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San Francisco's North Beach

by Beverly Dubrin

I consider North Beach to be San Francisco's most "European" neighborhood. I love wandering up and down Grant and Columbus Avenues, north of Broadway, past the busy coffee houses, restaurants, and shops where Italian is as much the language of choice as is English. Time seems to stand still in North Beach. On a sunny afternoon, even in the middle of the week, tables at sidewalk caffes are filled and, at those caffes where there are no outdoor tables, people drag chairs out from inside or just sit on a doorstep talking and sipping a strong cup of coffee. At night, things get even livelier.

For more than a century North Beach has been a predominantly Italian neighborhood. Italian immigrants who first arrived in San Francisco in the 1860s chose North Beach because it reminded them of home and, up until the 1940s, offered affordable housing. North Beach's population prior to the arrival of the Italians included Irish, Mexicans, Germans, Spanish, Australians and Chileans. The Beatnik era of the 1950s attracted poets and artists. Today, North Beach is still the Little Italy of the West Coast, with a growing Chinese population blending into the mix.

Probably the calmest, quietest time in North Beach is the morning. Again, the scene is typically European with the mix of well-dressed business people grabbing a quick cup of coffee before setting out for a day at the office, probably in the nearby Financial District, and the casually-dressed others lingering over their coffee in either solitary splendor or in groups for the first of the day's many conversations.

North Beach is a perfect place for a lunch date. It is walking distance from the Downtown and Financial Districts. With its wide variety of restaurants, it can satisfy just about every taste and budget. I particularly like to meet out-of-town visitors in North Beach because of its history, local color, and wonderful array of unique shops in which to browse. Even if I cannot linger on with my visitors after lunch, I know they can comfortably explore on their own. North Beach is one of the few shopping areas anywhere that I have visited in the United States where the main shopping district is not dominated by chain stores (no Noah's, no Starbucks, no Gap...yes, there is a Ben and Jerry's, but it fits in so well with the spirit of the neighborhood, we can forgive).

While the focus of this article is on North Beach's shops, one cannot visit without enjoying its history and sites. Try to allow time when you visit to enjoy the local color.

The Shops
Most of the shops are on Grant Avenue, Columbus Avenue, and Stockton Street, between Broadway and Chestnut Street, and on their intersecting streets. This is a particularly good place to find leather gift ideas for whatever occasions. Throughout, but especially on Stockton Street, you will also find Chinese markets and shops; Chinatown, whose northern border is "officially" Broadway, is expanding north.

While there is metered parking on the streets throughout North Beach, finding a vacant spot is difficult. I usually head directly to the garage on the north side of Vallejo Street, west of the police station between Stockton and Powell Streets. Besides being centrally located and reasonably priced, this garage has a spectacular 360-degree view of San Francisco and beyond (Bay Bridge, Alcatraz) from its fifth floor rooftop level. There are at least 20 more small lots and garages throughout North Beach. When you visit, pick up copy of the free monthly North Beach Now newspaper, available in most shops and restaurants; it is filled with information on what's going on in North Beach and has a comprehensive Parking Guide which you can save for future visits.

The most complete and efficient way to shop North Beach is to methodically walk up and down the three main streets, making short detours on the side streets. This assumes, of course, an ideal world in which all the shops you wish to visit are open. The reality of North Beach is that, while most shops are open by noon, some may be closed for unexpected or unknown reasons. Also, many shops still follow the North Beach tradition of closing on Wednesdays.

A mention of North Beach to a longtime San Francisco resident will bring nostalgic thoughts of a Little Italy, the Beat Generation, and Carol Doda and the topless dance clubs. Most guide books give tourists much the same view. What is not that well known is that there are a lot of high-style shops in North Beach. Here are some highlights of what I consider some of North Beach's most interesting shops.

In the Tradition of North Beach
Many North Beach businesses have been mainstays of the community for decades. If I were to single out one special shop in North Beach, it would be the studio of Peter Macchiarini (1529 Grant Ave.) who for more than 60 years has been making avant garde jewelry. 1997 marks his 49th consecutive year in this Upper Grant Avenue location. Mr. Macchiarini is still at work here just about every day. Each piece of jewelry is made to his customer's specifications. You can select your ring, pendant, brooch, or earrings from a portfolio of his designs or work with him to design something entirely new. Even if you order a replica of an existing piece, it will be an "original" since no two pieces are ever exactly alike. While looking through photographs with Mr. Macchiarini's daughter of his early work, I commented that his works reminded me of the Cubist works of Picasso and Braque. She replied, "If you said that to him, he would say that it is the other way around and that the works of Picasso and Braque look like his." For more than 50 years, Italians from all over the Bay Area, and beyond (they ship), have made Biordi Art Imports (412 Columbus Ave.) their place to find the perfect wedding or special-occasion gift. Biordi works directly with the best of Italian Majolica artists to obtain a wide variety of finely-crafted hand-painted vases, trays, dinnerware, and decorative pieces.

Another mainstay in North Beach is Coit Liquors (585 Columbus Ave.), the place for wines and liquors from around the world. Coit is particularly known for its selection of hard-to-find Italian wines.

Figoni Hardware (1351 Grant Ave.) is an old-time hardware store that dates back to 1907. Its merchandise ranges from bocce balls to pasta makers to flower seeds. To this day, customers are always assured of personal service.

City Lights Booksellers & Publishers (261 Columbus Ave.) has been a literary meeting place since 1953. Allen Ginsberg's recent death brought City Lights back to the public conscience, although anyone interested in the Beat Generation never forgot that City Lights is an integral part of it. It was here that Ginsberg's book "Howl" was first read (published by City Lights owner and poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti) and introduced to the world. This led to an obscenity trial, which was overturned, and to San Francisco columnist Herb Caen's coining the term, "Beatnik." Ferlinghetti was Ginsberg's longtime friend and associate. Step carefully through the many rooms of this historic bookstore; the floors are uneven, the steps are well-worn, and there are books, many from small-press publishers, shelved and piled practically everywhere. Time your visit right, and you may happen upon a poetry reading at City Lights.

Today, tattoos are considered fashionable and those desiring one can have it done at a variety of places. When tattooist Lyle Tuttle opened his studio in North Beach close to 50 years ago, he quickly established the reputation for providing the best and safest tattoo artistry in San Francisco. That tradition has continued and today Lyle Tuttle Tattooing (841 Columbus Ave.) is still the place of choice for people from around the world for a quality tattoo. Tuttle, whose body is covered with tattoos, is world renowned. During the month of October, 1997, in conjunction with a Tattoo Convention that will be in San Francisco, Tuttle will have an historic display of tattooing in the basement gallery of his studio. Even if you are not up to a tattoo for yourself, Tuttle's gallery of tattoo art is worthy of a visit.

A. Cavalli & Co. (1441 Stockton) has been selling Italian imports since 1880, including books and magazines, videos, music tapes and records, Italian cookbooks, and cards. If you are looking for a souvenir of North Beach, be sure to stop here.

If you cannot find the Swiss Army knife you are looking for at Columbus Cutlery (358 Columbus), it probably does not exist. The same is true for the scissors and knife selection. This store and the Italian men who own it are another of North Beach's mainstays. The same is true of Telegraph Hill Antiques (580 Union) where you may just find an original Lalique or Verlys piece.

Food is a central focus of Italian life and North Beach's bakeries are worthy of a visit in their own right. Stella Pasticceria e Caffe (446 Columbus Ave.) is known for its Sacripantina, an incredible cake made of thin layers of sponge cake filled with a tasty rum, marsala and sherry flavored zabaione. The "famous" cake at Victoria Pastry Co. (1362 Stockton at Vallejo) is the St. Honore, an incredible concoction decorated with cream puffs. While I cannot justify Victoria's St. Honore or frozen Zuccotto as everyday fare, I never pass this bakery without buying their loaf-style cornmeal cake...we eat it at my house for breakfast by itself and at lunch or dinner as a dessert with fresh fruit or sorbet. Danilo (516 Green St.) is an excellent choice for Italian breads and their meringues are an elegant "container" for fresh berries.

Molinari Delicatessen (373 Columbus) has a comprehensive selection of deli meats, cheeses, salads, Italian packaged foods, and wines. If you are considering a picnic lunch in Washington Square, get your picnic ingredients here. After reading the recipes on the large posters in the windows of Little City Meats (1400 Stockton St.), one is easily tempted to stop in for a roast or rack of ribs. And, my favorite coffee, Graffeo (733 Columbus Ave.) is roasted right here at this, their only retail outlet in San Francisco.

High Style
Knitz & Leather (1429 Grant Ave.) is a partnership of two women, one who designs and knits stylish sweaters, scarves, skirts, and other apparel and one who designs and fabricates leather jackets and other leather clothing. Both create unique, elegant clothing for women. Be sure to look at the jewelry that they have selected to accent their creations. Not only does this jewelry complement the store's apparel, it may brighten up an outfit you already own.
Grand (1435 Grant Ave.) is the place for upscale "with-it" women's clothing. I can imagine Madonna or Gloria Estefan shopping here. Ristarose (1453 Grant Ave.) features clothing designs for men and women by owner Ivana Ristic. MAC (1415 Grant Ave.) is another spot for women's designer clothing and accessories, with a wide selection of pieces by Vivienne Westwood.

Insolent (1418 Grant Ave.) is the kind of store that one finds in New York's upper East Side. If you are in the market for an expensive pair of European shoes, this is the place. Head over to Donna (1424 Grant Ave.) for more European shoes and clothes from European and New York designers.

East West Leather (1400 Grant Ave.) is one of my favorite places in San Francisco for leather jackets and boots. Many of the jackets are private-label creations made in San Francisco. Tony Lama boots and Stetson hats are among the store's offerings. There is more leather clothing at Fife (1415 Grant Ave.), but I have yet to find the store open...in recent visits, all I could do was peek at the attractive window displays.

The clothing is more casual at Azul (1519 Grant Ave.) which features its own designs in cotton sportswear for men and women.

Just for Fun and Some Function Too
If the Beatniks of the 1950s were going to set up a shop for pets, chances are, it would look a lot like the pet boutique, Cool Doggy-o's (468 Green). You'll have no trouble finding it if you are walking north on the east side of Grant Avenue...there is a large colorful sign with Cool Doggy-O pointing the way from his perch on a window sill. The store itself is just as colorful and features an array of "parafurnalia" for pets & their people, including cookies, snacks, frozen entrees, hand-painted pet food bowls from Guatemala, cards, pet art, cat condos (check out the Southwest pueblo model), and such basics as nutritious pet food, kitty litter, and pet shampoo. If your pooch is in need of a new coif or a flea dip, there is grooming here too.
If you still collect and play records, 102 Music (513 Green St.), jam-packed with used records, is not to be missed. Even if you don't collect records, the sheet music mural on the store's facade, painted by artist Ellen Byrnes, is worth seeing. It is said that if you play the notes on the wall, you will hear "Street of Dreams." If you collect vintage entertainment posters and photographs of stars, you will have a great time at Show Biz (1318 Grant). Whether your heart throb be Jayne Mansfield or Joe Pesci, chances are there is a 8" x 10" movie still of that star. Postcard collectors will enjoy the vintage postcards, and reproductions of vintage postcards at the postcard store at 507 Columbus Ave. I am sure this store has a name, but was unable to find any identification either in or outside of the store.

The first time I walked into Abitare (522 Columbus Ave.), whose name in Italian means "to live," I didn't like the store because I could find no theme to its merchandise. I went back a second time because a friend I trust had spoken so enthusiastically about it, and, this time, I spent a bit of time looking at the eclectic array of merchandise. Abitare has a wide variety of items, many of which are very interesting. There are painted coasters, decorated boxes, paper weights, lots of decorative bathroom accessories...a little bit of a lot of tasteful objects, all in one small store. If you take the time, you will have fun shopping here.

One can easily pass by the narrow street facade of the Gallery of Ethnic Art (245 Columbus Ave.). Once you enter, you will find yourself in a magical world of ethnic art. The narrow entry leads to The Dreaming Room in the back, a large room filled with large-scale, sometimes rare, works of art. The Dreaming Room can be rented at reasonable rates for private parties, dinners, photo and movie shoots. Call owner Bob Hemphill for details (415/788-7882). Hemphill also owns the fantasy store next door, Neverland (241 Columbus Ave.), where I was intrigued by magic wands from Brazil, masks, and lavish Jester hats.

Toko Imports (1314 Grant Ave.) has a mix of colorful and sedate furniture, handicrafts, jewelry, leather goods, and other products from Indonesia and Southeast Asia. I particularly like the handpainted benches/tables that depict turtles, birds, and other colorful animals.

A Bite to Eat
Try to include a meal in your visit to North Beach, or, at least, a stop for coffee at one of the many caffes. Figaro (414 Columbus Ave.; 415/398-1300) is where friend Frank and I wound up for lunch after a morning of walking around. Their sunny, secluded outdoor garden is a delightful spot for a relaxing lunch. Although, they did not have the prosciutto sandwich, that I had an urge for that day, I was more than satisfied with a prosciutto and cheese calzone; Frank enjoyed a seafood pizza. Service at Figaro was pleasant and attentive; we were never rushed and my coffee cup was refilled numerous times. We were tempted to spend the afternoon there.

On another sunny afternoon I stopped for coffee and cookies at Stella Pasticceria e Caffe (446 Columbus Ave.). I sat at one of the sidewalk tables, rested my weary feet and sampled three cookies, trying to decide which one I wanted to buy more of to take home (the pine nut ones "won"). This is a great spot for people watching.

Other restaurants worth considering include The House (1230 Grant Ave.; 415/986-8612) for eclectic food with Asian accents; Cafe Jacqueline (1454 Grant Ave.; 415/981-5565) for ethereal souffles; Fior D'Italia (601 Union St.; 415/986-1886), the oldest Italian restaurant in the United States; Mo's (1322 Grant Ave.) for a good burger; The Stinking Rose (325 Columbus Ave.; 415/781-7673) for an all-garlic meal that can end with garlic ice cream; Little City (673 Union St.; 415/434-2900) for a meal of antipasti (Italian tapas) or more; the North Beach Restaurant (1512 Stockton St.; 415/392-1587), newly remodeled but still serving great Italian food; and Maykadeh (470 Green St.; 415/362-8286) for Persian dishes; You are assured of a moderately-priced hearty Italian meal at the family-style New Pisa (550 Green St.; 415/362-5188) or at Capp's Corner (1600 Powell St.; 415/989-2589 just a few doors away from "Beach Blanket Babylon").

For that wonderful cup of freshly-roasted coffee, conversation, people watching, and a light bite to eat, your choices include Caffe Roma (526 Columbus Ave.), Caffe Trieste (609 Vallejo St.), and Caffe Puccini (411 Columbus Ave.). The locals rely on North Beach Pizza (1499 Grant Ave. and 1310 Grant Ave.) for their pizza while the more-upscale Calzone's (430 Columbus Ave.) attracts a lively mix of tourists and locals.

If I were to pick out the most popular Italian hangout, I would choose Steps Of Rome Caffe (348 Columbus Ave.). It is always packed with what appears to be a mostly-Italian crowd. One weekday afternoon, when the crowd was watching a soccer match on the television, their cheering could be heard all the way up and down busy Columbus Avenue. You'd have thought it was Super Bowl Sunday.

On the day that I had an urge for a prosciutto sandwich, I thought the well-known Mario's Bohemian Cigar Store Cafe (566 Columbus Ave. at Union), overlooking Washington Square, might be the place. We found an empty table and waited several minutes for some recognition (or at least a menu) from the server who was standing behind the bar, not occupied with much of anything. We had to ask for service. The menu did not include my desired prosciutto sandwich and when I asked the same inattentive waiter if they ever had prosciutto sandwiches, his expressionless reply was, "What you see, is what you get." We did place an order for something else, but, quickly decided to cancel it and go somewhere more welcoming. Figaro more than filled the bill. If the Bohemian Cigar Store serves "the best espresso in town," I'm afraid I will be doing without it. I am mentioning this episode because I know that the Bohemian is mentioned in several guide books and want to point out that, with the many other excellent restaurants, caffes, and bakeries in North Beach, there is no need to go some place that takes its customers for granted.

Seeing the Sites
Even when the main purpose of one's visit to North Beach is to shop, it is impossible to overlook its history.
My favorite place for a look at the North Beach of days past is the North Beach Museum on the second floor of the Eureka Bank building (1435 Stockton St.). This wonderful museum is open to the public (free) during banking hours which, unfortunately for many visitors, do not include weekends. The exhibit is a photographic history of North Beach and the people who lived here in other eras. Be sure to read Lawrence Ferlinghetti's 1970 poem "The Old Italians Dying" which is framed and displayed at the top of the stairway.

Washington Square is a pleasant park and gathering place in the center of North Beach. It is bordered by Filbert, Stockton, Union, and Powell Streets. Saints Peter and Paul Roman Catholic Church, on the north side of the square, is known as "The Italian Cathedral." It dates back to 1884. If there is no wedding or service going on inside (Joe DiMaggio's first wedding was here), go inside to look at the altar, stained glass windows, and Madonna della Guardia.

St. Francis of Assisi Church (610 Vallejo), established June 17, 1849, during the Gold Rush, is the first parish church, first parish school and site of the first ordination of a priest in California. It is a State Historic Landmark.

The white marble building at the intersection of Washington, Montgomery, and Columbus was built in 1909 as the Banco Pupulare Italiano. It later served as headquarters for the Transamerica Corporation until 1938. The three-story mural on the side of the building at the northwest corner of Broadway and Columbus Avenue, what might be considered the gateway to North Beach, is a unique piece of North Beach art. Its artists, Bill Weber and Tony Klaas are depicted in the lower left corner, while the main focus is on Benny Goodman playing the clarinet and Oscar Peterson on the bass. Telegraph Hill rises on the top right center and Italian fishing boats fill the lower right.

Bordering North Beach is Telegraph Hill, named for the Morse Code signal station that was set up here in 1853. Several of the hill's wooden cottages survived the 1906 earthquake (it is said that the local Italians extinguished the fires on these buildings with buckets of their homemade red wine). The main landmark of Telegraph Hill is Coit Tower, a structure built in honor of San Francisco's firemen. The interior of the tower is decorated with WPA murals depicting life in San Francisco in the 1930s. The tower was erected by Lillie Hitchcock Coit, who as a teenager was the "mascot" of the Knickerbocker #5 firefighter company. The shape of the tower depicts the nozzle of a firehose.

Beach Blanket Babylon (Club Fugazi, 678 Green St.; 415/421-4222) is the longest running musical review in the United States and the one show that I have seen over and over during its 22-year run. I identify Beach Blanket Babylon so closely with San Francisco, that I recommend it to all visitors as the one must-see form of entertainment. Because its subject matter keeps current with local and world events, it is a joy to see repeatedly. Live jazz can be heard evenings in many restaurants and caffes. Give The Gathering Caffe (1326 Grant Ave.; 415/433-4247) a try most nights after 7 p.m.; their monthly jazz performance schedule is posted in their window.

Mark Your Calendar
There is always something going on in North Beach. Here are a few up-and-coming special events and some that occur every week.

Second weekend in June
The oldest urban street fair in the United States, The North Beach Festival attracts close to 100,000 attendees. It takes place on the 1200 to 1500 blocks of Grant Avenue, the 500 block of Green Street and in Washington Square Park. Arts, crafts, and food and beverages are sold. There are poetry readings, music, entertainment and Arte di Gesso (Italian street chalk art). Bring your pet for a special blessing of the animals at noon on Saturday at St. Francis of Assisi Church (610 Vallejo St.). The Festival focuses on the Italian and Beatnik history of North Beach. Admission is free.

Columbus Day Sunday
Columbus Day is celebrated with the Italian Heritage Parade on the Sunday closest to Columbus Day. The parade starts at 1:30 p.m. at Fisherman's Wharf and progresses to Washington Square.

Every Monday at 9 p.m.
Trivia nights were popular at Bay Area clubs about 20 years ago. This pastime lives on at O'Reilly's Irish Bar & Restaurant (622 Green St.) where it is Trivia Quiz Night every Monday night from 9 p.m. until midnight.

Every Wednesday at 7:30 p.m.
Every Wednesday evening at 7:30 p.m. is Italia Oggi (informal conversation) night at various North Beach caffes. A schedule is posted in North Beach Magazine's Internet site at http://www.sfnorthbeach.com.

Every Saturday at 10 a.m.
Every Saturday at 10 a.m., San Francisco City Guides leads a Free Walking Tour of North Beach. Just show up at the steps of St. Peter & Paul Church across from Washington Square (666 Filbert St.); no reservations needed.

Every Saturday at 1:30 p.m.
The old bohemian spirit of North Beach lives on at Caffe Trieste (601 Vallejo St.) every Saturday between 1:30 and 5:00 p.m. with a Live Italian Concert.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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