Sunday, November 15, 2009


To celebrate Debbie's birthday, I invited her to go with me on GraceAnn Walden's North Beach Pizza Lovers' Tour.

I have known GraceAnn for more than 20 years and Debbie for even longer. Both of these wonderful ladies are special personal friends.

GraceAnn is a food writer, cook, food expert, and all around bon vivant.

One of her many activities is to conduct her walking tours through different San Francisco neighborhoods. Over the years, I've been on her North Beach Tour several times...sometimes just for my own fun and education and sometimes with groups for whom I have organized tours. In all cases, the North Beach Tour is a full day of food, history, and fun. And, being with GraceAnn, especially on her North Beach tour, is like being with the mayor of North Beach...she knows just about everyone and always stops for a personal conversation. BUT, she doesn't leave those on her tour out of the action...everyone gets introduced and included and we all feel like these are our friends too. No matter how often I take GraceAnn's tours, I always make new discoveries.

The best way to get GraceAnn's schedule and description of tours is to email her at

Debbie and I got into San Francisco a bit early for the 10 a.m. start of our tour.

So, we stopped for coffee at La Boulange on Columbus Avenue, which seemed to be the busiest place in North Beach at this time of day.

La Boulange is a small local chain of moderately-priced French bakery cafés, with 8 locations in San Francisco and one each in Novato and Mill Valley. Knowing that we would be consuming a lot of food on our tour, we resisted the pastries and contented ourselves with hot drinks and the congenial atmosphere.

North Beach is often called San Francisco's "Little Italy." Many of its longtime businesses are Italian restaurants, bakeries, and food markets.

We met across the street from Sts. Peter & Paul Church in Washington Square Park.

Our tour started at Sts. Peter & Paul Church.

When we entered Sts. Peter & Paul, a baptism was going on. By the time we completed our visit, the day's first wedding was getting under way.

GraceAnn provided us with historic information about the church as well as pointing out art and architectural details.

Here she is expounding on St. Rocco who is known as the patron saint of the sick and the healer of incurable diseases.

This statue shows St. Rocco with a dog who kept him alive while he was sick with the plague. St. Rocco points to an open sore on his leg. The dog is said to have stolen bread from the castle where he lived and brought it to St. Rocco. The bread provided the sustenance for St. Rocco to recover.

From Sts. Peter & Paul, we went to Liguria Bakery, a family run bakery, dating back to 1911, whose only product is focaccia, with a variety of toppings.

Their focaccia is said to be the best and most authentic in San Francisco. At 11 a.m., they had just about sold out of the day's focaccia; when the focaccia sells out, they close for the day. This is what was left of the day's fresh focaccia.

These were the pieces of focaccia saved for our tasting.

We got to go into the back kitchen where the focaccia is baked. Here GraceAnn shows us the brick oven.

We sampled generous pieces of focaccia with pizza sauce topping and I was able to snare the very last piece of fresh with rosemary take home.

On our way to Liguria Bakery, we passed Mama's which has been a popular place for breakfast and lunch for as long as I can remember. It is across from Liguria and just up the block from Sts. Peter & Paul. Judging from the line of people waiting to get in, its popularity has not waned.

Next, we headed to Victoria Pastry, where their specialty cake is the St. Honoré Cake, a white cake frosted with whipped cream and topped with Saint-Honoré cream-filled puffs Victoria opened in San Francisco in 1914.

We relaxed here for awhile with our choice of coffee, tea, or water and sampled two kinds of Italian cookies.

The cookie on the left (Brutti Ma Buoni) is made with almond paste and candied fruit. The one on the right (Vanilla Ossi Dei Morti) is a meringue cookie with toasted nuts. Both were wonderful. Thanks to GraceAnn, I now know at least two of the cookies I will be buying for my Holiday entertaining.

We crossed the street to Little City Market, a family-run meat market.

Owner Ron Spinali and his son Michael were there to greet us with freshly cooked samples of the homemade Thanksgiving (pumpkin) sausage and freshly-shaved Parmesan cheese. Little City was founded in the 1940s by Ron's father.

GraceAnn pointed out that Little City sells the best veal in the Bay Area and regaled us with praise of just about everything that Little City sells.

I came away with two of the special Thanksgiving sausages...I was seeing the ingredients my dinner for the next night coming together...sausage, focaccia and more to come as the tour continued.

Taking a break from food, we visited the year-old Nuova Porziuncola, a small shrine next to St. Francis of Assisi church.

This shrine is a replica of the original Porziuncola (1209) that still stands in Assisi today. It is a symbol and sanctuary for peace and good. No photography is allowed inside, so you must visit this special shrine on your own.

Our last stop before lunch was a Biordi Ceramic Art Imports, where GraceAnn offered to hold our credit cards, should we need help in resisting buying the beautiful Italian Majolica and Classic Italian Pottery that fills the store, floor to ceiling. Biordi has been selling its imported ceramics since 1946.

Then, it was time for lunch at Tony's Pizza Napoletana!

After a morning of delicious food samples, none of us were famished, but once, seated at Tony's we had no trouble devouring each and tempting dish that GraceAnn had selected for us...and a bottle of wine and several optional (we had to pay for those) cocktails, and a round of cocktails sent to our table, compliments of Tony.

Tony Gemignani, who has won several Pizza making competitions, greeted us and checked in with us throughout our lunch, even during the busy Saturday lunch hour (no reservations and people line up on the sidewalk waiting for a table). Manager, Marni, and co-owner, Nancy, also stopped by to visit with us.

Tony also runs the International School of Pizza where they train their students to be Certified Pizza Makers. One of his current students was busy in the kitchen and looking forward to opening her own pizza restaurant in Boulder, Colorado, when she completes the program.

Our meal started with Deep Fried Green Beans,cooked with garlic and olive oil.

Next came bowls of Italian Style Meatballs.

And, the third and final starter course was a beautiful Green Salad.

Somewhere along the way, even though several of us were sipping both cocktails and red wine, we were all treated to a gin and apple juice cocktail...none of us turned it down!

And then we got going on three kinds of pizza.

The first one was the Margherita, for which Tony won the 2007 World Pizza Cup in Naples, Italy. He cooks this classic tomato, basil and mozzarella pizza in the wood burning oven and it takes exactly 90 seconds to cook. At GraceAnn's request, we were alerted of when our pizza was to be cooked, and dashed over to the kitchen to watch it cook from start to finish. Then we had to dash back to our table to eat it, because we were told it is best eaten in the first 3 minutes out of the oven.

Our second pizza was the New Jersey style Original Tomato Pie..Mozzarella, hand-crushed Tomato Sauce, Oregano, Garlic, Parmesan, and Olive Oil. I got so involved with consuming this one, that I forgot to take a picture.

The final pizza was the Cal Italia, a unique combination of Asiago, Mozzarella and Gorgonzola cheeses with Fig Preserves, Prosciutto, and reduced Balsamic vinegar. It too was delicious and, to me, more like a dessert pizza because of the sweetness from the Fig Preserves.

Then, those of us who wanted to purchase Tony's tee shirts consulted with Nancy on sizes and styles while the rest of continued to socialize.

After lunch, we made a quick "bonus" stop at Joe DiMaggio's across the street, just to take a look around this entire restaurant that pays tribute to Joe DiMaggio.

We focused on the Marilyn Monroe room. Despite only being married to Marilyn for nine month, Joe's marriage to her holds as much mystique as his legendary baseball career.

Our final stop was at XOX Truffles where we each received a small bag of handmade chocolate truffles...the true French kind chocolate truffles which are little irregularly-shaped soft chocolate mounds, rolled in powdered chocolate.

Because XOX is so tiny, GraceAnn first briefed us outside on the sidewalk.

Then we went in for a demonstration of truffle making and to receive our bags of truffles. Our hostess explained the truffle making process in between serving customers beverages and truffles. There are a few sidewalk tables outside and a small area in which to stand inside. If you buy a cup of coffee at XOX, you get a free truffle, in a flavor of your choosing (chef/owner Jean-Marc Gorce makes 27 different flavors), to go with it. I of strong willpower have not yet devoured the contents of my truffle bag (Debbie ate all of hers before we got out of the shop) and so far I like the Orange truffle the best, with the Green Tea truffle as a close second. I will be back here soon to purchase Holiday gifts for those to whom I give sweets.

And so ended our tour with GraceAnn.

I must note that while her tours may seem a bit expensive when you hear the cost (The North Beach tour is $80 per person), everyone gets much much more than their money's worth during an entire day with GraceAnn. And, once you have paid, your only added costs will be the cost of your transportation to the meeting place and any additional items that you purchase for yourself...all food and drink is included in the cost of the tour. And, best of all, you end your day with GraceAnn as your personal friend forever.

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