While I review a lot of places on Italy in SF, there are a handful I keep on going back to, where I can be considered somewhat of “a regular”. These are the places where I take visitors I want to impress, family who refuses to eat outside their comfort zone, and the places I constantly find are the top of my list when someone asks for a recommendation. I don’t mean to say the other places I have written reviews for are not as good (Farina jumps to mind, where I find the food to be spectacular!), just that there are places where I keep on going back to because I find the atmosphere, the food, the set-up “comforting” and welcoming.
For the first year of Italy in SF, let me present you my favorite spots!
I cannot possibly recommend La Ciccia enough. I visit them every time we are in the mood for fantastic seafood or dishes you don’t usually see on menus. I think Massimiliano and Loretta are fantastic, their hospitality is heart warming, and they run possibly the only top restaurant in the city who doesn’t employ a PR! I love La Ciccia, and their specialty dinners are not to be missed (although rarely do they make it to their mailing list, people always reserve a spot before they even know when they can do it!).
My other go-back to restaurant in the city is Perbacco. I love the hearty meats, the full flavors, and the very Piedmont-rooted cuisine of chef Steffan Terje, the only Swedish-born Italian chef I wold trust close to my dish! I find the agnolotti plate, for example, has only one fundamental flaw: at one point, it finishes. I could eat those agnolotti every day for a year and not get bored… I also like the BART-friendly location and how I can justify working lunches in the Financial District!
My favorite pizza in the city is the newly-opened Pizza Nostra in Portrero. The restaurant is French-owned (*gasp*!), but they called their pizzaiolo from Salerno and installed the new-generation ovens from Reggio Emilia, and the pizza turns out quite impressive. I have been on a quest for the best pizza in town with my friend Barbara, and after trying many, many places Pizza Nostra surprised us with a top pizza performance (and ample free parking!).
I am a South Bay dweller. I live in Palo Alto and for some reason I keep on thinking of this area as my second home. When I moved to San Jose in 2001 from Italy I was appalled by the lack of decent food options available, and look at that, now there are multiple little places to enjoy a good Italian meal!! Who would have thought???
Take La Tigelleria in Campbell, for example. First in its fully organic approach to the menu, it showcases a very unusual and regional Italian food, tigelle, small silver-dollar sized breads served piping hot, to be eaten with affettati (sliced meats) like prosciutto, salame and mortadella. Did I mention the tigelle are “all you can eat”? The servers will keep on bringing those to you till you are completely and outrageously full! And the meats, and the homemade desserts, the pasta dishes- all is delicious in a way only your grandma’s kitchen can deliver. Okay, MY grandma’s kitchen!
I am also a big fan of Donato Enoteca, in Redwood City. I find his cuisine comforting and delicious. One thing I would never, ever pass on when I eat there is his risotto: Donato is a master risotto maker, coming out always perfectly all’onda, creamy and delicious. The wine list is always impressive with hundreds of bottles of the most obscure (and great!) varietals, and dessert?? To die for!
My favorite pizza place in the South Bay (and all around the Bay Area, I have to say!) is Pizzeria in Campbell. The pizza has the same burnt quality that makes Italian pizza great, and they also make the same kind of pizza you can find in Italy (Capricciosa, Quattro Stagioni, Napoletana, etc.). When in need of a fix of original pizza, that’s the destination!.
I am always slightly surprised at how many places we enjoy end up being within just a few miles of each other in Marin County, between Sausalito and Larkspur. My ideal North Bay food day would start with breakfast at Rulli in Larkspur, then lunch at Fish. and dinner at Il Poggio. That is paradise!
Emporio Rulli is hands down the best pasticceria (pastry store) in the Bay. I am quite attached to our own way to do pastry- and I don’t mean cannoli and sfogliatelle (which are great!), but I mean the more traditional, northern Italian pastries filled with crema and whipped cream! I have never really gotten a hold of the butter-heavy French croissants and the American fascination with buttercream: all I ever want for breakfast is either a bombolone or a cornetto, croissant-shaped pastry roll filled with custard. Not much to ask, don’t you think?? Well, I can get that at Rulli, bless their heart!
Fish. (yeah: Fish-period!) is the most unusual restaurant I will ever put in Italy in SF, mostly becasue it’s not really an Italian restaurant. At Fish., that’s all they do, really. But they cook the freshest ingredients in a very Italian-inspired way, mixing ingredients while cooking and dressing the fish with garlic, bread crumbs, olive oil and parseley. In my opinion, that’s all you need to do to create a fish-based Italian dish- and that’s why I am so fond of Fish.. I will never forget their branzino with mozzarella in carrozza, or the pasta with Monterey sardines, and I keep on going back to find out more. And I bring my coastal-living, very Italian parents there when they come visit- Fish. has never disappointed me (or them!).
Last, but certainly not least, is Poggio in Sausalito. A more recent visit sold me completely on the cuisine of Chef Peter McNee, and his wonderful approach to fresh and unusual ingredients- not to mention the freshly baked bread, the complimentary sparkling water, and a pizza to take my breath away!
Despite having lived there, having gone to school there, and generally knowing my way around quite a bit, I am certainly not a pro when it comes to the East Bay. That said, there are two little gems I go out of my way to put on my nourishing path: Dopo in Oakland and Gelateria Almare in Berkeley. Dopo literally swept me off my feet with a masterly incarnation of an arancino I keep on dreaming about. Gelateria Almare is still the only “real” Italian gelateria I have been able to find in the Bay Area. Both are great reason to visit the East Bay if you’re not there that often!