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SF: North Beach Restaurant - anything worth the price?

rworange Jul 28, 2008 02:11 PM

Zagat guide in hand, North Beach Restaurant (NBR) was one of the first restaurants I tried when I moved from the East Coast. That visit did two things

- Gave me a permanant disdain for Zagat recs (there were a few other clinkers)
- Made me a member of the East Coast Italian Whiners ... no good SF Italian like on the EC

HOWEVER ... some recent posts by a NBR fan have me wondering. Maybe classic Italian-American dishes aren't their thing. Maybe I ordered wrong.

The dishes the poster reccommended were the shrimp risotto, sweetbreads and something else I forget.

I mean ...yikes ... the thought of ordering sweetbreads at NBR gives me the vapors ... but maybe the are GOOD and one of the dishes to order.

Looking around on the web at NBR fan reviews I've gleaned this (some without confirmation)

- They overnight the mozzarella from Italy
- They have a Prosciutto Room where the house made ham is aged up to nine months.
- They have a good wine list
- The owner has his own winery Petroni Vineyards estate wines including California’s 1st Brunello ‘Poggio Alla Pietra’

Positive mentions of the following dishes
- Pasta Della Casa - Prosciutto, Mushrooms and Veal with Chardonnay Wine
- Homemade Cannelloni
- Homemade Gnocchi Piemontese
- Petrale Sole
- Veal
- Spaghetti carbonara

Not many like the eggplant parmesan ... a definate skip.

The website emphasizes they are Tuscan with dishes like ...
- Farro dalla Garfagnana
- Farinata da Lucca

There are some ancient Chronicle reviews ... but I'm guessing not much has changed at this place.

http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article...
http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article...

I do agree with Bauer's thumbs down on the Antipasto Toscano for Two - Home-Cured Prosciutto, Salame, Cheese, Marinated Calamari, Veal Shank, Beans and Salsa Verde

I still clearly remember those awful calamari and beans decades later and his description is spot on. This plate is now a heart-stopping $34. I don't remember what else was on the plate, only that IT WASN"T A REAL EAST COAST ANTIPASTO ... where's the pickled peppers?

Some of what Bauer liked ... in 1998 & 1996

- sand dabs
- chicken al Mattone
"Chicken under a brick ... no one does it better. It's first marinated in garlic, rosemary and olive oil, seared to seal in the juices and then roasted in the oven under a brick. It comes out crisp, moist and infused with flavor"
- warm zabaglione

If you look at the reviews, the dishes to avoid are there ... all of which I ordered. He says "if you know what to order you can have one of the best meals to be found in the city."

Don't know if that is still true, but I'm guessing little has changed at NBR.

And before anyone trots out how the latest trendy Italian restaurant is better ... probably ... but there is a comment in Bauer's review that strikes me as true. He talks about how NBR was making its own proceitto, sausages, pastas and other dishes before they were a twinkle in the eye of anyone else ... before it was fashionable.

IMO, all the fancy new 'cold-cut' and sausage makers ... despite their heritage-raised meat ... just don't even come close to some of the old-time sausage makers. No one, for example ... no one makes a better Italian sausage than Molinari's.

So maybe there is something at North Beach that may be overlooked ... but don't be shy about mentioning what specifically to skip ... which may be all the other desserts.

At those prices, hit and miss doesn't do it.

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North Beach Restaurant
1512 Stockton St, San Francisco, CA 94133

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  1. Robert Lauriston RE: rworange Jul 28, 2008 02:34 PM

    There are a few Tuscan dishes on the menu, but mostly it's generic Italian.

    Report from last year said the pasta was overcooked:

    http://www.chowhound.com/topics/428470

    1. Ruth Lafler RE: rworange Jul 28, 2008 03:29 PM

      I was friends with one of the Petroni boys, many, many moons ago. Although not good enough friends that he took me to dinner at NBR (he did take me to their other now-closed restaurant, Basta Pasta, where I had carpaccio for the first time). The family, like a lot of old SF Italian families, is from Northern Italy (Lucca, I think). But back in the day, no one was doing "authentic" regional Italian. So I'd look for the more Northern Italian-American dishes, if that makes any sense. Things in cream and butter sauces, grains and gnocchi rather than dishes like eggplant parmigiana and other EC-style Italian American dishes. It doesn't surprise me that the Petrale sole and sand dabs are good, as those are dishes that became traditional in SF thanks to the old Italian (and other Mediterranean) fishermen.

      They are what they are, and what they have been. Among other things, btw, it's a place where a lot of the local movers and shakers hang out. Lorenzo Petroni knows how to schmooze the big boys and the media and has been doing it for a long time.

      2 Replies
      1. re: Ruth Lafler
        rworange RE: Ruth Lafler Jul 28, 2008 04:26 PM

        That's funny. As much as I hated NBR, Basta Pasta was my favorite restaurant at the time. I still mourn its passing. Never knew about the NBR connection.

        1. re: Ruth Lafler
          Robert Lauriston RE: Ruth Lafler Jul 28, 2008 05:30 PM

          I'm not sure if you meant to suggest that Lorenzo Petroni was from an old SF Italian family, but he grew up in Lucca, Italy, and came here in 1958. He opened NBR in 1970.

        2. s
          sugartoof RE: rworange Jul 28, 2008 10:31 PM

          The misses there are often so bad it's hard to look past them and appreciate what they do well. I think the advice to stick with the cream sauce is a good idea. Any of the regional dishes which might use fresh tomatos, or other ingredients which aren't carried over elsewhere in the menu...beware. They're good with the cream sauce though, and if I recall that was really Basta Pasta's signature thing as well. The gnoochi is usually safe, and they are handmade as advertised (which is not a given there). Gnoochi is also one Italian dish I've always liked better in SF anyway (and that's including Batali's version at Po the year he first won his James Beard).

          Last time I went to NBR (about 5 months ago) I decided it was really not worth returning. It just has the markings of a tourist trap. Even the olive oil at the table had obviously been swapped out with cheaper oil put in fancier bottles. The Pasta Della Casa at our table didn't have one of the key ingredients.

          An anti-pasto plate in San Francisco used to just be a coldcut plate, with a few olives, lima beans, and some grated mozzarella cheese, with a tossed salad dressing... nothing close to the East Coast version.

          1 Reply
          1. re: sugartoof
            sabrinasmom RE: sugartoof Jul 28, 2008 10:51 PM

            My family used to love the calamari fritti - our last visit, about a month ago we got deep fried rubber bands.

            Another favorite was the Veal Special - veal medallions topped with cheese & asparagus. Tasty - but not worth the price.

          2. g
            grantham RE: rworange Jul 28, 2008 11:07 PM

            Perhaps some of the complaints about North Beach Restaurant are justified (?) because the breadth of the menu prevents the kitchen staff from top achievement with every dish. The dishes without sauces (e.g. roast chicken and veal milanese) are not inspring and overpriced, although a server at a nearby restaurant assures us that a positive attribute is the consistent use of good quality Provini veal. Dishes with sauces seem to use all housemade stock and certainly resonate with the history of Tuscan cooking. Try the porchetta, chicken livers, and the finest dish on the menu, Ravioli Tuscana. The stuffing would seem to be a mixture of braised veal, prosciutto, and grated cheese. The sauce is a classic bolognaise sauce, which I have spent some time trying to reproduce; however, the restaurant assures us it is a "ravioli sauce," The primary distinction being the addition of fresh tomato. This dish alone has impelled us to return time and time again over the past 25 years.

            It would be to your advantage not to overlook this incredible restaurant.

            1 Reply
            1. re: grantham
              Robert Lauriston RE: grantham Jul 29, 2008 08:44 AM

              Provimi veal was a high-quality ingredient when NBR opened in 1970, but these days it's a sign that a kitchen is out of date—as is having a menu with more dishes (84 not counting desserts!) than the kitchen can execute well.

            2. Robert Lauriston RE: jamatola Jul 29, 2008 10:50 AM

              Albona's definitely unique, the food is good, and the prices are moderate. It's near the Wharf, and tourist-friendly without being a tourist trap.

              1 Reply
              1. re: Robert Lauriston
                Robert Lauriston RE: Robert Lauriston Jul 29, 2008 10:50 AM

                Arrgh, clicked the wrong spot. Link:

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                Albona Ristorante Istriano
                545 Francisco St, San Francisco, CA 94133

              2. Chris Rising RE: rworange Jul 29, 2008 10:55 AM

                I eat there once or twice a year, my SO really likes it. He likes the chicken parmigiana- old school comfort food. I've had the veal saltimbocca, which was average, no complaints; and the milanese, which was done very well. My sister had the cioppino, she didn't rave about it but she liked it and finished it all. Another plus is a good wine list. We were seated in the basement, and a couple of tables were invited to see the Prosciutto room. There are cheaper places that do the same just as good, but there some charm in a tuxedoed waiter with an old country accent, good service, and knowing Willie Brown is entertaining a table of 10 in the next room.

                1 Reply
                1. re: Chris Rising
                  Robert Lauriston RE: Chris Rising Jul 29, 2008 12:00 PM

                  The place is definitely old-school: same chef since it opened 38 years ago. I think he's 84.

                2. g
                  grantham RE: rworange Jul 29, 2008 09:54 PM

                  While we can see the validity of some of the negative reviews of this restaurant, for we have had a couple of disppointing dishes -- roast chicken, veal Marsala -- it is still one of our favorite North Beach restaurants. Another thing that comes to mind is the crab cocktail at NBR is smaller than the one at Scoma's. For such a copious menu, most seem to be done exceedingly well.

                  We would again urge you to try the risotto pescatore, ravioli Toscana, and lamb in Barolo sauce. Their farro soup is similar, but more water-based , yet still reminiscent of ones we have had in Umbria.

                  5 Replies
                  1. re: grantham
                    Robert Lauriston RE: grantham Jul 30, 2008 08:42 AM

                    Is it true that when you order the risotto they give you a choice of white or red sauce?

                    1. re: Robert Lauriston
                      g
                      grantham RE: Robert Lauriston Jul 30, 2008 07:52 PM

                      Yes. We would recommend the white sauce.

                      1. re: grantham
                        Robert Lauriston RE: grantham Jul 31, 2008 09:15 AM

                        Have you ever had the risotto at Bacco?

                        1. re: Robert Lauriston
                          g
                          grantham RE: Robert Lauriston Aug 1, 2008 08:53 PM

                          No. Please telll me about it.

                          1. re: grantham
                            Robert Lauriston RE: grantham Aug 2, 2008 08:46 AM

                            It's real risotto made to order. Lots of reports here, probably the most-recommended place in town for risotto.

                            -----
                            Ristorante Bacco
                            737 Diamond Street, San Francisco, CA 94114

                  2. c
                    chazzerking RE: rworange Aug 1, 2008 09:11 PM

                    I remember the frist time we were in SF and the first time we ate at NBR. it was in the mid 80's. Being from NY originally, my expectations for Italian resto's were high. The waiter reccommended the abalone, and it was fabulous, done a la francese, pan fried in a light egg batter and served with a lemon butter, somewhat like a picatta. It was my first taste of fresh abalone, and I was smitten. Of course we can't find the stuff anymore, and if we could, probably couldn't afford it. But that dinner created a soft spot in my heart/stomach for the NBR. We've had several good meals there since then, but none to match that one. It is a fine traditional Italian place with friendly efficient service and reliably good food. I don't knowe if that makes it a great place, but we'll keep going back.

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