When a restaurant has been operating for more than 40 years, it must be doing something right. Longevity alone is important in a city like San Francisco, where restaurants open almost daily, and others close before you get a chance to try them. In North Beach, which has produced a string of winners recently, I thought it would be a good idea to see if Lorenzo Petroni’s classic Tuscan establishment, North Beach Restaurant, is still as fine as I remembered.
I’m happy to report that it is. In fact, while one might expect a restaurant that opened back in 1970 to be somewhat shopworn, a bit dated with its offerings, maybe even a bit sloppy around the edges of its service, North Beach Restaurant is none of these. It presents itself energetically, bright and clean as though it opened only a few weeks ago.
Well-spaced, comfortable tables are topped by crisp, white tablecloths, napkins folded with precision, polished silver and stemware, and large, handsome plates placed just so. The carpet is clean and unblemished, and the light wood paneling and beige walls are decorated with Lorenzo’s modern art collection, with not one framed work off center or not level.
The Tuscan specialties turned out by chef Bruno Orsi, Lorenzo’s partner since the beginning, are exquisite — none better by my evaluation. And knowledgeable, smartly tuxedoed waiters who know what they are doing and are friendly without being obsequious or aggressively in your face present these specialties proudly.
North Beach Restaurant is not only the finest Italian restaurant in North Beach; it’s the finest in San Francisco. But let’s get to some specifics. And note that prices listed here are first for lunch (11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.) and second for dinner (3 p.m. to 11:45 p.m.), when portions are somewhat larger and more elaborate.
One day recently my wife, Joan, and I were seated at a table next to one occupied by North Beach historian Alessandro Baccari Jr., so we had the opportunity to chat across the two tables and exchange menu notes. Baccari began his lunch with a bowl of farinata da Lucca ($7, $10.50), a thick soup with kale, chard, cabbage, and lentils, topped with a spoonful of chopped raw onion and a lacing of Petroni extra virgin olive oil. Yes, Lorenzo has his own olive trees and has his olive oil cold-pressed at the Glen Ellen Olive Press. When I tried the farinata da Lucca, it was deep with flavor, warming on a cold day, and it established a nice base for the rest of the meal.
Joan began with a spinach salad ($8.50, $12.50). The young leaves were slightly wilted and dressed with a light olive oil and balsamic vinegar. I opted for the house-cured prosciutto and melon ($11.50, $14.50).
My partner followed with spaghetti Lorenzo ($13.50, $19.50), a beautiful dish of al dente spaghettini (in this case), in a rich marinara sauce with hints of basil and garlic. I chose chicken livers sautéed with mushrooms in an authoritative Barbera sauce ($14.75, $23). I think of chicken livers as a good test of a kitchen’s skill. They aren’t the easiest things to get just right — slightly soft and a bit creamy in the center, crisp on the edges. These were just that way.
On another visit with Joan (dining with her is not a duty call, it’s a gleeful social engagement), she chose a broiled halibut steak in lemon butter ($18.50, $30) served with white rice and fresh sautéed string beans. We began that evening by splitting an ample order of carpaccio alla Veneziana ($11.50, $13), paper-thin slices of raw beef, dressed with shavings of Reggiano Parmigiano, capers, chopped raw, red onion, olive oil, and lemon juice. My main course was veal scaloppini piccata ($16.95, $24), white wine, lemon butter and capers. Each dish was flawless and keenly flavorful — a beautiful experience. And incidentally, instead of the usual sprig of parsley decorating the plates at North Beach Restaurant, chef Bruno adds a California bay leaf.
At this point you might be getting the notion that North Beach Restaurant is expensive. Yes it is, but it’s worth it. “Value” is the key word to describe this classic. Quite simply, dining here provides good value.
On another visit a friend had the spaghetti carbonara ($14.50, $22). He proclaimed it excellent and that was my judgment, too. North Beach Restaurant makes several of its own pastas, including ravioli, and they are first rate. On that same occasion another friend tried the risotto con porcini ($18.50, $19.50), and while she enjoyed it, her comment was that it didn’t quite have enough “bounce” — I took the word “bounce” to mean pizzazz so passed when she offered a taste. The mushroom the Italians call “porcini” can be strong, if a bit one-dimensional.
The wine list: Lorenzo has crafted an impressive, multipage book of fine vintage wines, primarily from Italy and California. His own Petroni Vineyards in Sonoma County yields some winners that are available by the glass as well as by the bottle. And he’s not bashful about charging for them. Enjoyable — and I think quite reasonable (good value again) — are the 2006 Petroni Vineyards Rosatto di Sonoma ($8.50 per glass) and 2006 Petroni Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc ($9 per glass). Another Lorenzo wine, Petroni Vineyards Brunello di Sonoma, Poggio alla Pietra is $22 per glass. Yes, that’s quite steep, but it is a glorious wine.
As I write this review, Lorenzo Petroni is ill. I speak for many when I wish him well and drink to his health with a glass of his Brunello. He’s a great host. What I’ve always liked about Lorenzo is his refined but no-nonsense manner. He’s a class act — just the way the North Beach Restaurant is.
North Beach Restaurant:1512 Stockton Street (near Green), 415-392-1700 www.northbeachrestaurant.com, daily 11:30 a.m. to 11:45 p.m. with continuous kitchen service