San Francisco is a famously food-loving city, so one way to learn about the city is by exploring its neighborhoods through the things you can eat.
A few weeks ago, my friend Noel was in town and he asked me to come up to join him on a culinary walking tour of the city. I was eager to tag along because this walk, organized by Local Taste of the City Tours, focused on a region I’ve been wanting to explore – San Francisco’s historic “Little Italy,” North Beach.
Our tour guide, Blandina, was a friendly and eccentric local artist with blond hair in long pigtails–San Franciscan through and through. Yes, Blandina is her real name, and no, she doesn’t use her last name. She doesn’t need to–she’s lived in North Beach for over 30 years and everyone we passed on the street knew her name.
Over the course of three hours, we wandered just a few blocks around Washington Square Park and in the shadow of Saints Peter and Paul Church. Like much of San Francisco, Blandina explained, this massive cathedral had its roots before the 1906 earthquake and fires that destroyed much of the city. This new cathedral was completed in 1924. Local boy, Joe DiMaggio famously returned to the steps of the church for wedding photos after marrying Marilyn Monroe in 1954.
The highlights of the tour included:
- A behind-the-scenes look at North Beach Bakery, a French-Italian bakery that has been supplying the community with bread for over 100 years. The door behind their tiny storefront enters into a grand, industrial bakehouse pierced by skylights and a massive brick oven dating back to the 1880’s. The oven takes so long to heat up that they never turn it off. If they did, the deeply radiating bricks would take over three months to cool down. We tried their decadent coconut macaroons and their fresh biscotti, which was surprisingly soft and melted in my mouth.
- Coffee at Cafe Roma, a local roaster operating since the 1960’s and serving Italian-style espresso beans to high-end restaurants in San Francisco. While I’m not sure it fit the smooth and balanced espresso I tried, I think their motto is gorgeous: Black as night, strong as sin, sweet as love, hot as hell.
- Traditional Italian sweets at Stella Pastry and more modern confections (like creatively flavored fudge) at Z Cioccolato.
- Sicilian pasta at Pinocchio Trattoria and Roman-style pizza at Cine Citta Ristorante. Both proprietors were born and raised in Italy, and when we were there, all the staff and customers were speaking Italian.
- Learning about the recent changes to the neighborhood, most importantly the shift from being an artist, immigrant, and “hippy” enclave to more recently, affluent and professional residents.
As it would be for traveler or local alike, it was a great tour and recommended for anyone looking to experience the food and culture of this historic part of San Francisco.
Thanks to Local Taste of the City Tours for inviting me on this walk. Opinions and photos are my own.