The best way to dine in North Beach is to ask the old-timers where they eat. Not only will they go into detail about why they love a place, they can usually tell you from what part of Italy the chef hails and just how long he’s been cooking “in the neighborhood.” Most of these guys have lived in North Beach their entire lives, and they know the real deal from the phony baloney when it comes to the Italian restaurants that pepper every corner. When you ask them about Firenze by Night, they tell you that the food there is indeed the real deal. One life-long North Beach resident said respectfully in his thick Italian accent, “Sergio is probably the number one restaurateur who understands Italian food.”
The man he speaks of is Sergio Giusti, chef-owner of Firenze, located just a bit off the main drag on Stockton Street near Columbus. For over 20 years, Firenze has chalked up awards and accolades, including the Best of the Best Five Star Diamond Award, given by the Academy of Hospitality Sciences to honor the top 100 Italian restaurants in the United States, and first place medals for two consecutive years in the Best of North Beach contest for its famous gnocchi, as well as a first place award for its pappardelle Toscana. The gnocchi was also named “one of the top 96 reasons to love San Francisco,” by the San Francisco Examiner in 1996. While movie stars and politicos alike have patronized Firenze, one of the restaurant’s biggest fans was Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Herb Caen who described it as “So Italian, you need a passport.”
On a chilly Monday night, I walked through a ghost-town-like North Beach of half-filled to empty restaurants, but Firenze was packed to the gills with the usual eclectic crowd of locals, tourists, regulars, and friends joking in Italian with the mostly Italian staff.
When you enter Firenze, there is a warm, sweet feel to the place; it’s saturated with tradition and true Italian soul. The ceiling is adorned with grape leaves and twinkling white lights, a photograph of Florence serves as wallpaper, and a statue of David, his private parts tastefully hidden behind the Italian flag, watches over the dining room. Hipsters might scoff at Firenze’s Old World charm and opt for the trendier more modern interiors of Ristorante Ideale or Panta Rei, but they would be missing out, because the food at Firenze is fantastic.
While the front of the menu describes Firenze’s fare as “continental Italian,” the highlight is the authentic Tuscan dishes that Giusti brought from his native Montecatini, one of the most beautiful towns in Tuscany. Even after over two decades, you will still find Giusti in his chef’s whites overseeing the kitchen nearly every night.
I love a chef brave enough to serve a very simple salad, and the hearts of romaine with Roquefort is a good example ($8.75) – just crisp, cool lettuce topped with generous crumbles of cheese. Unlike most preparations, Giusti lightens it up with vinaigrette rather than a heavy creamy dressing, which adds an unexpected tanginess that offsets the richness of the Roquefort.
Firenze also offers one of my favorite soups, stracciatella – chicken broth with egg and Parmesan cheese ($6.50). I can’t count how many times my mom made this for me when I was feeling under the weather (or how many times I pretended to be under the weather just so she’d make it). Though most often associated with Rome, stracciatella (Italian for “torn apart”) is a popular staple in many Italian kitchens and is similar to Chinese egg drop soup. It has just a few ingredients, but there is an art to making it: you have to swirl the broth and then drop in the beaten egg, which causes the egg to form stracciatelle (“little shreds”). Freshly grated Parmesan, a sprinkle of sea salt and some freshly ground black pepper add the finishing touches.
Giusti’s much-lauded pappardelle Toscana ($14.75) boasts wide ribbons of al dente noodles in a beautifully spiced rabbit sauce that manages to be sumptuous but never heavy.
I had one of my rare “eyes rolling to the back of the head” moments with the ravioli della mamma ($14) – large ravioli filled with spinach and ricotta in a wonderful meat sauce.
While house-made pasta is a mainstay at trendy restaurants these days, Firenze has been making their pasta fresh each day since they opened, not because it is the “in thing to do” but because it is the way Giusti learned to cook.
The bistecca alla Fiorentina ($28.50) is a plate-filling porterhouse steak traditionally marinated in olive oil and herbs for 24 hours and broiled to your liking. I requested my steak medium-rare and it came to the table sizzling hot and cooked to perfection. The flame-kissed exterior is caramelized and full of smoky flavor. The seasonal veggies on the side are there, I surmised, just to make you feel like you ate something green. The porterhouse is easily big enough for two or three people to share, and at under $30 it is one of the City’s best steak deals.
I’m not usually a big swordfish fan, but it was the fish of the day (AQ) on one visit, and a friend ordered it because swordfish is his favorite. It was delicious – a thin slab of juicy fish with grill marks from the open flame – and by far the best swordfish I’ve had in recent memory.
Fried calamari is one of those appetizers that everyone gravitates to – except me, because it is usually reminiscent of rubber bands with legs. I do, however, love egg-battered calamari steak pan fried and topped with dore (lemon-butter-caper sauce) and, if done properly, I like it simply sauteed. Firenze offers it two ways ($16.50), and both are successful – calamari Giusti, with garlic, mushrooms, olive oil, and white wine; and alla Livornese, with shallots, capers, garlic, and black olives in tomato sauce.
Gamberoni pescatore ($19.50) is another great seafood option, featuring jumbo prawns butterflied and served tail-on in a tangy tomato sauce redolent with garlic.
Without a doubt, Firenze’s most renowned dish is the gnocchi Firenze ($14.00), light-as-air handmade potato and pasta pillows tossed in a silky tomato cream sauce and as good as any you will find outside of Florence. In many restaurants gnocchi are gummy and doughy, but Giusti’s are bursting with potato flavor. You really can’t leave Firenze without trying the gnocchi, and I recommend a couple of orders, which can be split as appetizers for a group. If you do choose the gnocchi as your entree, be prepared to share: on one of my visits, forks traveled from every corner of the table to spear a plump little dumpling or two.
Other specialties, including a wonderful petto di cappone ripieno (breast of capon stuffed with prosciutto and fontina cheese, $19.75) and the quaglie al Barolo (quail in Barolo wine sauce, $19.50) also help to set the food at Firenze a notch above the more common Italian fare found in many of the neighborhood’s family-style ristorantes.
Firenze boasts a full bar (after dinner, ask for some of Giusti’s famous house-made limoncello) and a large, well-selected wine list. There are some terrific desserts as well – the torta Fiorentina (sponge cake layered with chocolate and zabaglione, $7), budino Campagnolo (creme caramel pudding, $5.50), and the better than average tiramisu ($7) are all standouts.
Next time you’re in North Beach, skip Spaghetti Row and head to Firenze by Night for the authentic flavors of Tuscany and a neighborhood experience sadly missing from most of the restaurants in North Beach today. One bite of gnocchi and I guarantee your first visit won’t be your last.
Firenze by Night: 1429 Stockton Street (at Columbus); Sunday and Monday 5 to 10 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday 5 to 11 p.m.; 415-392-8485.
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