Take a waltz through North Beach, and you may notice a few things: alleyways named after famed Beatniks. An entire avenue lit up by risqué neon signs. Street lamps displaying green, white, and red stripes. Young urban professionals and families (along with plenty of tourists) occupying sidewalk cafes and ristorantes.
Whether it’s browsing the windows of Italian bakeries that line Columbus Ave., sharing a blanket at Washington Square Park in the shadow of Saints Peter and Paul Church (where Joe DiMaggio married Marilyn Monroe), or browsing the Italian Voices collection at the Beat Generation hotspot City Lights Bookstore, one thing is for certain: Much of this is a faded homage to the Italian origins of San Francisco’s “Little Italy.” Starting with the Gold Rush and peaking in the 1920s, waves of Italian immigrants—in particular, fishermen from Liguria and residents of Lucca in nearby Tuscany—settled in North Beach, bringing their culinary traditions overseas. Along with the influx in Italian population came specialties like Italian pastries, espresso, and, of course, pizza.
Pizza lovers can learn a lot about North Beach just by eating their way through the neighborhood. Tommaso’s has been open for 85 years, since the Cantolupo family emigrated from Naples to found it in 1935. They brought the first wood-burning pizza oven to the West Coast—something that many newer pizzerias would later take inspiration from.
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Happy #tlishtacotuesday! Our new taco especial is made with locally made pastrami by Pete Timken of Pete’s Meats, plus a mustard-manzano aioli, caraway-cabbage slaw and a @lapalmasf flour tortilla. #tacolicious #tlish #tacotuesday
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Tony's Pizza Napoletana
Even in the present day, there are pizzaiolos crafting history. In 2007, a Bay Area native named Tony Gemignani made headlines by being the first non-Neapolitan to ever win the title at the World Pizza Cup in Naples, Italy. In 2009, the international pizza champion opened Tony’s Pizza Napoletana, where his award-winning pies come in all kinds of different varieties. Using seven different types of ovens, Gemignani creates everything from regional American classics to the very thing that put them on the map: Neapolitan.
Below are five more spots that showcase the pizza variety that North Beach has to offer.
Located on the edge of North Beach and Fisherman’s Wharf, Carmel Pizza focuses on wood-fired, personal-sized pizzas made with California plum tomato sauce and fresh fior di latte mozzarella.
Much of North Beach caters to tourists, but this Grant Street restaurant, which has been run by Italians for nearly 30 years, is the real deal. Don’t pass on their crispy, thin-crust pizzas, like the Pizza al Prosciutto, topped with organic arugula and genuine Prosciutto di Parma.
For a more traditional and well-rounded menu, check out North Beach Pizza, where you can find all the typical pies like margherita, pepperoni, and Hawaiian, or try something unique like their Cable Car Special Pizza with creamy garlic sauce, chicken, bacon pieces, tomatoes, and green onions, or the Barbary Coast Pizza with BBQ sauce (no tomato sauce), chicken breast, red onion, bacon bits, and green onion. That’s about as unique as SF itself.
This corner restaurant technically specializes in pinsa, an ancient Roman flatbread—but given that these flatbreads have tomato sauce, cheese, and cured meat, we’re calling it close enough. The difference? A three-flour dough that’s left to rise for 48-72 hours, then baked at a low temperature, resulting in a thick yet light and airy crust.
With giant slices, a pleasantly chewy crust, and generous amounts of cheese, GoodFella’s is a popular destination for diners on the go—and with a custom mural of the Bay featuring the San Francisco skyline, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the neighborhood’s own Coit Tower in the background, it’s also a fun place to pop in. Try one of the specialty pizzas, like the Chicken Garlic Blanco, a white sauce pie with chicken and feta cheese.
OK, so this specialty foods shop isn’t technically a pie joint either, but we’re willing to bet it’ll satisfy your pizza cravings, too. Just off Washington Square Park, this shop, which is owned by Tony Gemignani (see above), includes pretty much all the makings you need to create your own pizza, from tomato sauce to quality pizza dough. Even if you don’t want to make your own pizza, there’s something there for you, too—an assortment of pillowy, fresh, pizza-like focaccia, like the Caprese, which is adorned with Durati tomato, basil, fresh mozzarella, garlic oil, romano, and a balsamic reduction.