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There's still some Italy left in North Beach.

There's still some Italy left in North Beach Between gaudy Broadway and tourist-honored Fisherman's Wharf lies a San Francisco neighborhood where a more gracious pace prevails. Cream-colored churches, aromatic cafes, shop windows crowded with Italian pastries, and a relatively sunny climate all conspire to lend North Beach the feel of a self-contained Mediterranean village.

Named for a long-since-filled cove that once stretched inland from San Francisco Bay, North Beach was for many years the center of the city's Italian community. When the first Italians arrived during the gold rush, this district was populated by Mexicans, Frenchmen, Basques, and Spaniards. But by the turn of the century, waves of Italian immigrants had transformed it into an improvised re-creation of what the compaesani had left behind.

Today, few of the old North Beach Italian families remain in the area. Since World War II, the neighborhood has served as a release valve for overcrowding in adjacent Chinatown; its residents are now predominantly Asian.

The Italian imprint is still immediately apparent in the old-time family businesses that line the streets, though these too are now disappearing. Faced with stiff rent increases, many long-established shops are being forced to close.

With each closing, North Beach loses an ingredient in its unique flavor. But there's still lots left to savor. If you know where to look, you can see the evidence of North Beach's Italian heritage on almost every block. And few urban neighborhoods are better suited for exploring on a leisurely stroll. Go to North Beach during the daytime, when shops are open and you can enjoy its better-than-average San Francisco weather.

Be forewarned: parking is notoriously difficult. If you drive, try the city garage on Vallejo between Stockton and Powell (often full on weekends). Better yet, take the Powell-Mason cable car, or catch the 15, 30, or 41 bus from downtown.

Italian history near Washington Square

The heart of this Little Italy is Washington Square--"il giardino" to the original immigrants who gathered here to socialize with neighbors. You can still find old-timers sitting together on the park benches and conversing in Italian. But you're just as likely to see Chinese practicing the gracefully deliberate motions of tai chi on the open lawn.

Soaring above the square are the delicate spires of Saints Peter and Paul, an Italian national church staffed since the late 19th century by Salesian priests sent to care for the souls of emigrants. The present structure was completed in 1924 on land acquired from Abe Ruef, the notorious city boss. Notice the mosaic quotation from Dante's Paradiso across the facade.

Innumerable San Francisco Italians have been baptized, educated, and married under the auspices of Peter and Paul's Salesians. Spectators flooded both church and square when Joe DiMaggio was married here in 1939. The annual blessing of the fishing fleet, a Sicilian tradition still observed in San Francisco every October, begins with a procession from this church. On the south side of the square is a building erected by one of the many Italian fraternal organizations that once flourished in North Beach. It was originally a meeting hall for the Bersaglieri Italiana, a military drill team formed in the 1870s by veterans of the Italian unification struggle. Now the upper floors serve as a retirement home for elderely Italians, while the ground floor is occupied by Fior d'Italia, the city's oldest Italian restaurant.

Across Columbus Avenue, on the west side of the square, is the PAgoda Palace Theater. Known as the Washington Square Theater before undergoing an art deco facelift and conversion to a movie theater, this was where Italians assembled for live theater performed in their native tongue. Enrico Caruso sang here, on tour with the Metropolitan Opera.

Walk half a block north from the square on the east side of Stockton Street to see a distinctive board-and-batten building designed by architect Bernard Maybeck in 1907 as the home of the Telegraph Hill Neighborhood Association. Here, until 1954, the association offered services such as homemaking classes and a health clinic to poor Italian immigrants. Stairs lead to a hidden courtyard in the center of the building complex (now professional offices).

To the south of the square, at 678 Green Street, is the Casa Coloniale Italiana, better known as Fugazi Hall. It was built as an Italian community center by John Fugazi, who founded the first of San Francisco's Italian banks in 1893 (A.P. Giannini served on the board of Fugazi's bank until leaving to form what became the Bank of America). In recent years, its theater has been used as a cabaret by the long-running Beach Blanket Babylon.

You can learn more about the Italian as well as the bohemian heritage of North Beach on a free walking tour offered by City Guides, a group sponsored by Friends of the San Francisco Public Library. Just show up in front of SS Peter and Paul any Saturday morning at 10.

Photographs and relics of old North Beach are on display in the North Beach Museum, located above Eureka Federal Savings at 1435 Stockton. Enter through the bank's doors and go up the stairs to the right. The museum is open from 9:30 to 3 weekdays, 10 to 1 Saturdays.

An Italian shopping sampler: bakeries to books

Here is a selection of shops, cafes, and restaurants--most still family-run--where you can indulge in the old-world appeal of San Francisco's Little Italy.

Try one of these bakeries and pastry shops for a casual snack.

Cuneo Italian French Bakery; 1501 Grant Avenue. French and Italian breads in many shapes and sizes. Be sure to try the thick handmade breadsticks (grissini) and the tubular cialde cookies.

Danilo Bakery; 516 Green Street. Chewy Italian and French breads. Specialties include torta di riso and torta di verdura, pudding-filled pastries from northern Italy.

Liguria Bakery; 1700 Stockton Street. They make only one thing here, but they do it well; focaccia, a pizza-like bread, available with raisin, onion, or tomato-sauce topping.

Stella Pastry; 446 Columbus Avenue. Only place in the country that makes sacripantina, a cloud-like domed cake from Genoa. Intriguing selection of Italian cookies includes ossi di morto ("bones of the dead") and lingue di gatto ("cat's tongues").

Victoria Pastry; 1362 Stockton. In addition to standard Italian pastries, you'll find zuccotto, a liqueur-soaked frozen dessert. Another specialty is the St. Honore cake, an ornate custard-filled creation.

An Italian deli can supply makings for a Washington Square picnic.

Florence Ravioli Factory; 1412 Stockton. Fresh-made pasta, Italian meats and sausages, bulk products.

Molinari Delicatessen, 373 Columbus. Oldest and busiest of the North Beach delis. If you can eat it and iths Italian, they probably have it. Fresh-made pasta and Italian sausages of all kinds.

Panelli Brothers Delicatessen, 1419 Stockton. Italian meats and cheeses. Good selection of crusty sandwiches.

Relax over an expresso, cappuccino, or caffe latte at any of these cafes. Most also serve sandwiches or pastries.

Bohemian Cigar Store Cafe, 566 Columbus. Cozy little cafe with a good view of Washington Square and the church.

Cafe Italia, 708 Vallejo Street. Club-like atmosphere; predominantly Italian clientele.

Caffe Puccini, 411 Columbus. Great spot for street-watching.

Caffe Roma, 414 Columbus. Restored murals of cherubic bakers date from when this was a pastry shop. Sunny seating by front windows or on rear patio. Pizza, other Italian dishes.

Caffe Trieste, 609 Vallejo. The original North Beach Italian-Bohemian coffeehouse, with coffee roasted next door. Owner's family regales Saturday-afternoon patrons with Italian songs.

They're not elegant, but these family-style restaurants are lively and inexpensive. they offer four-course lunches for less than $7 and five-course dinners for under $11. Decor ranges from no-nonesense to zany clutter.

Capp's Corner, 1600 Powell Street. Lunch 11:30 to 2:30 weekdays; dinner 4:30 to 10:30 (to 11 Fridays, Saturdays), 4 to 10 Sundays.

Gold Spike, 527 Columbus. Dinner only, 5 to 10 (to 10:30 Fridays and Saturdays). Closed Wednesdays.

Green Valley, 510 Green. Open 11 to 2:30 and 5 to 10 (11 A.M. to 10 P.M. on weekends). Closed Mondays.

New Pisa, 550 Green. Open 11:30 A.M. to 11 P.M. Closed Wednesdays.

And don't overlook these shops, in the "Miscellaneous" category.

A. Cavalli & Co., 1441 Stockton. Italian books and records. A North Beach institution since 1880.

Biordi Art Imports, 412 Columbus. Large selection of festive Majolica ceramics. Italian cooking utensils, pasta machines, coffee grinders, and espresso makers.

Figoni Hardware, 1351 Grant. A bit of everything. Last of the old-time hardware stores in North Beach.
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Copyright 1986 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:San Francisco
Article Type:Directory
Date:Nov 1, 1986
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