North Beach

All in la Famiglia

Before we ordered, a charming waiter placed a silver bowl on the table between us --a complimentary appetizer of whole beans, perfectly al dente, seasoned with salt, pepper, garlic and parsley and marinated in olive oil. A Tuscan triumph--simply prepared yet abundantly tasty.

Baccala, a Friday special, is cured salt cod that has been soaked until it reconstitutes, then sautéed and served in a mild pomodoro sauce, and accompanied by a generous portion of polenta. The chunks of fish were both firm and flaky, and the sauce was pleasantly light enough not to eclipse the flavor of the cod.

Another signature La Felce dish, the Gnocchi Verdi with pesto, recently appeared in the glossy pages of Saveur alongside a photo of Liliano. This adaptation of the Ligurian dish was incredibly light and smooth-the dumplings nearly float before melting in the mouth--not at all the dense, doughy potato bombs that pass as gnocchi elsewhere.

The prosciutto room at North Beach Restaurant
Dan Dion
The prosciutto room at North Beach Restaurant

Location Info

Map

Firenze by Night Ristorante

1429 Stockton
San Francisco, CA 94133

Category: Restaurant > Italian

Region: North Beach/ Chinatown

Details

Firenze By Night--1429 Stockton St, 392-8585
Tommaso's--1042 Kearny St., 398-9696
La Felce--1570 Stockton St., 392-832
Sodini's Green Valley Restaurant--510 Green St., 291-0499
North Beach Restaurant--1512 Columbus Ave, 392-1700

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At 6 p.m. on a Thursday, the bar at Sodini's was already filling up with regulars. Handsome Peter Sodini, a native San Franciscan who owns the place with brother Mark, mixed cocktails while the kitchen staff chopped and stirred, the heady perfume of garlic already pungent.

The brothers cut their teeth on this Green St. block, where their father owned Cuneo Bakery, and the two later opened the perennially popular Golden Boy--a legendary pizza joint serving thick, scrumptious Sicilian-style slices to North Beach revelers.

"People come here for the rack of lamb, the chicken picatta, the huge portions, and the laid back atmosphere," Tony, a native and a firefighter, told me over a cold pint while I waited for a table. "And the pizza's great too."

Soon, the place was crowded with a mix of locals, families, and couples, tucking into platters of carbonara (a rich, creamy pasta sauce made with pancetta and egg), all manner of linguine preparations, gigantic salads dripping with a zesty creamy Italian dressing, and the night's special--osso bucco.

Bartender/hostess extraordinaire Ana Handelman swooped by the table to say hello, simultaneously bussing glasses, dropping off baskets of bread, and seating guests. Her infectious smile and quick wit has made her an institution at this place. Peter Sodini says, "She's trademark."

Our pizza arrived, and it proved to be a champion among San Francisco thin-crust pies. With each bite I relinquished my East Coast pizza superiority to the Sodini's pie.


Lunch with Lorenzo began at noon. We met at North Beach Restaurant, the neighborhood institution he has presided over for 31 years--a place where glitterati hob nob in private rooms, local politicians scheme over plates of veal scaloppini, and seasoned, tuxedoed waiters anticipate every need.

Lorenzo Petroni had decanted two bottles of wine already--a Sangiovese and a Cabernet, made from grapes grown organically on his Sonoma Valley vineyard. Both wines were excellent and continued to "grow in the glass" as the meal progressed.

"First we try some prosciutto," our gregarious, large-living host announced, dispatching a waiter to bring the house delicacy cured on the premises-- some 300 legs of proscuitto dangle from the ceiling in the cellar below--while instructing me to sprinkle salt into the dish of olive oil beside my plate.

After we teased our palates with the sublime and salty ham, a plate of thickly sliced vine-ripened tomatoes layered with mozzarella and drizzled with virgin olive oil, (another product of Petroni's Sonoma digs) arrived, and Lorenzo regaled us with tales of his various hobbies and cottage industries--his wine collection (500+ bottles), real estate holdings (including a flat in Florence with a view of the Duomo), and his investment in a bacterial agent that cleans water naturally, eliminating the use of chemicals.

Next, the flavor and simplicity of Tuscan cuisine was successfully achieved in Chef Bruno Orsi's two rustic soups--Farro dalla Garfagnana, a hearty, porridge-like stew made with spelt flour and braschette , and Farinata de Lucca, a delicious, wintery bean soup, with a dollop of olive oil floating on top--a meal in itself.

But lunch was far from over.

The next three hours were an orgy of flavors, textures and tastes: sand dabs prepared in a light "Mugnaia" sauce with wine, butter, capers and lemon; the chef's signature osso bucco; chicken al Mattone, rolled in herbs and cooked under a brick; and garden fresh sautéed broccoli rabe.

After a cheese course of French Roquefort, and homemade lemon sorbet served in a dainty silver cup, this ultimate host pulled out a 53-year-old bottle of grappa. North Beach Restaurant has the largest collection of the mighty Italian elixir around, (more than 50 bottles).

"Now you're dangerous," Lorenzo declared, laughing, after schooling me on the proper grappa drinking technique. Confident that I got it, he poured another round.

Now, who's dangerous?

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