Excellent Italian restaurants can still be found in the historic Little Italy in North Beach, but the best San Francisco restaurants specializing in the country’s diverse regional cuisine are scattered far and wide. Try our top picks for delicate fresh pasta, cult pizza and authentic meat and fish dishes.
San Francisco’s best Italian restaurants
Though Flour + Water's menu has recently been expanded with two to three meat, poultry and fish options, pasta and pizza are still the stars of the show. The kitchen staff slaves over every ingredient, cultivating and coddling textures and flavors until they meet the restaurant's exacting standards. Melt-in-your-mouth pastas are house-made daily, as is the salumi—whole animals are butchered on site and each part is used, from snout to tail. Pizzas from the Italian wood-fired 900-degree oven take exactly two minutes to cook, and arrive exquisitely thin with perfectly blistered crusts, topped with delicacies like fior di latte, squash blossoms, house-made pork sausage, and calabrian chili. The $65 five-course pasta tasting menu is worth the splurge. Book as far in advance as you can—the place is ridiculously popular. Or get there at 5:30pm and try for one of the walk-in spots.
The spirit of both Northern California and Italy shine through in this small, lively dining space. SPQR (an acronym for Senatus Populesque Romanus) has hit new heights under chef Matthew Accarrino, garnering a Michelin star and several James Beard nominations. His menu reflects a philosophy that is at once modern and traditional, with every detail of texture, flavor and presentation bearing a personal stamp. Raves are rightly earned for antipasti such as caramelized sweet onion panna cotta with sturgeon bacon and accarrino caviar, and for any of his handmade pastas (the meyer lemon fettuccini in an albalone alfredo will bowl you over). Pair them with owner/sommelier Shelley Lindgren's spectacular Italian wine list and it'll be an evening to remember.
Chef/owner Craig Stoll favors simplicity over whimsy, and tradition over fashion. Yet his food is never ordinary: Fresh pasta, fish and braised meats find the perfect balance of flair and flavor. The menu changes daily, reflecting Stoll's desire to stay on his toes. Recent standouts include garganelli pasta with liberty duck ragů and pancetta-wrapped rabbit saddle. Stoll's casual Pizzeria Delfina (415-437-6800) is next door, serving some of the best thin-crust pizzas in town. The Clam Pie with cherrystone clams and hot peppers is a perennial favorite.
On a street awash in knock-offs, this tiny osteria stands out for its humble authenticity. The room is the size of a postage stamp, but two Italian ladies and their oven deliver big time. The focaccia (and focaccia sandwiches) and thin-crust pizzas are top notch, and the singular roast of the day (pray for the roast pork braised in milk) is a labor of love and tenderness. The menu also features salads, soups and fresh pastas (try the penne baked in Bolognese and béchamel sauce). Baskets of warm focaccia keep you going while you wait for entrees, which you should accompany with a glass of Italian red. There's a full bar, with a nice selection of grappas as well. Cash only.
Owners Margherita Stewart Sagan and Sheryl Rogat started Piccino in a tiny space in Dogpatch, with a pizza dough recipe passed down through generations from Sagan's mother. Since then, they've moved into a giant yellow barn next door and sparked a Dogpatch renaissance of butchers, bakers, and messenger-bag makers. Thin-crust pizzas are still the focus of the menu, topped with everything from housemade sausage and roasted mushrooms to pancetta and pea tendrils. They've augmented the pizzas with main course options such as pork and beef polpette, and milk-braised pork with chickpeas, hungarian peppers, and salsa verde.
Don't come here looking for New York–style pizza. This is Tony Gemingnani's paean to Napoli, complete with ten different kinds of pizza baked in seven different ovens, ranging in temperature from 550 to 1,000 degrees. Gemingnani has an impeccable pedigree: He's the first American to win the World Champion Pizza Maker title in Naples, and the sometimes epic wait for a table in this busy corner of North Beach attests to his star power. Heavenly Tomato Pie made with hand-crushed tomato sauce and cooked in a 1,000-degree coal-fired oven, and the award-winning Margherita, with handmade San Felice-flour dough and San Marzano tomatoes (limited to 73 per day)—are just the tip of menu. Among the other dizzying choices are Detroit and Sicilian styles, stromboli and calzone.
Despite the fact that you can't buy a cigar at Mario's (or smoke one), you shouldn't miss this classic North Beach café, which drips with as much atmosphere as its fabulous oven-baked meatball focaccia sandwiches. Wedged like a slice of pie onto a prominent corner in North Beach overlooking Washington Square Park, it's the perfect perch to sip an Italian soda or a cappuccino and watch the world go by.
Creative cocktails are on equal footing with the menu at this smart, stylish southern Italian eatery, where a hip crowd squeezes in and mingles over concoctions such as the nuestra paloma (tequila, elderflower, cointreau, grapefruit and bitters) while sampling a wide array of antipasti; the selection might include eggplant caponatina with burrata; crescenza and broccoli rabe bruschetta; or Dungeness crab arancini. Anchoring the main courses are perfectly fired thin-crust pizzas topped with a variety of seasonal ingredients, but there is also a selection of risottos and a nightly meat or seafood special, such as cioppino or manzo short ribs.