SF: North Beach Restaurant - anything worth the price?
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
- 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.
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.
North Beach Restaurant
1512 Stockton St, San Francisco, CA 94133
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.