For Italians, there is nothing more important than family, and there’s no better way to show loved ones just how much you care than through cooking. Love and food go hand-in-hand in this country, and while the dishes are not always inline with the healthy attitudes of California culture, residents tend to imbibe on occasion anyway. Why? Because the Italians’ love of food truly shines through in their cooking, enough so that guests at these local restaurants feel like part of the family with every bite.
One of the best things about Italian food in San Francisco is the diversity. Restaurants run the gamut from sophisticated, contemporary and elegant to young and high energy to whimsical and romantic. These spots appear in a variety of neighborhoods, from the Mission to the Fillmore and Pacific Heights. Bellissimo.
Bar Bambino Restaurant and Wine Bar
Hours: Mon to Thurs—5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m., Fri to Sat—5 p.m. to Midnight
Proprietor and wine director Christopher Losa will talk Italy, bicycling and his love for Italian food with surprising Slavic twists with his guests. Diners will love that each course comes with a suggested wine pairing.
The menu has a beautiful affettati e formaggi (meats and cheeses) menu selection of select cheeses and cured meats from local to international artisans. Primi choices (appetizers) include an octopus carpaccio, refreshing and served chilled with delicate, petal thin slices that resemble pressed white flowers with purple edges; and a satisfying tender pork belly served with caramelized apple sauce and crisp apple salad with just the right touch of fennel.
Pasta includes a light and healthy Viennese topfenknodel, tender and crisp Tyrolean goat cheese dumplings Losa calls malfatti on a bed of tangy kale and warm crushed walnuts paired with Fratelli Barale Bussia Nebbiolo from Barolo, Italy. Also try a classic potato gnocchi with a beautiful sweet and light oxtail sauce topped with an invigorating horseradish cren paired with Rosi Schuster Sankt Laurent from Burgenland, Austria.
The dolci (dessert) here is simply elegant and lovely enough to paint. Indulge in a small, poached pear with walnut sauce or the honey pine nut crostata, a warm and chewy tart with a local, delicate lavender honey. Pastry chef Alyce Shields accents this beauty with a tiny crisp of caramel and a square of Gorgonzola picante.
Farina Focaccia & Cucina Italiana
Horus: Tues to Sun—5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m., Fri to Sat—5 p.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday Brunch: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Farina, founded by Luca Minna and Laura Garrone, offers time-tested Italian dishes by chefs Paolo and Angelo in a luminous and airy corner location. Adding to the ambiance of this charming restaurant is a huge picture window and skylights, large-grained marble from the Michelangelo cave in Carrera, and century-old marble sinks and countertops from Genoa. If that’s not enough, Farina also offers rooftop seating.
Chef Minna emphasizes that Farina is all about heart, and his love for food shines through in the artistic details of his dishes. Farina is known for it’s silky pasta made with wine and cheese incorporated into the dough, and diners rave about the handmade handkerchief pasta with Genovese basil and almond pesto. The Focacce Calde includes the staple Focaccia di Recco with Stracchino cheese melted between the layers. Chef Angelo, from Bergamo near Milano, shaves a white truffle with a nutty, rustic aroma and appearance of a hard cheese and costs $3,000 to $4,000 a pound.
Open 11:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m.
Closes at 10:15 p.m. Sunday through Thursday
An elegant, light and airy place located on a vibrant corner in a world class tourist location, Trattoria Pinocchio is perfect for a casual date. Sit under the buffoon movie poster from the Roberto Bernigni film “Pinocchio,” sip a glass of pinot by the window overlooking Columbus while awaiting the lunch special for just $12.95. The robust vegetarian lasagna with spinach pasta melts in your mouth. The timbalo gusto appetizer so closely resembles a work of art it’s a shame to slice it into halves to share—two jumbo scallops grilled and wrapped in bacon next to a tower of Portobello mushrooms, eggplant, zucchini, tomato and fresh mozzarella in a port wine reduction for $12. The elegant Italian waiters are funny, instructing each other to go easy with the parmesan cheese and grater, “not too much, it’s expensive.”
The Stinking Rose
Hours: Open 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.
If you are visiting and want to take the gang or family someplace whimsical and funny, The Stinking Rose is an amusement park that claims it seasons its garlic with food. This restaurant can also be supremely romantic, offering privacy in the curtained booths with chandeliers reflected in antique mirrors, or a tiny private terrace strung with lights. The Stinking Rose makes a colorful if not edifying impression as artists bring the bulb to life and tell of the city’s history and culture through wall-to-wall garlic murals attracting.
As far as the food goes, The Stinking Rose is known for the oil, vinegar, basil and garlic sauce that is served with bread. Try the roasted mussels and the arugula pesto or the popular forty-clove garlic chicken at $19.95.
Steps of Rome
Hours: Mon to Fri—11 a.m. to 2 a.m., Sat to Sun—11 a.m. to 3 a.m.
Soccer fans packed in front of the two television screens watching Italia win the World Cup a few years back and the singing of Ole’ Ole’ Ole’ Ole rang into the evening. The 3 a.m. closing time at Steps of Rome indicates the energy here. Generally this young, urban, international spot keeps the music pumping all day with fresh air and sunlight filling the room.
Steps of Rome Café offers lovely sorbets like spiced rum raisin, good for San Francisco’s summer in winter this year. Try the salmon special, crab ravioli or homemade chicken parmesan and finish with the tiramisu. Or enjoy a lovely cappuccino for $2.65 and sit outside watching the world. Espresso drinks start at a reasonable $1.65.
Hours: Mon to Sun—6 a.m. to 2 a.m.
Vesuvio Cafe’ covers its walls with great photographs and memorabilia by rogue artists and free spirits from the last few decades of, including a photograph of Herb Caen’s typewriter. This lively place is great for getting together with the girls for a tall cold one after a world class hike along the Embarcadero to Telegraph Hill and Coit Tower, with it’s descent through China Town to North Beach. Patrons also sit and snack in the gallery upstairs with windows all around.
Cindy Warner is a freelance writer and a San Francisco Bay Area native. Cindy has covered SF theater and opera for Examiner.com via her bicycle since January 2009. Check out her work on Examiner.com.