Well, never say never, as politicians frequently utter self-servingly. In my case, last April I released my first, and as I wrote then, “probably my last,” Ernestos: Best of North Beach Awards. But now, by popular demand, as they say, and with a swelling endorsement from my publisher and my editor, here we are with the coveted Second Annual Ernestos.
For the most part, readers enjoyed the first Ernestos, but there were a few recalcitrant hard cases that wanted to run me out of the neighborhood. Let’s see what happens this time.
And by the way, we’re talking about real food here, not super-hip palate porn, designed to titillate rather than nourish us in a glorious manner.
We asked the irresistible and trustworthy Fanny Wong from our neighborhood Wells Fargo to oversee the results of these new secret Ernestos. So there has been no tampering with the results. And, of course, I always dine incognito, frequently employing a red fright wig with my Michael Bauer-Chronicle disguise. But enough — let’s get on with it.
One might say that North Beach is defined by pizza. There are more than 20 pizza parlors in the old neighborhood. They range from a pretentious pizza palace that believes it should be recognized by a Michelin star, to a humble joint where you can get a decent slice for a few bucks and go and eat it in Washington Square. Honors this year go to North Beach Pizza, the distinguished old-timer at 1462 Grant Avenue. It’s been dishing out admirable pies for more than 20 years. The top of the line is called logically “The North Beach Special” — pepperoni, Italian sausage, bell peppers, onions, black olives, and mushrooms. If you choose not to enjoy your pizza in the comfortable dining room on Upper Grant, North Beach Pizza will deliver to most parts of the city including the Marina, and you can dine in front of the TV if it makes you happy. That’s amore.
Mo’s Grill, 1322 Grant Avenue. This is a big seven-ounce burger grilled over red–hot lava rocks. And if you tell the counter person you want your burger with “everything” the way I do, it will come with a thick slice of raw purple onion, a slice of tomato, mayonnaise, and fresh romaine lettuce leaves. Add your own mustard. Mo’s also has the best milkshakes to be found anywhere in the city.
BEST CHEESE STEAK
Buster’s, of course. Buster’s, 366 Columbus Avenue, does cheese steak like a god intended. I’m not sure it’s like the cheese steak mother ship Philadelphia intended, but who cares? Key words to remember when ordering a cheese steak at Buster’s are “jalapenos” and what the menu calls “Cheese Wiz.” Actually it’s Cheez Whiz, a Kraft Foods processed, orange cheese sauce. But we’re not judging Buster’s by its spelling are we?
BEST HOT DOG
Again it’s Buster’s. A while back, a Buster’s lover took me to task for putting ketchup on my hot dog. It’s not sacrilegious to like a squirt of ketchup on your hot dog. If you don’t like ketchup, don’t squirt it. But at Buster’s, make sure to have the grill man include some sauerkraut
on your dog.
Il Pollaio. We’ve found this popular North Beach restaurant, 555 Columbus Avenue, to be consistently top notch — great barbecued chicken, for example. But we’re talking minestrone here. Il Pollaio’s minestrone, completely vegetable based, is like your mother made. But only if your mother was a fine old Italian lady who got the minestrone recipe from her mother, and her mother from her mother. You get the idea.
BEST WHITE CLAM CHOWDER
Once again, last year’s winner, Capp’s Corner, scores with me in this category. How can an Italian, red-sauce joint have the best New England clam chowder? Let me tell you. I believe the key to Capp’s chowder is leeks — those things that look like adult scallions — and lots of chopped clams and a few pieces of potato. Capp’s clam chowder is well balanced with no one flavor element overpowering the others. I’m aware I may have struck a nerve with this chowder award. So, if you are a doubter, join me at Capp’s Corner, 1600 Powell Street, some Friday and we can duke it out.
BEST RED CLAM CHOWDER
Original Joe’s gets the nod for the best New York-style chowder. Again, it’s well balanced — a proper tomato base, with lots of clams. It’s tomatoey and clammy and it’s terrific. Original Joe’s is at 601 Union Street.
If you can’t get good ravioli in North Beach, where can you get it? I go to the Original U.S. Restaurant regularly, and that’s my choice for the best meat ravioli with red sauce. The Original U. S. Restaurant, 515 Columbus Avenue. More about this gem below.
BEST CRAB LOUIE
For these 2014 Ernestos, I’m including Fisherman’s Wharf as an outpost of North Beach. Fisherman’s Wharf sometimes gets a bad rap from locals who insist it’s too touristy. OK, so what? No. 9 Fishermen’s Grotto at No. 9 Fisherman’s Wharf gets the nod from me on the best crab Louie. Here’s why: a mountain of fresh Dungeness crab and a great Louie dressing.
Once again, I’m going with Gigi’s Sotto Mare, 552 Green Street. Its cioppino is made with love and lots of fresh Dungeness crab.
BEST STEAKS AND CHOPS
A no-brainer. Original Joe’s.
BEST SIDEWALK DINING EXPERIENCE
Sidewalk dining is one of the pleasures of North Beach. And nowhere is this pleasure better experienced than along Columbus Avenue, which seems stuck in a 1960s time warp. Via Columbus, to lapse into Italian, has that Fellini-like ambience of Rome’s Via Veneto back in the days when Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni were highly visible hiding behind movie star dark glasses. The slick red-and-black, neon-festooned Calzone’s, 450 Columbus Avenue, captures that la dolce vita spirit.
Capp’s Corner. There aren’t many of these old saloons around anymore. This one is the best. And you can trust me on this because — as you may know — I’m your saloon test pilot.
Bobby McCambridge at Amante, 570 Green Street, takes the top award. He’s one of the last of the great North Beach bartenders. And a belated farewell to retired Frank Rossi at Gino & Carlo, 548 Green Street.
Mother Betty Pesce and daughter Christina Pesce at Gigi’s Sotto Mare. This is a mother-daughter tag team. If one or the other is your waitperson here, you are in very good hands. If you get lucky on a day when they are both working, you’re in for an experience equal to an audience with Tony Bennett, who dines there when he’s in town. And a tip of my hat to Louise Taylor, Gigi’s read-option quarterback.
BEST ITALIAN RESTAURANT
Here’s a sleeper for you. The Original U.S. Restaurant. Let me tell you why this is my pick. If one can apply the word “lusty” to what one eats, I would like to apply it to the Original U.S. Restaurant, my choice for Best Italian Restaurant in North Beach. I enjoy sitting at the counter and watching the hot pan action. Each dish coming off the “piano” (the stove, if you will) and onto your plate is an explosion of tomato, garlic, onion, basil, and rosemary all laced with olive oil — and lots of it. Want some suggestions? Chicken piccata, spaghetti puttanesca, or carbonara, stewed tripe (one of my favorites), or roast lamb shoulder with lima beans, a Tuesday special. If you ever want to find me on Tuesday, the first place to check is the Original U.S. Restaurant.
BEST FISH RESTAURANT
Gigi’s Sotto Mare. Only the freshest fish makes the grade here. Sea scallops, sand dabs, corvina, and red snapper are my favorites. Try Benita’s baccala. Benita was Gigi’s mother and her baccala is reconstituted dried cod cooked in olive oil, tomatoes, garlic, black olives, and capers. Spoon it up and smear on your bread. If it pleases you, buy retail and take your fish home and prepare it any way you wish.
BEST RESTAURANT AMBIENCE
I’m going for Capp’s Corner. A great bar, a congenial bartender, George McCarthy, and a great waiter, Wilson. And food that is surprisingly good. A place to hang out — if hanging out is your thing. What more do you want?
Another tie this year: the noisy and dramatic Original Joe’s, 601 Union Street, and the quiet and sedate North Beach Restaurant, 1512 Stockton Street. Both are incomparable. Yes, they can co-exist as the best to be experienced in North Beach. How does the neighborhood get so lucky as to have both of these classy joints?