Mona Lisa Restaurant in San Francisco’s North Beach makes a perfect margherita pizza. // © 2018 Samantha Davis-Friedman
Feature image (above): Tour-goers will walk by a row of Edwardian-style houses that overlook Saints Peter and Paul Church. // © 2018 Samantha Davis-Friedman
San Francisco-based Local Tastes of the City Tours knows that one of the best ways to get to know a neighborhood is to explore it on foot. That’s why they pride themselves on offering walking food tours that “explore the soul” of different San Francisco neighborhoods.
My two sons and I chose the three-hour North Beach/Little Italy Walking Food Tour, which simultaneously feeds the body and teaches the history and culture of this eclectic San Francisco neighborhood. (The tour runs daily at 10 a.m. or 2 p.m. The cost is $59 for adults; $39 for kids ages 12-16; and $15 for kids ages 2 to 11.)
As we traversed the mostly Italian neighborhood and tasted local favorites such as meatball sandwiches, pizza and handmade cannoli (tube-shaped crispy shells filled with sweetened ricotta cheese and chocolate chips) , we were repeatedly greeted by shop owners with “buon giorno” (good morning).
“Most of the restaurants we go to have been here for a while,” said Blandina Farley, our guide. “They’re real Italians, and real ‘people’s people.’”
We started our tour as many Italians start their day: with cappuccinos (and hot chocolates for the kids) at Caffe Roma. The venue roasts 300 pounds of coffee each week on a 50-year-old roaster right in the front window. Farley explained that the owner, Tony, heats the roaster to 475 degrees, and when the coffee beans are exactly right, he opens the roaster — and the window. That’s when the whole neighborhood knows it’s time for coffee, Farley said. After our shot of caffeine, we headed to Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store Cafe. The establishment does not, as its name implies, sell cigars. It does, however, serve delicious hot meatball sandwiches made on focaccia bread baked at nearby Liguria Bakery in an oven that’s more than 100 years old.
Next, we crossed Washington Square Park, the hub of the neighborhood and the location of a particularly interesting statue: an 1879 anti-drinking monument and statue of Benjamin Franklin (who, ironically, was a big drinker) that’s also a time capsule. In 1879, artifacts such as gold police buttons and a protocol book for cable car drivers were buried under the statue. In 1979, the capsule was unearthed and reburied, this time containing Levi’s jeans (because Levi Strauss came to San Francisco to make tents for gold rushers and ended up making pants instead) and poetry by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, one of the great beat poets of the 1950s who, at 99 years old, is still often seen around the neighborhood.
Next to the park is Saints Peter and Paul Church, where baseball player Joe DiMaggio went to school (and was later photographed on the steps with wife Marilyn Monroe). Overlooking both the park and the church is Coit Tower, a San Francisco landmark that contains murals depicting everyday life in San Francisco.
After the park, we began our walk through the residential section of North Beach with its rows of beautiful Edwardian-style houses, including a gray house with a red roof that was used in the film “Mrs. Doubtfire.” We then headed to Z. Cioccolato Fudge, one of the top fudge stores in the U.S. Once inside the delicious-smelling shop, Farley handed us over to employee Adriana.
“We are the only American fudge store that produces multilayered fudge,” Adriana said. “We spend up to 12 hours on one batch, and we do all that work to give you variety and give you some sexy chocolate.”
Adriana explained that fudge was accidentally invented by a housewife who, while attempting to make caramel, ruined the mixture and added chocolate to salvage the mistake. We each received a bag containing squares of White Tiger (white chocolate fudge with caramel and peanut butter), Penuche Pecan (white chocolate fudge with Italian caramel and pecans) and Chocolate Raspberry Swirl (dark chocolate fudge and white chocolate raspberry fudge swirled together). In old-school American slang, “fudge” means “mistake” — but these didn’t taste like mistakes to me.
On the way to our final stop, Mona Lisa Restaurant, Farley pointed out Caffe Trieste, the oldest cafe in San Francisco and where Francis Ford Coppola wrote “The Godfather.” We also saw some of the area's shops, clubs and bars, including Coffee Gallery (now Maggie McGarry’s, an Irish pub), where Janis Joplin first performed when she came to the city.
Lastly, we enjoyed the most perfect margherita pizza at Mona Lisa Restaurant, along with cannoli that Farley retrieved from 70-year-old Stella Pastry & Cafe around the corner.
Between North Beach’s great food and our guide’s great stories, we couldn’t have asked for a better way to spend a day in San Francisco.