Meet the Tramezzino
Affordable, comfort food with $40 bottles of wine
This casual counter service “American Pasta Bar” is the perfect choice when you need an affordable pasta and Italian wine fix. The six homemade pasta dishes rotate, but rest assured there’s at least one that will call to you (if not all of them). The compact menu also offers a couple of non-pasta dishes (boards of veggies, a roasted half chicken, or a crackling pork roast), but the pasta is where it’s at. The wine selection is also carefully curated, but very accessible, and you never have to worry about price, because every glass is $10 and every bottle is $40.
Neapolitan pizzas and tasty pastas in somewhat fancy digs
The Campania by way of Marina (and now Oakland and Tokyo) stalwart caused this city to transfer its Euro allegiances from France to Italy just over a decade ago. You can thank A16 for being one of the first SF restaurants to serve Neapolitan pies -- and making pizza a thing that can you order in a “fancy” restaurant. You can also thank A16 for getting SF hooked on burrata with olive oil and sea salt, chocolate budino with sea salt, and blissful, uncomplicated pastas like the house-favorite maccaronara with ragù Napoletana (no sea salt, but still delicious). Lastly, you can also single-handedly thank A16 for getting us all hooked on Italian wine outside of the Chianti bubble.
Russian Hill/Polk Gulch
Decadent Italian tasting menu great for prix fixe lovers
It’s been over 20 years since Acquerello hit the SF restaurant scene, but there's no denying it is still pure posh decadence. In season, there's a white truffle tasting menu that'll run ya $395 ($195 when truffles aren’t involved), but there’s also a “regular” three-course prix fixe menu that's much less costly (relatively speaking) at $105 (that’s without the $40 caviar supplement or $10 cheese plate). Both menus are constantly changing, but the prix fixe always has a selection of dishes, like lobster and potato gnocchi with truffle butter, and lamb with parsnip-spice bread, so it’s very easy to find something you want. So easy, in fact, that you may go in prepared to order just three courses, but end up opting for all five ($150).
Intimate date spot with pastas perfect for sharing
Seven Hills is the perfect date spot, thanks to an intimate space with romantic lighting, a fantastic wine list, and some of the best pasta in the entire city. Unfortunately, the famous raviolo uovo made with brown butter, ricotta, and a liquid farm egg yolk center that explodes dramatically when punctured is not currently on the menu, but maybe that’s a good thing since it means diners are forced to try some of the other pasta dishes, all of which are well balanced and flavorful. That being said, we hope the raviolo isn’t gone forever.
Financial District/Jackson Square
Michelin-starred spot you’ll want to save up for
San Francisco doesn’t have a lot of elegant restaurants where people dress for the occasion, but the powerful people need somewhere to go, and this stylish three Michelin-starred restaurant fits the (very expensive) bill. The $275 prix fixe menu in the dining room is based on market availability and seasonality, but you can expect unusual dishes like garganelli with lobster, black trumpet mushroom, and spring onion, and a milk-fed lamb with turnip, niçoise olive, and kumquat. If $275 feels a little spendy, there is an a la carte menu that is only available in the salon, which is composed of dishes from the nightly tasting menu that run from around $28 to $44 (unless you start getting into the caviar).
Financial District/Jackson Square
Casual spot where the pizza is good, but the pastas are better
Quince's Michael Tusk lets his hair down 20 feet away at Cotogna, and chances are you’ll go there more often... unless your start-up just finished a round of Series B funding. Cotogna is no second fiddle little sibling though -- sit at the counter in front of the pizza oven, the hottest seat in the city (not in terms of trendiness, but rather temperature). Not that it’s bad in any way, but don’t come here for pizza (go here for the pizza); you want the pastas (looking at you, agnolotti dal plin), the starters (constantly changing vegetable or herb sformato), and any grilled meat dish will blow you away. And while no one likes to make a decision based on price, it is worth nothing there’s a very, very big difference between Cotogna and its sister restaurant.
An SF mainstay where you’ll NEED to make a reservation
Spaghetti and tomato sauce. Boring, right? Nope, not right! The plum tomatoes and a jolt of garlic at Delfina add life to idyllic, al dente pasta. The roast chicken rivals Zuni and Nopa, but Delfina’s version is maybe the best in these parts, and even more noteworthy with mashed potatoes sitting in a pint of olive oil alongside it. Delfina is a glowing San Francisco mainstay, pre-dating the $4,000 one bedroom rents and hipsters, smartphones and out of control Instagrammers, and one of the few popular restaurants in SF that's actually worth the near-mandatory table reservation 30 days in advance. Delfina is the reason we even make a list like this.
Northern Italian with a California twist and a rotating daily menu
The outdoor patio and hidden entrance are enough to be entranced by Sociale -- but luckily the food and wine are just as majestic. The restaurant lies right at that tricky intersection of sophistication and relaxation while also bordering on being Northern Italian with a California twist. Basically, it’s the best of all worlds as you start with the pork belly and finish with the chocolate oblivion cake (topped with olive oil, sea salt, and amaretti cookie crumbles). Pay attention to the special dishes of the day, as they’re often the highlights of the menu.
A cheery, cozy spot dishing out delicious wood-fired pies
This restaurant is a New York-Cali-Ital dream team in a quiet, constantly foggy neighborhood. Its owners worked with Mario Batali and at Brooklyn’s definitive neighborhood restaurant, Franny’s, while recently added Chef Dante Cecchini is well-known from his days at Marlowe. Now he’s proving that pastoral Italian grandma’s cooking can be invigorating -- just try the al dente chitarra pasta and tomato braised chicken that, in other hands, could be boring. If the clam pizza doesn’t wow you, the family-friendly atmosphere might make Fiorella the happiest place in the city.
Known for fresh takes on Italian classics as well as an extensive wine list
It’s not easy being the younger brother, especially if the older sibling is the hotshot QB of the Cal-Ital scene, Delfina. Rome-centric offshoot Locanda is no disappointing expansion move, however. The Rome specialties, like Jewish-style artichokes and a soulful bowl of tripe, are legit studs when compared to their peers in the actual city of Rome (trust us). The pasta is consistently spot-on al dente and the bar mixes darn fine Amaro-based cocktails to round out the deal. Note that brunch is also excellent (and no lines in the Mission!), something we don’t usually think of with Italian spots.
People line up here for what might be SF’s best pizza
You'll need to get your pasta vocabulary sheet out when you drop by Flour + Water, still home to one of the most consistently long lines in the city, and arguably still home to the best pizza in town. Pici with smoked hen and Buddha’s Hand, carrot, and caprino caciotti triangoli -- whatever it is, just eat it. Oh, and about the long line: you'll just have to deal with it, 'cause this spot hasn’t missed a beat in its young life. It’s rocking and rolling as much as ever. The game plan: put your name down, go get a drink across the street at Trick Dog, then get ready to choose between a la carte or the blockbuster pasta tasting menu.
Sardinian food in laid back digs perfect for a date night
Bottarga! Glorious bottarga. This delicious fish roe, salted and cured, is served at La Ciccia with spaghetti. The roe is basically a cross of uni and bacon in powder form. In other words: heaven. It’s the signature fishy seasoning of Sardinia that packs the flavor power of anchovy without the salty-briny sea sickness making you look green on land. La Ciccia is Sardinia’s culinary ambassador to our city, representing the oft-neglected island over 200 miles west of the Italy mainland, where you’d run into the coast just due West of Rome as the direct crow flies. Only in San Francisco is the most popular Italian restaurant a Sardinian restaurant. And you know a huge reason, why? Bottarga.
Excellent and underrated dinner and date spot in the Financial District
Perbacco’s sugo, cooked for five hours, coating tajarin noodles is what power lunch dreams are made of. But the showstopper is Perbacco’s agnolotti dal plin, snugly filled with roasted meats and Savoy cabbage -- the best use of cabbage outside of corned beef on St. Paddy's Day. That’s where the Irish pub comparisons end. Don’t overlook Perbacco for dinner either. When the sun goes down, it turns into a perfect date spot. It’s also the rare Italian restaurant where the secondi should be a mandatory order.
No frills Italian with a fantastic spaghetti and meatballs
Not every Italian restaurant offers pastas you’ve never heard of or the exquisite pedigreed heirloom vegetables and happily slaughtered pigs. What Emmy’s does, it does really, really well -- decent spaghetti and meatballs in a casual, if not rowdy, atmosphere. Here, you talk loudly because the table next to your is screaming and the menu could have been designed with crayons. Don’t think too hard -- order garlic bread then spaghetti with three fist-size ‘balls for $16.50 ($2.50 each to add more). Emmy’s gets bonus points for serving zoodles (zucchini noodles), that famous dish that makes amateur home cooks feel like they made their own pasta but didn’t.
Communal dining with small and large shareable plates
Barbacco, the younger sibling of Perbacco, is not Perbacco’s bar. Let’s get that cleared up. Barbacco is its own casual, contemporary space a few doors down, dishing out braised chicken thighs, lights-out salumi platters, and little bruschetta canapés. In the summer, Barbacco offers the best ice cream/gelato anywhere in the Financial District. Grab one on the go if you’re a constantly-on-the-run worker bee.
Thin crust pies with delicious seasonal ingredients
Oh, the bright yellow house. Whether you're taking off from SFO or driving by at 90mph on 280, you can't miss it. On the foggiest of days, it’s the most sunshine-filled spot in the most sunshine-filled neighborhood in town. And inside, it’s downright utopian. There are very fine pizzas and pastas here, along with a flat-out esoteric but delightful wine list that includes at least five countries you’ve probably never heard of. The move, though, is the first menu section -- any salad (YES SALAD) and the best meatballs in the city. Oh, yes we just said that. Just order the polpette.
Lower Pac Heights/Fillmore
Unique and delicious pastas that border on works of art
In the early days, SPQR was A16’s forgotten sibling dedicated to the Senatus Populusque Romanus, also known as Ancient Rome. Neat. Then Matthew Accarrino arrived and conquered the creative Italian narrative with Caesar-like gusto. Now you get a tour de force of pasta artistry that has ignited a storm of followers nationwide. You might not have heard of every pasta on the menu, but you can be assured that every single one of the eight or nine pasta dishes offered will be better than almost anything you’ve ever eaten. Be sure to also order the chicken liver mousse and save room for dessert. Even Caesar didn’t eat that well. If you can, grab a seat at the tiny. counter where you can watch the magic happen. Also, if you’re not a brunch person, SPQR actually does weekend LUNCH.
Italian brunch spot with fantastic breakfast pizzas
Brunch is noteworthy at Uva -- where $15 gets you two-and-a-half hours of bottomless Bellinis and $13 to $18 gets you traditional egg breakfasts or pasta and pizza -- but Uva really hits its stride in the pizza-pasta-secondi-dessert-bottles-of-wine type of dinner. Order a pizza with kale, house-made fennel sausage, garlic, basil, pecorino, mozzarella, or a simple, flavorful pasta alongside a glass from Uva’s extensive wine list. If you’d like to walk home without an Italian food baby, enjoy some crostini, a salad, and a glass of wine. Regardless of your meal structure, Uva is an oasis of civility in a stretch known for beer bars and attitude.
A welcoming Comfort food haunt offering up incredible pasta dishes
A good rule of thumb when scouting Italian restaurants is to avoid Little Italy neighborhoods at all costs. North Beach is no exception. But just a few blocks off the main Columbus thoroughfare, in-the-know locals frequent this definitive trattoria that looks like a clubby steakhouse. You’re not getting a porterhouse here, though. Rather, you're going to dig into gnocchi bathing in tomato cream sauce and the "Pavarotti" -- a cavalry of fusilli with chicken and prosciutto. Skip the starters -- pasta is your main agenda here. Your other priority: this place is nirvana for Negroni nerds with their countless variations of the seemingly simple three-ingredient cocktail.
A cash-only joint where you’re getting focaccia
The daunting (and delicious) choices at Liguria, a family-owned-and-operated bakery, are focaccia or more focaccia. You can get it plain, onion, pizza, raisin, garlic, rosemary, mushroom, black olive, rosemary garlic, or with jalapeño cheese. The good news is you can’t go wrong with any of them (though the plain and pizza are definitely favorites). Of course, if you don’t get there early (there will be a line), you might not have a choice because when the focaccia is gone, it’s gone. Oh, and bring cash, ‘cause credit cards are not accepted.
A Sicilian bakery with authentic Italian desserts
Focaccia in hand, count the 159 steps to Victoria’s door for cannoli. And biscotti. And tiramisu. And about 20 other cookies from the 100-year-old Sicilian bakery (literally hit the century mark last year). Oh, and Washington Square is right behind you for your DIY Italian al fresco picnic. Fate? We think so.
Laid-back spot where you should expect a wait
A Mano is the kind of casual neighborhood restaurant you wish were in every neighborhood: fantastic cocktails, seven or so house-made pastas with meat, seafood, or veggies, a couple of delicious salads and pizzas, and best of all: the entire menu is very affordable (and not just for SF). In fact, the only problem with A Mano is that everything is so good and reasonably priced there’s always a wait. Which takes us back to wishing there were one in every neighborhood. Though somehow there’d still probably be a line... That’s the way it always goes with spots like that.