Who would have thought it? Here we are in the third year of my Ernestos: Best of North Beach Awards. The Ernestos started out in 2013 as an idea for a column. Now it’s an institution — imbedded in the fragile fabric of North Beach. I’m working on having the Ernestos included in next year’s
Oscar ceremonies. We could have my editor friend Susan Dyer Reynolds introduce them. Meanwhile: The envelope please!
As you realize, North Beach is much ado about pizza. Last time I counted, more than 20 restaurants served pizza. They range from the modest to the upscale, including one that dishes out pretentious publicity along with its pies. These days my favorite North Beach pizza monger is Rose Pistola (532 Columbus Avenue).
BEST SPAGHETTI AND MEATBALLS
U.S. Restaurant (515 Columbus Avenue). I have written about this open-kitchen, Italian joint several times, and it has been awarded Ernestos before. It is consistently excellent with all kinds of Italian-American dishes.
Buster’s (366 Columbus Avenue) is burger heaven. A half-pound! The way you like it! With all or nothing at all to add!
Buster’s. I can’t resist Buster’s cheesesteaks.
BEST HOT DOG
Are you ready for this? Buster’s again. Buster’s is to burgers, cheesesteaks, and hot dogs as the 49ers were under coach Bill Walsh — incomparable!
Caffe Puccini (411 Columbus Avenue). Graziano Lucchesi is the proprietor and an inspired chef. He knows what he is doing and everything at Caffe Puccini is first rate. The minestrone is superb. But I could just as easily award Caffe Puccini Best Pasta.
U.S. Restaurant. Try it. You’ll like it. In fact, try just about anything at U.S. Restaurant, and you will be pleased. Tripe with polenta is one of my favorites.
BEST CRAB LOUIE
Gigi’s Sotto Mare (552 Green Street). This is a simple but effective Crab Louie — shredded iceberg lettuce and a bunch of Dungeness crab topped by Louie dressing. Excellent!
Gigi’s Sotto Mare. Last year I voted Gigi’s as having the best cioppino. In fact, way back in my first Ernestos, I voted Gigi’s as having the best cioppino. I see no reason to change this now.
BEST STEAKS AND CHOPS
Original Joe’s (601 Union Street). Again a no-brainer.
BEST SIDEWALK DINING
Calzone’s (450 Columbus Avenue). This is the place. If Anita Ekberg were with us today, she would be sitting out front at Calzone’s — and I would be sitting with her.
Calzone’s — the calzone palace of North Beach — is my choice. Calzone’s is to calzone as Buster’s is to cheesesteaks.
Gino & Carlo (548 Green Street). Bartenders are Ron Minolli, Marco Rossi, Frank Colla, Frankie Rossi, Orla Nyland, and Silvio Maniscaleo. The joint opens at 6 a.m. if you’re thirsty that early.
Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store and Cafe (566 Columbus Avenue) is my choice. A sandwich board out front at the corner of Columbus and Union reads: “Hot Soup, Cold Beer and Good Times.” But there’s more. There’s the meatball sandwich. And there’s a staff of happy, somewhat kooky, servers that keeps you going back: Jessie, Bonnie, Jas, Vi, Jacob, Vida, Jimmy, and the imp Vanessa.
BEST VALUE MEAL
Gino & Carlo is a full-time saloon but not a full-time restaurant. On the first Thursday of each month, it serves an Italian, family-style lunch for about 100 lucky patrons. Salad, pasta, meat or fish, wine, and bread. Twenty-five bucks. Denise Sabella is the cook. It’s a great deal. Recently I had osso buco. My buddy had grilled salmon. Reservations are a must.
Frank Colla at Gino & Carlo gets the award this year. Not only is courtly Frank a fine bartender but he’s a fly fisherman as well. And that counts with me.
My choice this year is Jeannie Ghiladucci at U.S. Restaurant. Jeannie is old school. She used to serve me breakfast at U.S. Restaurant’s original location at the intersection of Columbus and Stockton: scrambled eggs, hash browns, Italian sausage, and a glass of red.
BEST ITALIAN RESTAURANT
Firenze By Night (1429 Stockton Street), is a first-time Ernesto winner. Chef-owner Sergio Giusti has caught my attention and now his restaurant is on my rotating list of North Beach dinner houses. And it’s at the top of the Italian genre. Here are a few of Sergio’s dishes for your consideration: fagioli Toscana (a salad of white beans, tuna, and red onions), gnocchi Firenze (potato dumplings with a light tomato-cream sauce), and bistecca alla Florentina (a monster porterhouse steak marinated in olive oil and various herbs).
BEST FISH RESTAURANT
Gigi’s Sotto Mare takes the award. Gigi Fiorucci sold this landmark last year. It’s still the best fish restaurant in the neighborhood. My comparison above about Buster’s and the 49ers applies here. Gigi’s Sotto Mare under the new ownership — Richie and Laura Azzolino — is like 49er football under coach George Seifert. All you have to do is not screw up the team.
Original Joe’s. Like last year, when I proclaimed a tie between Original Joe’s and the North Beach Restaurant, both of which dominate the neighborhood with their class, this year I could have gone either way. But I’m giving my vote this year to Original Joe’s. Not only is the food terrific but also O.J.’s brings an extra frisson of excitement to the dining experience.
The other day I ran into a neighbor who asked me what the best restaurants in North Beach were. When I said the North Beach Restaurant and Original Joe’s, he snorted and said they were “too expensive.” I responded by saying that both were bargains. I explained it this way: A restaurant, or any other product or service, is only too expensive if it is no good — if it doesn’t please you or satisfy you. If a restaurant delivers an incredible experience, you don’t walk out the door yelling about the cost. I feel about North Beach Restaurant and Original Joe’s that way. Yes, they cost more, but they are worth it.
COLUMBUS CUTLERY NOT CLOSING
In a recent column, I wrote that Columbus Cutlery (358 Columbus Avenue) in North Beach was closing. It is not. A family illness forced a change in its business hours. But it remains open. Sometimes you just get things wrong. This was one of those times. Sorry!