A SAN FRANCISCO PIAZZA
La piazza: it’s one of the things I miss most about Italy.
Because la piazza preserves the traditions and habits of the past, which modern life is swallowing.
Because la piazza offers a newspaper stand instead of an app, interaction with people instead of technology, and an outdoor space to breathe in where the world goes by in person rather than on a screen.
Because la piazza becomes a canvas of local flora and fauna, the central hub of a neighborhood, where kids migrate in the afternoon to kick a soccer ball and grandparents perch on benches to watch the next generation whiz by -- where life slows down.
In the last year and half in which I’ve lived in San Francisco, I’ve watched una piazza take shape, and, by no coincidence, it’s thanks to some Italians. This piazza is not where you might think it would be in the North-Beach-Little-Italy area of the city (an admirable landmark of shops, pizzerie, and restaurants run by extraordinary Italian-Americans still operating their ancestors’ businesses). And it’s not oval, square or rectangular, like most piazzas. Instead, it’s linear, and takes up two blocks on Union Street, between Laguna and Webster Streets, in the Cow Hollow area of Northern San Francisco. Here, my kids feel at home, as if back in Italy. In the following places, my kids can speak Italian, enjoy homemade Italian cooking and gelato, feel the bond of neighborhood friends, reminisce about the Italian culture they miss, and see how the tradition of family-run businesses transcends from Italy to America.
We start off at The Italian Homemade (1919 Union Street), a restaurant where you can’t make a reservation. Often, there’s a line out the door. But the kids say it’s worth the wait: as if they've flown to Italy for a homemade meal in a friend's kitchen.
We eat here every weekend – our kids beg to go on Sunday nights. To get in the Italian mood, my son brings his Italian crossword puzzle, la settimana enigmistica, and often the Italian waiters help him complete it as he waits for his pasta to boil. Or, my daughter might strike up a conversation with any of the waiters about the latest Italian soccer game – passionate analyses about Gianluigi Buffon’s latest save or Paulo Dybala’s penalty kick happen in spitfire Italian over a mouthful of gnocchi.
Here, you order your food and find a seat at either a communal table with high stools, at the counter, or any of the six small tables in the back.
Mattia Cosmi, the owner of Italian Homemade, has opened up four branches of this eatery (three in San Francisco and one in Berkeley) and might open another one soon in Seattle. The Italian eatery’s concept is very American in that you choose a type of pasta and then its sauce. (As many who have traveled to Italy know, rarely do you construct a plate of pasta in Italy – that’s for the chefs to decide.)
The Italian owners have figured out that Americans often think there are only two sauces to be added to pasta: either a “red sauce” or “white sauce.” But, here, customers are encouraged to choose from alternative sauces: salsa di crema di parmigiano, Bolognese, pasticciata, burro e salvia, and pesto are just a few. Long ribbons of tagliatelle, fettuccine and spaghetti roll out of the pasta-maker that is manned by The Ravioli & Tortellini King who shapes meat or vegetables into succulent sachets with the adroit fingers of a surgeon. Here, they ask you if you want parmigiano sprinkled on top of your pasta. A rhetorical question, no?
The wine served is mostly Italian, ranging from a Nebbiolo to a San Giovese, by the glass or bottle (the beer served is from local Californian breweries). But if you’re feeling like an aperitivo, they’ll quickly fix you an Aperol spritz or a Negroni. For the non-pasta lovers, they offer a classic piadina, a Northern Italian flatbread with prosciuto di parma, stracchino and rucola, or a cassone, a yeast-free flatbread stuffed with sausage, mozzarella and bell peppers, among other delicacies. There’s the charcuterie plate of Italian cold cuts, coupled with an assortment of Italian cheese. Salads with a baseball-size burrata on top occasionally sail out of the kitchen. But, oddly, the one thing you won't find at this restaurant is bread in a basket (the other carbs compensate for it).
Mister Bomboloni, a local baker (https://www.lebontaitaliane.com/), often drops off two dozen of his donut-esque dynamos every day, which cry out to be devoured at the cashier: if you’re lucky, you can snag one filled with either Nutella or vanilla cream before they disappear. Tiramisu’ is also a homemade top-off to a perfect meal – my son’s favorite. Or, panna cotta with either a caramel or raspberry sauce on top – my daughter’s go-to.
But, three months ago, competition for dessert opened up down the street at Gio (1998 Union Street), home of Gelato Italiano Originale. This is the next stop on the piazza. Guido Mastropaolo, Patrizia Pasqualetti and Nicola Trois opened up shop in early 2018, and they are as sweet as their gelato. Pasqualetti comes from a family of gelato-makers, and her family-run business, Gelateria Pasqualetti, attracts hoards in Orvieto. All made from scratch, the flavors range from the classic cioccolato and nocciola to sorbetti (depending on what they find at local markets in the area: mango, raspberry, and blood orange are big hits.)
These Umbrians are glam, far more stylishly-dressed than any other hipsters strutting around this highly-millennial-populated neighborhood, and they add an element of Italian style to the product they sell. The simplicity and elegance of the shop reflects Italians' innate sense of design -- from the stylish orange Kartell chairs to the whimsical Californian-designed Heath for Hygge & West wallpaper.
In the past few months, they have given birth to a cornershop with buzz. Open every day from late morning until late evening, Gio has convinced Americans that gelato should be eaten at any time of day. Gym-clad athletes trickle in after their spin classes at Equinox, the gym across the street which surely now has increased membership applications with Union Street's latest arrival.
Customers linger as they devour their gelato, either within the shop or outside on the street corner. Gelato is not all that's on the menu here: you can opt to have an Italian breakfast of an espresso (with a dollop of vaniglia gelato in it, for instance) with a homemade cornetto or you can take home an Easter Colomba injected with their trademark homemade whipped cream.
Stylish, Italo-file San Franciscans who have heard of this new Italian hub sometimes show up donning Superga sneakers. (A Superga boutique is just up the street and over the hill on Fillmore Street, the trend of Italian fashion never too far away, 2326 Fillmore Street). Recently spotted was Viola Buitoni, a local Italian chef who runs gourmet cooking classes out of her home (www.violasitaly.com), who sends her teenage son to work behind the counters and learn from the Gio pros. Buitoni and Tablehopper Marcia Gagliardi, San Francisco's leading food blogger, figured out early on that we're dealing with serious scoops here.
My kids love the capriccio and stracciatella most. When I’m feeling adventurous, I’ll have avocado. Californians eat avocado on toast for breakfast or lunch -- why not have it on a cone as an afternoon snack?
Recently, one of Pasqualetti's summer clients in Italy, an American who lives in nearby Mill Valley year-round, came to track her down in Cow Hollow. It was clear from their encounter that the Pasqualetti family offers more than just delicious gelato: friendship, smiles, and a sense of community are at the top of their menu.
Carrying down the linear piazza, across the street from Gio, is the Belgian-inspired brasserie, Belga (2000 Union Street), run by another Italian, the restaurant-rainmaker Adriano Paganini. (Two blocks away, closer to Gough Street, are two historic Italian restaurants which are beloved among Old San Francisco: Pane e Vino at 1715 Union Street, and Capannina at 1809 Union Street. These two old-timers are the Italian pioneers of Union's Street linear piazza and the only thing you cannot get at either of these delicious spots is a bad meal.)
Then, next door to Belga, we find Marcello Iacomini, who runs a watch repair shop (2030 Union Street). He’s a black belt karate and an ex-Carabinieri so don’t mess with him. If you want to practice your Italian, he’s always game for una bella chiaccherata. You can spot him a mile away as he's the best dressed in the neighborhood -- either in a white lab coat with a silk scarf in its pocket or a fine Italian suit and silk tie. He'll fix your Cartier, Rolex, Casio or Swatch -- always with a dose of Italian simpatia.
And, finally, there’s Illy Caffe (2055 Union Street), where its most beloved barista, known in the neighborhood as The Italian Marco, used to greet all his local fans and serve an espresso with a smile. He was recently transferred to a downtown branch and the neighborhood misses him! Yet the baristi on staff have picked up Marco's habits and clients flock here for the coffee which Trieste has made famous worldwide.
In short, if my kids are feeling homesick for Italy, and craving an Italian fix in food, language or culture, they can just stumble down the block to Union Street and hang out in the piazza. It's not just the food that lures them in -- it's hanging out with their people (Italians transplanted to America, and Americans who love Italy), and hearing their second language that makes them want to fare una passeggiata sulla piazza of Union Street.
Passa la parola, spread the word -- this San Franciscan linear piazza is worth the detour.