Tosca Cafe Makes the Most Out of a Vintage Espresso Machine

The 98-year-old North Beach institution has a cocktail list that shouldn't be ignored.

Rye Blush (Photo by Eric Pratt)

Closing in on the century mark, North Beach’s Tosca Cafe stands out amid a sea of cluttered Italian restaurants that show their age. Three years after NYC’s April Bloomfield and Ken Friedman took it over, ultimately putting it into the hands of chef Josh Even, the 98-year-old, dinner-only, North Beach institution remains a culinary landmark — and, with a kitchen that routinely stays open until after midnight, a late-night destination for other industry professionals.

It’s rustic. Even if you’re not in the mood for offal — which figures heavily on Tosca’s menu, from crispy pig tails to pressed pig ears to braised lamb neck — there’s plenty of pasta and polenta, plus a roast chicken for two.

And there are excellent cocktails, all of them $12.

Two lean heavily on a vintage Victoria Arduino espresso machine, a piece of equipment by the same Italian manufacturer that provides the gadget used in the World Barista Championships. The House “Cappuccino” 1919 (Laubade Armagnac, bourbon, Dandelion Chocolate ganache, and organic milk) and the White Nun (Chateau Laubade Armagnac, St. George Nola Coffee Liqueur, Manufactory Coffee syrup, and organic milk) operate as variations on the Irish-coffee theme, a classic that’s otherwise replicated all over the neighborhood. (Well, the White Nun is more like a robust hot chocolate.)

Further down the line, there’s a smooth, round, frozen-gin martini served on one giant ice cube with enough lemon to shave the jagged, herbaceous edges off the drink without adding a razor-like citrus note back in. Owing to the presence of falernum and orgeat, a Cynar Swizzle feels almost tiki-like, served in a tall glass and mastering that seven-seas nutty flavor one expects from the choicer beverages at places like Pagan Idol, but with the rigor that the artichoke-heavy bitters provides.

Dark and mysterious, the Godfather No. II nominally pays homage to Francis Ford Coppola, whose Cafe Zoetrope is within spitting distance. But it’s more Dean Martin than Don Corleone, made as it is with “Scotch whiskies,” amaretto, Amontillado sherry, Maraschino, and a brandied cherry. It’s also about as stiff as a well-balanced cocktail can ever get.

While the Cleopatra (reposado tequila, chamomile Grappa, amaro, and crème de menthe) is among the newer drinks on the roster, it’s the Rye Blush that’s the most fun. A mix of strawberry, rye, Aquavit, lemon, dry vermouth, and Benedictine, it’s tart and sweet and bitter all at once, every component holding the others together in a sort of loosely coiled harmony.

Puccini’s Tosca is a Napoleonic 1900 opera that turns on a plot point similar to Hitchcock’s Vertigo — which, of course, is set in and around San Francisco. (In each, a blonde woman resembles a portrait she habitually stares at.) There’s also a stabbing and a suicide. Although Tosca the restaurant has plenty of well-lit, aged-looking landscapes on the walls, it’s nowhere near that melodramatic. But if you’re sipping cocktails at the bar, you can see across the street to a second-story fortune-teller’s window where the neon sign reads “LOVE HAPPINESS SUCCESS.” None of those things came true for the doomed Tosca herself, but for the rest of us, there’s always hope.

Tosca Cafe, 242 Columbus Ave., 415-986-9651 or toscacafesf.com

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