Photo Courtesy Calzones
North Beach, on the northwestern edge of the city, is commonly called “Little Italy,” San Francisco’s most European neighborhood. Sidewalk cafes teem with elderly Italian men gesticulating over steaming espresso and pungent cigars. The sweet smells from Italian bakeries, delis and focaccia shops drift down inviting alleyways with boutiques, bars and restaurants to explore. Sacred, historic churches intermingle with the Beat Movement’s mystique, and artists capture the scenes on canvas in Washington Square Park. Wandering about in North Beach can’t help but evoke intrigue and enchantment.
Italian immigrants did much to shape North Beach in the early days. In fact, legend has it that they “saved” the neighborhood after the 1906 earthquake, keeping the ensuing fire at bay by draping rags—soaked in wine from their cellars—over their homes. Colors of the Italian flag are painted on street light poles and trash cans, though today many ethnicities make up the area. Baseball legend Joe DiMaggio grew up on these streets, returning to the neighborhood with film star Marilyn Monroe in the 1950s. Art masters Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera found inspiration exploring the neighborhood, living on the edge of North Beach briefly in the 1930s. Beat poets such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg mused, wrote and drank throughout its streets. Ginsberg first read his culture-shaping “Howl” at the legendary City Lights Bookstore.
The spires of Saints Peter & Paul Church punctuate the sky from Washington Square Park. From picturesque churches to cafe-lined streets, local culture is as vibrant as it ever was. Washington Square hosts movie nights, artists who display their work, dogs that romp, children who play and people who picnic. Neighborhood festivals abound, highlighting street chalk artists or chefs with the best pasta sauce. Writers, artists and musicians are integral to local culture, as is film: the iconic copper-green flatiron Sentinel Building houses Francis Ford Coppola’s American Zoetrope Studios.
Italian food may dominate North Beach in dozens of restaurants lining Columbus Avenue, but there is much more to the local cuisine. SF landmark Molinari’s Delicatessen has been making salami and meats since 1896, while Liguria Bakery has been baking focaccia slabs nearly as long. Stalwarts like Mama’s on Washington Square serve one of the city’s most popular breakfasts, while long-timer Albona highlights Istrian cuisine, a blend of Eastern European and Italian foods. North Beach culinary pleasures are diverse: Belgian, Basque, seafood, Asian fusion, Persian, Irish and Mexican are just a few of the cuisines done well here.
North Beach boasts some of San Francisco’s hottest nightlife. Broadway teems with flashy bars and pulsing clubs, and around the corner, Tosca still serves up the “house cappuccinos”—brandy and hot chocolate—that enabled the local institution to survive Prohibition; keep your eye out for celebrities who like to linger in the private back room. The Saloon, circa 1860, rocks nightly with live blues. Barbary Coast-style watering holes like Comstock Saloon and 15 Romolo serve creative cocktails and food reminiscent of another era. Dives, pubs and wine bars co-exist with cocktail havens. Everywhere, cafes stay open late, grinding coffee beans and inviting conversation.