Walking through Little Italy
(Sunday night) Why can’t I write this? I had a good time, saw some fun sights, ate some good food. The words just aren’t coming.
Bob Munson wangled a free walking tour of North Beach/Little Italy last week. 15 of us had a great time on Saturday afternoon, stopping in at a half dozen cool eateries to sample the wares while learning a bit of history.
The tour was provided by Taste Bud tours, a company which leads this sort of tour in a number of major cities–which is how Bob found them when Nancy Munson and Sheryl Nagy took a tour of New Orleans during the nationals. Bob told them he knows a famous blogger, and we all got a freebie. I guess they hope I’ll write something nice about the tour. I think I probably will.
As San Francisco grew during and after the gold rush, the area from Fisherman’s Wharf up the hills towards Broadway and Columbus was populated by Italian immigrants, who made up the bulk of the fishing fleet. After you crossed Broadway, it became Chinatown.
(Monday night. Still plugging away)
Our group met at The Italian Homemade Company, on Columbus Avenue. We were called to order by our guide, Jim. A tall bearded man with a gentle air, he clearly knew his business and took charge easily and smoothly.
Italian Homemade is a relatively new establishment, run by recent immigrants from Italy. They make fresh pastas and sauces, to eat in or take out.
Every stop along the way of the tour includes a bite to eat. For our first adventure, we had lasagna. Although I love pasta more than anything other food, I’ve never been much of a lasagna fan, not even Mom’s, and hers was good. The bite they gave us here could change my mind forever:
Light delicate pasta, a perfect blending of the sauce and the cheese, this is the lasagna I’ve been looking for all my life.
(Tuesday afternoon) After they dragged me out, kicking and screaming, we took the short stroll down the street to XOX Truffles. The owner, Jean-Marc Gorce, started out as a chef at Fringale, but the pressure got to his heart, so he took the low pressure route of opening his own store, where he manufactures phenomenal truffles for both the retail and wholesale markets.
Jean Marc came out of the kitchen to tell us about his life and his truffles, then he made some for us to taste. The store is tiny, and we all had crowd in tightly. Then some big guy had to barge his way to the front to take pictures.
The truffles are tiny globs of something wonderful, enrobed in chocolate ganache and then rolled in cocoa powder, ground nuts, or whatever else strikes the chocolatier’s fancy. XOX makes over 30 different varieties.
Everyone got a couple of truffles, and many an addiction was begun.
Suitably sated with chocolate, our group meandered up the street to Washington Square for some more talk about the history of the area. I think Jim needs to study a bit more about the history of Telegraph Hill; it was not the site of the first telegraph in the city. Nonetheless, it was a lovely, perfect day in the City, a rare gift for all of us suburbanites.
Next stop was Tony’s Pizza Napoletana, a North Beach landmark for ages. Tony is a bit of a fanatic–when he goes to the big pizza competition in Italy, he ships his own coal fired brick oven. On the other hand, since he’s won the world championship more than once so I guess he knows what he is doing.
We found tables outside, in what was once a parking spot but has been converted to a privately owned public space. I don’t quite understand it, but it makes the city nicer and more liveable. We all got a slice of Tony’s pie:
I have a conflict of interest in talking about somebody else’s pizza–I think Fat Slice is the best around. That said, this was interesting because they use a very good pepperoni, albeit not much much of it. The crust is thinner and limper than I like, but the sauce is very good and I guess it’s a good slice of pizza if you don’t happen to own a pizza store of your own.
As we were leaving Tony’s, our guide called ahead to our next stop, A Cavalli Cafe. They make a fabulous cannoli, so fresh they don’t start piping the filling until we are on our way. This is a cafe very much like what you will find in Rome, except for the cigarettes. The old San Francisco photos on the wall, from when the building housed an Italian newspaper, were fascinating. The cannoli was incredible, if you like that sort of thing:
A crispy shell filled with slightly sweetened ricotta. Truly the genesis of the most famous line from the Godfather: “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.”
Crossing Columbus Avenue, we walked over to the parking garage behind the police station, passing the house where Joe DiMaggio was born before his family moved to Martinez. There are benches outside the police station where very elderly Chinese while away the hours in safety. The parking garage across the street is adorned with photos of local people who paid to be immortalized in exchange for funding the building.
Our purpose here was to go to the roof of the the parking structure and enjoy the best view in North Beach.
Next stop, Cafe Greco for tiramisu.
Cafe Greco is very Eurpoean in that people can just come and sit and nurse a coffee for hours, without being hustled along. It’s a much a social club as a cafe. They make pretty tasty tiramisu, too>
Walking towards our last stop, I saw this magnificent Mini Cooper
(Tuesday night after dinner. I’ll work this out if it kills me)
But why is it parked in a loading zone, with no ticket? Walking around to the front it becomes clear:
The car is advertising for the restaurant, and whatever palms are necessary have been properly greased so they car just stays in the loading zone. That’s life in the big city.
The Mona Lisa is the last stop on the tour. We sank into our chairs at a table for 16, and they fed us a lovely dish of gnocchi tricolore, potato dumplings with 3 sauces.
This wasn’t the best gnocchi I’ve ever had, I thought they lacked texture and were overcooked. The pesto sauce, normally my favorite, was bland and tasteless. The white sauce, more a bechamel than alfredo sauce, was the best thing on the plate. None of which really matters, because it was the sixth place we had been to in 3 hours of touring and tasting and nobody really needed any more to eat. (I suppose I should mention that all the food is included in the $44 price of the tour, you are on your own for wine. That strikes me as completely reasonable.)
The tour ends right there–you can stay and eat as long as you want to. Our guide said goodbye and urged us all to write glowing reviews on Trip Advisor.
The day was a success as far as I’m concerned. All of us had a good time, enjoyed the food and learned a bit about the history of North Beach. The total walk was less than a mile, nothing too strenuous or difficult. The pace was pleasant, not the least bit rushed. We never felt like a squad of Japanese tourists madly following a guide through the Louve.
Taste Bud Tours did a professional job, including recommending a reasonable place to park in the crowded and expensive city. Our guide was clearly experienced, knowledgeable, friendly, affable, avuncular and prepared for all circumstances. He herded our group of cats expertly and joyfully.
Looks like the company is going to get the good write-up they wanted after all.
(Finished. Finally. Perseverance conquers all.)
Great report — very informative.
The “telegraph” for which the hill was named was indeed the first — but it was a semaphore, not an electric telegraph. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Telegraph_Hill,_San_Francisco