and sea salt.

I can’t say enough about these cupcakes, so I’ll just let you go eat one for yourself. They run about 2 bucks, and they’re gone in about 2 bites. It’s like the whole thing never happened.

Liguria Bakery – Onion Focaccia
Okay, let’s get one thing out of the way. These ladies are not here to be nice. Don’t get me wrong, they might be–once you’ve been coming in for 3 or 4 years. Just don’t count on it.

Now, on to what they are  here to do: Make focaccia. They make the best in San Francisco, and they’ve gotten plenty of practice: the Soracco family has been churning it out since 1911. Focaccia is all they do, and they are sold out every day by 1:00 (sometimes noon). The place couldn’t be any more old school, and the ladies wrap up each slab in butcher paper and tie it off with string pulled from a dispenser in the ceiling, presenting you with a tidy, snow-white package of culinary nostalgia.

The bread? It is perfection itself: pillowy, oily and judiciously salted. The crowds tend to go for the Pizza version, loaded with oily tomato and flecked with green onion, and it is terrific (and rumored to be the best hangover cure going). My favorite, though, is the Onion Focaccia: fragrant and crisp, it has a perfect texture and just enough onion flavor to let the bread and olive oil shine through. It’s delicious on its own, and also makes a superlative sandwich (try avocado, heirloom tomato, salt and pepper–buona!). Toss one of these into your next picnic basket, but remember to get there by 11:00 or you may not get your choice. [Ed. Note: the bakery is closed for vacation until September 6th.]
Pro tip: Check out Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store Café  just across Washington Square Park, where they’ve been making great sandwiches with Liguria focaccia for years.