This is the first — and probably the last — “Best of North Beach” list I will write. I say probably the last, since my esteemed editor has better judgment than to let me get away with these idiosyncratic awards on a regular basis.
Here goes. I call these coveted awards Ernestos — something like the Oscars or the Grammys. The best 25 in the neighborhood are:
Best Spaghetti and Meat Balls: U.S. Restaurant. I once described the U.S. Restaurant as being commedia dell’arte — Italian improvised theater. The drama occurs in the open kitchen on the big gas range where pans of lusty Sicilian dishes are turned out.
Best Pizza: Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store and Cafe. “What?” I hear you exclaim. Yes! Mario’s is my choice for best pizza in North Beach. It’s wafer thin and crusty, not a manhole cover with a doughy lake of cheese.
Best Burger: Buster’s. A half-pound burger in a good bun with raw onion, pickles, relish, mustard, catsup — and jalapenos if you wish.
Best Crab Louie: Gigi’s Sotto Mare. Gigi Fiorucci is the real capo of North Beach. His Dungeness crab Louie is a work of art. A mountain of fresh crab atop shredded iceberg lettuce. And a Louie dressing, creamy with mayonnaise and just enough catsup to give it some authority.
Best Cioppino: Gigi’s Sotto Mare. The cioppino is formidable. The sauce alone is worth it. Sop it up with some bread.
Best Clam Chowder: Capp’s Corner. This one is a sleeper. Would you think that Capp’s Corner, the quintessential saloon and Italian red sauce joint, has a killer white clam chowder on Friday? It does. It’s thick but not gummy. It has plenty of clams to give it high flavor. And small chunks of potato and a few leeks thrown in for good order.
Best Steaks and Chops: Original Joe’s. The New York strip steaks are big and beefy and beautifully charred. The lamb chops are thick with just enough fat on the edges to make you wish you were a Basque sheepherder.
Best Sandwiches: Cafe Puccini.Great sandwiches on focaccia bread. Mortadella, salami, sweet coppa — all the good cured meats and even eggplant.
Best Calzone: Calzone’s. Makes North Beach look like Rome’s Via Veneto. There’s a long Italian menu but go there for the calzone — what my mother would call a “turnover” stuffed with your choice of fillings. My choice is smoked chicken, artichoke hearts and mozzarella.
Best Focaccia Bread: Liguria Bakery. Focaccia is a metaphor for the good life in North Beach. It’s one of the five basic food groups — the others are Campari, cappuccino, sacripantina (more on this below), and salami. The Soracco family has operated Liguria Bakery since 1912. Their focaccia flatbread is one of the principal reasons I live in San Francisco.
Best Dessert: Sacripantina at Stella Pastry and Cafe. The original owner bought the recipe for sacripantina from a bakery in Genoa. The story goes that the bakery was the only one in Italy that made this incredible cake. It seems the wife of a Genovese nobleman wanted to present her husband with a new dessert to gain his increased ardor (an engaging idea that makes sense). So she created a special dessert for him with white sponge cake flavored with maraschino liqueur, a bit of rum, with zabaglione spread between its multilayers. The nobleman took one bite and cried out “sacripantina!” which we are asked to believe is idiomatic Italian for something like “holy smoke.”
Best Italian Restaurant: North Beach Restaurant. Lorenzo Petroni’s classic Tuscan restaurant has been around a long time and still serves some of the best food in the City. I go there for the chicken livers.
Best Fish Restaurant: Gigi’s Sotto Mare. Many North Beach restaurants serve fish but none do the job like Gigi’s.
Best Mexican Restaurant: ZORRO TAQUERIA. Try the menudo. The famous Mexican tripe dish is a Mexican hangover cure. It will cure you whether or not you have a hangover.
Best Chinese Restaurant: Yuet Lee. Yes, there are Chinese restaurants in North Beach and Yuet Lee is the best of them. Clams with black bean sauce, boiled shrimp and Singapore rice noodles make a great meal for me.
Best Vegetarian Restaurant: Loving Hut. Many North Beach restaurants offer vegan or vegetarian specialties. Loving Hut is a Chinese restaurant, and I take the word of knowledgeable friends that it is “the” place to go vegan in North Beach.
Best Saloon: Capp’s Corner.
Best Bartender(s): Michael McCourt and Michael Fraser at Original Joe’s.
Best Waitperson(s): The double Ernesto goes to Renee Sammon at U.S. Restaurant and Wilson at Capp’s CorNER
Best Restaurant Ambience: It’s a tie between MARIO’S BOHEMIAN CIGAR STORE and CAFE PUCCINI. Mario’s hole-in-the-wall not only serves great pizza but has an ambience that attracts young locals (like me) and visitors. Jacob, Alby and Jimmy turn on the charm. Over at Café Puccini it’s a wonderful geriatric mix of old Italians and other North Beach regulars. But contrast this: At Mario’s the sound track is garage grunge, Israeli folk and progressive jazz. At Puccini it’s Puccini — a juke box blasts out Puccini operatic arias.
Best Restaurant: original joe’s.Numero uno restaurant today in North Beach. Tuxedoed waiters serve the old standbys like osso buco, meat loaf, corned beef and cabbage, streaks, chops and roast chicken, pastas, fresh fish, and cheeseburgers that keep me coming back — and that San Francisco
classic, Joe’s Special..