North Beach San Francisco — poetry and music, sex and scandal, hard work and freedom, saloons and cafes, tradition and change — sometimes the mix is unpredictable, but that’s amore.
Sharing a border with Chinatown and a history with the Beat Generation, North Beach is first and foremost San Francisco’s Little Italy. The Italian American population may have declined since Italian immigrants rebuilt the neighborhood following the 1906 earthquake, but old-school restaurants, cafes, bakeries and delicatessens — some in existence for more than a century — still line the streets surrounding Washington Square. At night, when the neon signs point to candle lit rooms with checkered tablecloths and tiles, and the colored lights strung across Grant Avenue blink on, Italian-American classic songs of the ’50’s and ’60’s spill out of jukeboxes.
That’s Amore became Dean Martin’s signature hit in 1953 (written by composer Harry Warren and lyricist Jack Brooks). We like to imagine it playing in the background at Caffe Trieste while Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady engaged in heated arguments over love and sex. Could have happened. But no matter how you slice its “big pizza pie” — especially with Valentines’ Day only a week away — it will be impossible not to sway and sing along once you click play.
From the observation deck at Coit Tower atop Telegraph Hill, North Beach spread out beneath us – the towers of Saints Peter and Paul awaiting a touch of the magic wand from Tinkerbell, Victorian houses in bleached whites and creamy pastels surrounded by the blue bay, the blue sky – calm cool collected crystal clear. On the entry level of the tower WPA murals of the 1930’s tell the story of San Francisco — with a leftist bent influenced by Diego Rivera – ushering in a North Beach tradition of idiosyncracy that would be strengthened by the Beats in the ‘50’s and the hippies who followed soon after. Down on Columbus, Grant, Green, Stockton, Broadway, Filbert, Union, Little Italy meets City Lights meets Big Al’s strip club and artisanal coffee shops and chic new restaurants face off with delis where the salami recipe has remained the same for five generations. Custom made shoes and clothing have left the confines of the fine Italian shoemaker and tailor’s shops — now Al’s Attire styles a new generation in tooled leather boots and denim workers’ jackets. More immigrants arrive from China than Italy today, diversifying the face of North Beach and in a world full of acronyms NoBe has become a shorthand for the changing neighborhood where rents are rising to keep pace with San Francisco’s tech economy. Despite the changes, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, poet and owner of City Lights believes love is the answer to what the future holds for North Beach. As he told Jeffrey Brown in a 2015 interview on the PBS Newshour, “Love can make a civilization bloom, and hate can kill a civilization.” Ferlinghetti expresses the simple nature of that love with his poetry:
“One grand boulevard with trees. One grand cafe in sun with very black coffee in very small cups. One not necessarily very beautiful man or woman who loves you one fine day.”
Legendary North Beach poet, painter, activist and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti turns 97 next month. In 1953 he co-founded City Lights Booksellers and Publishers (along with Peter D. Martin, who bowed out of the business in 1955). Through City Lights he published the works of a wide range of poets and novelists, most famously the Beats. Arrested on obscenity charges for the publication and distribution of Allen Ginsberg’s extraordinary poem Howl, Ferlinghetti’s legal battle would garner worldwide attention for the Beat movement and result in his acquittal.
Influenced by Proust, e.e.cummings and T.S. Eliot, Ferlinghetti, one of San Francisco’s poet laureates, never considered his own work part of the Beat genre. In the last 63 years his individual poems, prose and compilations have been published by City Lights and other publishers, and his most famous work A Coney Island of the Mind (1958) has sold more than one million copies — making him the best-selling American poet of the past century. Twenty-nine poems in 96 pages, A Coney Island of the Mind is chock-full of Ferlinghetti’s humanity, humor and musicality. The 50th anniversary edition of the book, published in 2008, includes a CD of the poet reading his work and is available online at Citylights — or better yet, by visiting this iconic bookstore in person. For a more in depth look at this important literary figure who has called North Beach home since 1950, cue up Christopher Felver’s 2013 documentary Ferlinghetti: A Rebirth of Wonder, available through Netflix.
Be sure to come to North Beach hungry, because you’ll be tempted to stop in every bakery, delicatessen, café and restaurant you pass along the way. Many places cater to tourists, but you only need to follow your nose to suss out the best offerings. Here are our favorites:
Liguria Bakery on Washington Square only sells focaccia. Get there early, because they close up shop as soon as they sell out of the six varieties baked daily.
Molinari Delicatessen on Columbus has great sandwiches to go (perfect for enjoying while people watching from a bench in Washington Square Park), or you can stop in for traditional Italian groceries, cheeses, salamis and wines to take home.
Stella Pastry and Café is known for its cakes, but it’s also the perfect place to pick up a flakey almond pastry and a huge cup of tea to start your day like a local.
If you love old-school Italian butchers, stop into Little City Market for some amazing sausages to cook at home. While you’re there you really should pick up some freshly made lobster ravioli. Really.
What’s in a name? Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store Café doesn’t sell cigars but its meatball sandwich served on Liguria focaccia is delicious and this tiny unpretentious little place deserves a big bohemian name.
Comstock Saloon is a beloved North Beach bar that was founded in 1907. Their excellent cocktail list ranges from classic to trending. If you’re craving a Beat vibe, follow Jack Kerouac to Vesuvio. And if you’re in the mood for live blues music in a down and dirty honky tonk, the Saloon bears the mantle of the oldest bar in San Francisco.
Park Tavern is a beautiful modern tavern with excellent food. Reservations are recommended for the dining room, but there is a long comfortable counter across from the bar and outdoor park view seating if weather permits.
Between meals, spend a few hours in the stacks at City Lights and don’t leave without buying at least one book. Check out the Beat Museum’s photographs and odd paraphernalia, then head over to 101 Music for classic vinyl, vintage concert posters, musical instruments and random stuff that is weird and wonderful. Add in Coit Tower and Al’s Attire featured in the essay above and you’ll have a delicious and fantastic day in North Beach, a neighborhood where you can look backward and forward at an ever-changing San Francisco.
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