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Sergio was kneading dough for the gnocchi when I stopped by. I slipped onto a stool at the bar to wait, the scent of roasted coffee beans thick in the air. Crisp white napkins were folded into "bishop hats" on tables, the obligatory homage to Frank hung on a salmon-colored wall. Waiters and cooks dashed around, prepping for a busy night which included a party in the private Sala Medici dining room.
San Francisco, CA 94133
Region: North Beach/ Chinatown
For twelve years, Sergio Giuisti has been serving traditional Italian fare at Firenze By Night. As the name suggests, many of the dishes have a Tuscan spin, and are based on recipes Sergio brought with him from his native Pescia, a small medieval market town west of Florence. The robust Pappardelle Toscana is one such dish. A ragout of thinly sliced roasted rabbit is finished with a veal stock and white wine, and served over wide, flat house-made pasta noodles. Then there's the Gnocchi Firenze--plump, delicate-tasting potato dumplings smothered in a velvety "Aurora" sauce of fresh tomatoes with a touch of cream. Sergio also makes a deliciously tart and dangerously potent limoncello--a refreshing Italian digestif bursting with ripe lemons, sweetened with sugar, served chilled.
Some nights, Sergio's wife Marcia fills in as hostess, and on summer evenings when school's out, diners might be greeted by Valentina, their oldest daughter, while son Paolo clears tables and young Nadia helps Dad in the kitchen.
Firenze is one of what has become an increasing rarity in San Francisco: the multi-generational, family-owned and operated Italian restaurant. In an era of celebrity chefs, style-before-substance meals, and Chez Panisse wannabes, the simplicity of the family restaurant is going by way of the single screen movie house. Fortunately in North Beach, there are still a number of them left.
Agostino tipped me off, so I waited for a Tuesday night to dine at Tommaso's, when his sister Lidia was cooking. A chilly fog hung over the city, but when I ducked into the cozy Kearny St. cellar, a rush of garlic-scented warmth enveloped me. The 70- year-old oak-fired brick oven in the corner reaches 750-800 degrees and can cook a pizza in under five minutes, ensuring that the small subterranean restaurant is always pleasantly toasty.
Pizza is what Tommaso's is famous for, and rightfully so. The thin-crust Neapolitan-style pies are outstanding-crisp yet tender crust, tangy tomato sauce, not overwhelmed by a half-inch of cheese. I judge a great pizza as one that doesn't need a pile of ingredients heaped on it, one that stands out in its simplicity. If it's made well, a simple Margherita pizza is all you need.
But pizza is not the only thing that the Crotti family does well.
A basket of heavenly garlic bread arrived at the table first, instead of the standard loaf. Served hot from the oven, the crust is crunchy, while inside the bread is pillowy soft, buttery, and loaded with garlic. My date and I shared a vegetarian antipasto--a kaleidoscopic platter of marinated zucchini, eggplant, green beans, chickpeas, asparagus, broccoli, roasted peppers, and a sweet yet vinegary red onion.
The highlight of the meal was Lidia's signature lasagna. Seven micro-thin sheets of pasta layered with restrained coatings of creamy ricotta and bathed in a well-spiced meat sauce. No single ingredient overwhelms--the result is near perfection in balance, texture and flavor, bringing this stalwart comfort food into a new realm.
Dessert was a sweet, flaky cannoli served with espresso. As the hour grew late, and the restaurant emptied, members of the Crotti family gathered in a corner booth near the kitchen.
"My father came here in 1969 from Lake Como in Northern Italy, looking for a business that would keep the family together," explains proprietor Agostino. And he found just that. A true family operation, his sister Carmen is a co-owner, sister Lydia cooks, nieces Tina, Jessica and Marina wait tables, nephew Dario founded the wine club, son Giorgio works the door on weekends, and his 78-year old father still comes in daily to do the books.
"The menu you see today is basically the same as it was in the "30s," he continues. "We introduced some of our dishes--the lasagna, the cheese ravioli with pesto, but 90 percent is the original Neapolitan-style recipes passed down from the Lupo family, the original owners."
A visit to La Felce is like stepping into your favorite grandparents' living room. Romano Marcucci, a native of Lucca, has kind, sparkling blue eyes and can usually be found behind the curved mahogany bar, while his petite and gracious wife Flora greets guests at the door. In the kitchen, brother-in-law Liliano has dished up plates of classic, un-fussy Italian food for 28 years.
Romano tapped his finger on a box on the top of the lengthy menu. "You see that?" he asks, indicating where it reads: FULL COURSE DINNER includes antipasto, salad, soup, pasta, entrée and ice cream or coffee. "We give you lotsa good food, and reasonable prices."
I stopped by for lunch on a recent afternoon. The four-course lunch option seemed a bit daunting for my level of appetite, (choice of minestrone, broth, pasta or salad, entrée, dessert or coffee for a mere $12.50), so I chose to sample a couple of house specialties a la carte.