Wednesday, June 3, 2009


I spent today in North Beach, San Francisco's "Little Italy." I consider North Beach the most European neighborhood in San Francisco because it is a community of small shops, parks, restaurants, where the locals hang out, despite a continuous influx of tourists and visitors. Look up above the businesses that line Grant, Columbus, Stockton, and all their side streets, and, most likely, you will see one or two stories of apartments above these businesses. North Beach is walking distance to the Financial District and Chinatown to the south and to the waterfront to the north and east.

The neighborhood has two large churches, Saint Francis of Assisi.

and, overlooking Washington Square, Saints Peter and Paul

Coit Tower rises above North Beach on Telegraph Hill. Inside this 210-ft. Art Deco tower are murals by 26 different artists who were given commissions in 1934 under the Public Works of Art Project, part of the New Deal federal employment program. Coit Tower was built with funds from the estate of Lillie HItchcock Coit for the purpose of beautifying the city of San Francisco. The lobby murals are open to viewing by the public; those along the stairway are only accessible to private tours, including the free tour by the City Guides of San Francisco which is given every Saturday at 11 a.m.

One of the reasons for today's outing is that I have out-of-towners coming to visit this summer and am planning to take them to North Beach. Today was my "walk through" and also a bit of an "eat through." Despite hours of walking, I have a feeling I still managed to consume more calories than I burned off.

To get to the food part first, there are a seemingly endless number of restaurants and shops specializing in food. My choice for lunch was Giordano Bros., a bar and casual restaurant whose specialty is its All-In-One Sandwiches.

The owners are from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and the All-In-One is a Pittsburgh sandwich made on two slices of thick Italian white bread, filled with your choice of meat along with Provolone Cheese, French Fries, and Olive Oil and Vinegar Coleslaw. Yes, the French Fries are actually in the sandwich! The only concession to eating this very big mouthful of food, is that they give you a fork to scoop up all that falls out of the sandwich. I was going to have either salami or coppa as my meat, but the counter man (you order at the counter and they bring it to you) suggested the Pastrami; I was happy.

Giordano Bros. is small and sort of a sports bar with several TVs showing sports all day long. Steelers fans must come here; there is a huge blowup Steelers player in one corner and photos on the walls. There is often live local music in the evenings. It's totally informal and these amazing sandwiches cost between $6.25 and $7.25.

People ask me how I find places like Giordano Bros. In this case, I read about them in the San Francisco Chronicle and saved the review for my next visit. I digress to say that if and when we no longer have printed newspapers, I am not sure I would find places like this. I wonder why the Pittsburgh All-In-One Sandwich, which Pittsburghians have been enjoying for over 70 years, has not caught on like the Phillie Cheesesteak Sandwich, from the same state. Could it be the French Fries?

My other eating was far more elegant: a stop at Stella Pastry & Cafe for a latte and a large slice of Sacripantina cake, before heading home.

The Sacripantina is Stella's signature pastry; they've been making it for over 40 years and have a patent on the name and the dome shape of the cake. It's a multilayered cake made with a vanilla sponge cake, zabaione (a delicate custard made with egg yolks, sweet butter, marsala and sherry wine) cream, and rum.

I checked out some of my other favorite bakeries:

Victoria Pastry (cakes and pastries; famous for the St. Honoré Cake),

Liguria (foccacia bread with different toppings),

and the Italian French Baking Co. (brick oven baked breads and breadsticks),

I made a special stop at Graffeo Coffee to buy some beans to take home.

Graffeo claims to the be the best coffee in the world. As far as my own world is concerned, I agree. We've been enjoying Graffeo coffee since long before Starbucks ever existed. They got their start in North Beach in 1935. My bag of freshly-roasted coffee beans filled my car with the aroma of coffee as I drove home.

I walked by several of my favorite restaurants, just to make sure they were still in business. These included Cafe Jacqueline (French not Italian, where the menu is soufflés),

Capp's Corner (family style Italian),

Washington Square Bar & Grill (open again and looking like the old Washbag of years past),

Stinking Rose (where there is garlic in everything, including the ice cream for dessert),

and Michelangelo (a cozy romantic Italian place).

As always, Mario's Cigar Factory was a buzz with customers enjoying a coffee and one of their tasty sandwiches.

I took the time to browse in four of my favorite North Beach shops:

First stop was at Biordi Art Imports, which, since 1946, has specialized in Italian Ceramic Art, dinnerware and decorative items. Biordi's customers come from around the world to purchase their Italian Majolica pottery.

Then, I visited Macchiarini Creative Design. Founded by Peter Macchiarini, who began making avant-garde jewelry in 1936, son Daniel Macchiarini, and granddaughter Emma Leona Macchiarini Mankin carry on the family jewelry making and metal art tradition. A visit to this gallery and studio is always memorable; it has some of the most beautiful and interesting modernist jewelry made in America.

Next was City Lights Books, the independent bookstore founded in 1953 by Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter D. Martin. It is the writers, artists, and intellectuals who congregated at City Lights who became the Beat generation.

If you are looking for books by Ferlinghetti or Allen Ginsberg, or any other liberal thinkers, this is the place to come. It is always a treat to look through the books and I usually leave with a few new ones.

And, finally, I dropped in at Knitz & Leather, a boutique that features knit and leather clothing and accessories, all of which are made right here.

In my wanderings, I passed Lyle Tuttle Tattoos. Lyle Tuttle has been tattooing people in San Francisco since 1960. He is thought to be the person who brought tattooing into the main stream. His customers include many celebrities. His shop is now run by Tania NIxx.

There are not too many art galleries in North Beach. Today I finally got to visit one, the Paul Thiebaud Gallery, which I have wanted to visit for many years, but never got around to.

The gallery is a bit off the beaten path from the central part of North Beach. It features the work of American artists and sculptors, including the work of Thiebaud's father, Wayne Thiebaud, one of my favorite living American artists. The gallery is on Chestnut Street, between Columbus and Mason on a block that is mostly residential.

The gallery's current exhibit is Wayne Thiebaud's "Confection Memories." It shows through June 27, 2009.

My final stop was at the box office of Beach Blanket Bablyon, in Club Fugazi, to pick up tickets to a performance I will be attending this summer.

This lively cabaret show is celebrating its 35th year of performing in San Francisco. I don't know how many times I have seen the show, but every time, I am thoroughly entertained and leaving laughing. In the category of entertainment, I rank Beach Blanket Babylon as the most unique and memorable performance to experience in San Francisco.


mary ann said...

What a fabulous post ~ I'm going to print it out for our next North Beach visit. Thank you so much.

Yarka said...

I agree with Mary Ann ... what a fabulous post to read! It was like walking through the North Beach with you. Looking forward to my S.F. summer visit!