San Francisco North Beach Food Tour
My first morning in San Francisco. I still remember it as if it was just this morning. I woke up, had a huge breakfast and with a map in my hand headed to the North Beach. I already knew the North Beach had no beach, not any more (in the 1850’s it still did) even though it did keep the name of the neighborhood. Just to sound cooler.
North Beach Food Tour was how I was going to get to know this neighborhood first. It was my first tour in San Francisco and also my first food tour ever. It makes no sense to me why I’ve never taken any food tour. I mean, I am one of the biggest foodies out there!
But there’s always a first time.
And I can only say there was no better place to eat my way through a place than the North Beach, the Little Italy in the well-known foggy town. Honestly, San Francisco North Beach food tour was one of the reasons that helped me realized later on how much I love San Francisco.
John Bilicska, our tour guide, was waiting for us already outside of the Cinecitta restaurant. We already had something to talk to with John as his mother had Polish/Slovak origins and he visited Slovakia 🙂 Finally no need to say Slovakia is not in Russia and we don’t even speak Russian!
Our first out of 5 stops during the food tour was Caffe Roma. Its Italian owner Tony roasts his own coffee here and we had a chance to see exactly how it is done. That’s one of the reasons why all the 5 stops are chosen out of hundreds restaurants and cafeterias in the North Beach – local places where you can see people preparing everything with no artificial ingredients.
After having a coffee or hot chocolate (of course I had dark hot chocolate and it tasted delicious!), John explained us all the details about roasting coffee beans here. From greyish coffee beans with no smell it takes some 25 minutes to get dark roasted coffee beans filling the whole neighborhood with nice smell. Then, after an hour of cooling down, the roasted beans are left for another day or two like which makes cream on top of your coffee then.
”So why is Caffe Roma different?” I asked John.
”Around 25 kg of coffee beans are roasted at the same time, all roasted the same and then do not have any bitter taste. And, Tony roasts with love.” John smiled.
Love and passion do make everything better, I nodded.
The Sun started shining and there were no clouds left on the sky. We walked to the Washington Square where I watched a few groups of older Chinese people practising tai chi exercise. In between all the food stops John was telling us stories about the neighborhood and its history.
And trust me, he knew it very well. There are days when he doesn’t even get out of here at all. Very quickly I started to understand why he was so much in love with the most European neighborhood in the most European city in the US. Maybe that was even one of the reasons why I fell in love with San Francisco too.
The funny fact about the Washington Square is that it is not even a square, it’s a rectangle. We took a short stop by the firemen statue here to find out it was one of the 2 memorials to Lillie Hitchcock. When the statue was raised in 1933, one of the firemen had a whiskey bottle in his hand and made everyone laughing.
Then we walked outside of the white Saints Peter and Paul Roman Catholic church, dominant at the square. Built in the mix of Romanesque and Gothic styles is located at 666 Filbert Street, ironic, right? Marilyn Monroe took her wedding photo here after the civil marriage with Joe DiMaggio.
We made our way up the Telegraph hill closer to the Coit Tower that is visible from the whole neighborhood. The tower was built as the second memorial to Lillie Hitchcock who at the age of 15 started helping the local firemen and thus became a local hero. Then she wore a fireman uniform with a pin and married a healthy man – Coit. After her death she left part of her money to the city and so the tower and the statue were built.
We got to our second stop North Beach Italian French Bakery. To be honest I try to avoid bread as much as I can because I love it so much I just cannot say no once it is just in front of me. So did I say no now to bread? No, I did not 😀
Here too we could see all the behind the scenes. Even though the bread baking was over for that day as they start at 3 am, John let us enter the bakery and see the 130-year-old ovens using no wood nor coal to heat up but natural gas.
I stood up next to the massive oven and watched John open it. The bricks are heated up to 2,000 Fahrenheit and just 20 minutes are necessary to get bread with a crispy outside and fluffy inside.
Afterwards, we tasted hard sour bread, chocolate biscotti and a chocolate and coconut award winning macaroon. OMG! I let the couple on the tour with me to have just a piece of each and then I finished everything else. The coconut macaroon was melting in my mouth like a snowflake in my hand. Unbelievable!
And then it was time for even more chocolate as our third stop was Z Cioccolato famous for chocolate fudge. We observed chocolateur Jessie making chocolate fudge with nuts and then the cashier Alex let us taste orange choco swirl, milk choco fudge, cougar butter and white tiger fudge. I had half of each and then took the rest with me and had it later after the Mandarin Oriental spa.
Walking around the North Beach was more than welcome with that full stomach I had. Just a few metres from the oldest structure in the area, the St. Francisco de Assisi church finished in 1852, we entered the world know Caffe Trieste, the Beat generation meeting place. The Caffe founded by Papa Gianni in 1956 became famous due to people such as Lawrence Ferlinghetti or Ford Coppola who wrote the Godfather here.
The Beatniks were always one of the worst topics for me at the University but I still found the Caffe Trieste very inspirational. With the walls covered with hundreds of photographs from the famous people writing or playing here had a special charm to it.
On the way to our forth food stop we passed the Saloon from 1861, the oldest existing bar in San Francisco that survived the earthquake in 1906. And believe it or not, I also saw the birthplace of the world’s first topless and bottomless entertainment, the Condor. In this bar Ms. Carol Doda started a topless tradition here in 1964 showing off her first silicone boobs! The famous red nipple sign at the entrance to the Condor was used in many SF movies. Nowadays, Ms. Carol owns also an XXL shop and sings and plays a piano in the Condor every Monday.
Then I met one of the most beautiful streets of San Francisco – Jack Kerouac Alley. Called Adler Alley before, is now all painted by local artists. Loved it!
Talking about the growth of the Beat generation in San Francisco before, we had to see the famous City Lights Booksellers & Publishers bookstore that published beatniks. I heard of it many times at the University classes back in Czech Republic. Howl by Allen Gingsberg was published here in 1955 and in 1957 Gingsberg was pronounced obscene because of it. Anyway, more than 1 million Howl copies have been sold already.
We made our way to Trattoria Pinocchio, our forth food stop where we tasted fresh penne with tomato sauce and basil. (I came back to this place later on my own and met the owners.) When having lunch here, John, our guide pointed at his house.
”Going a mile away from my house counts as an adventure.” John continued the story of his life. ”Everything is right here, food, bookstore, free festivals, view of the Ocean from the Coit Tower, music …”
The fact that we were a bit late to our last, fifth stop proved we were having a great time. We finished the tour where we started it, at Cinecitta restaurant where Romina, the owner herself, let us taste the best of her cuisine. As 400 years ago the olive trees were planted in California, we tasted 3 olive oils from the area: unfiltered Bariani – peppery, bitter taste; Stutz – filtered, sweeter taste and Lucero that tasted smooth, soft and well-balanced. It still amazes me how many different tastes can olive oil have!
Bread, mozzarella and tomato afterwards were followed by traditional Roman pizza crust with fresh tomato sauce with no added sugar. Romina is proud of her sweet and sour tomato sauce that does not have a ketchup taste. The pizza crust with roasted mushrooms was delicious indeed!
”People from LA think they are cool because they hang out with the stars. The San Franciscans think they are cool because they are stars.” … everyone in San Francisco is an artist or musician, I was told.
That was the last thing I learned on the food tour …
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