I enjoy hanging out in joints – restaurants and bars of humble and modest stature. And I do not use the word “joints” in the pejorative sense. I use it as homage — a tribute, a pat on the back with a resounding “well-done.” Here are three of my favorite North Beach joints. I hope you like them, too.
I have come to realize that Il Pollaio, 555 Columbus Avenue, is one of my favorite North Beach restaurants. It is headquarters for grilled chicken in my neighborhood.
The proprietor is Maria Paula Castellucci Bautista. She goes by the name Paula, but I love using her full name. It rolls off the tongue. Paula’s parents, Giuseppe and Marta Castellucci, opened Il Pollaio in 1984. They had no prior restaurant experience. Giuseppe, an Italian from Calabria, had immigrated to Argentina with his family when he was 11 years old. There he met Marta, a second generation Argentine — also of Italian descent — and later married her.
Paula was born in Buenos Aires and was six when the family moved here in 1980. She started working in the restaurant washing dishes when she was 12. Her brother Jose Ignacio Castellucci worked there, too. The family lived upstairs over the restaurant until 1990.
From the beginning, the plan was to offer Argentine-style food, simple and grilled. And that’s what you get at Il Pollaio. For chicken and rabbit, Il Pollaio uses a proprietary dry rub. Lamb and other meats receive a coating of the traditional Argentine green sauce called chimichurri — finely chopped parsley and oregano, minced garlic, olive oil, and white wine vinegar. Red meats, chicken, rabbit, and produce are delivered daily. Soups — minestrone, split pea, and lentil — are made from scratch. Everything smacks of freshness and bold, uncomplicated flavors.
If you’re unfamiliar with Il Pollaio — which, by the way, Paula’s father translated as chicken coop in Italian — you must try it. A good choice might be a cup or bowl of soup ($4.25/$5.25 à la carte; ($3.50/$4.25 with meals), the grilled chicken (half $8.25, whole $14.25), and some grilled onions ($4). That’s my meal.
Approaching My Canh, wedged between Chinatown and North Beach, with its white lace cafe curtains and its tiled recessed entrance, you might be led to believe it’s a tiny French bistro on the Parisian Left Bank. But when you enter and note the Buddhist shrine at the far end with its incense sticks, fresh flowers, dish of apples, tiny cups of tea for the ancestral spirits, and the Formica-topped tables crowded with Asians slurping pho, you know you are closer to Vietnam than France. And that’s a good thing for North Beach pho fanciers like me. Not being an ancestral spirit, I go for the pho tai, that Vietnamese beef and rice-noodle soup, flavored with basil, green onions, a squeeze of lemon or lime, and topped with sprouts and raw, razor-thin sliced flank steak that cooks in the broth as you slurp it. It is number 25 on the menu and is $6.45. If it’s not a soup day for you, go for the bún, a Vietnamese salad with rice noodles. There are a variety of these salads and most are $6.45. My Canh, 626 Broadway, opened in 1999.
GINO AND CARLO
Once a month, on the first Thursday, Gino and Carlo, the old neighborhood saloon at 548 Green Street, serves a classic Italian lunch for about 100 or so happy guests who share long family-style tables laden with bottles of red and white wine, baskets of sourdough bread, huge bowls of salad, and pasta. And if you run out of any of the above just ask the server, and she’ll bring more of everything. And all of this comes before the main course, your choice of meat or fish. Going to a Thursday Gino and Carlo family lunch takes a time commitment. I usually drop in about 11:30 a.m. — officially, lunch starts at 12:30 p.m. — and walk out considerably heartier and heavier at about 4 p.m. Here’s what you can expect: a garlicky, mixed green salad with lettuce, tomatoes, kidney beans, and whatever; spaghetti with a red, lusty meat sauce; and then perhaps a strip steak, prime rib, osso buco, or short ribs. If it’s fish you prefer, you may find salmon, Petrale sole or sturgeon.
If you want to join up on a Thursday, drop into Gino and Carlo (not Carlo’s) in advance and plunk down 25 bucks to reserve a seat. If you want to get the jump on your lunch reservation, you might consider arriving at Gino and Carlo at 6 a.m. — the joint is open from that time until 2 a.m. the following morning. The 6 a.m. crowd includes bakers, cab drivers, sanitary workers, off-duty cops, and other night folks who need a little conversation before their daytime bedtime.
The Gino and Carlo chef for these incredible monthly lunches — and there is no other word for them but “incredible” — is Denise Sabella, long-time North Beach knockabout who has cooked and tended bar in some of my favorite joints.
Another thing I like about Gino and Carlo is this: On Thanksgiving Day each year, Denise gets several turkeys, roasts them and serves them with all the trimmings — bread stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, the whole works — and lays out a big dinner. Word gets around and anyone in the neighborhood, who has no family nearby and nowhere to go to celebrate the holiday, drops in for a free meal. “All you have to do is pop for one drink and you’re in,” Denise says. What a great idea.