Even before sandwiches were elevated from a lowly lunch staple to creative works of gastronomic art by culinary-school-trained chefs, I was a fan. Spending childhood summers on the East Coast, my Sicilian grandfather and mother baked fresh bread and piled it high with everything from mortadella to sopressata. My father also loved sandwiches – I have fond memories of him taking my cousins and me to the Jersey shore or Coney Island for sausage-and-pepper or steak-and-pepper sandwiches.
When I think of sandwiches in San Francisco, there’s only one neighborhood that comes to mind – North Beach. When I moved to the City after college, I found my cravings answered at Molinari Delicatessen, which opened its doors in 1896 (they’ve been in their current location at 373 Columbus since 1913), and it reminds me of the great New York Italian delis my grandfather took me to as a kid.
In 2006, Gary Danko-alum Ryan Scott shook up the sandwich scene at Myth Cafe, a cafeteria-style lunch-only spot featuring a short menu of salads, soups and sandwiches. While the concept wasn’t unique, the menu was – instead of the usual suspects (like egg salad and roasted turkey), Scott offered revved-up versions using the SLO (sustainable, local, organic) ingredients for which the Bay Area is so revered. After Myth Cafe closed, the sandwich scene remained fairly staid until another classically trained chef named Ian Begg (see “Dishing with Chef Ian Begg,” page 11) again got tongues wagging (and salivating) at Naked Lunch, a pop-up lunch joint in the annex at Enrico’s at 504 Broadway. Naked Lunch has inspired a sort of sandwich renaissance in North Beach, but even Begg’s modern interpretations pay homage to the historic deli sandwiches that have inspired people like me to travel to North Beach for years.
While Molinari has been making sandwiches since 1896, legend has it that the sandwich was born 134 years earlier in London when a nobleman named John Montagu, the fourth Earl of Sandwich, didn’t want to stop a game of cards to eat a meal. He ordered a waiter to bring him roast beef between two slices of bread, allowing him to keep gambling (and keep the cards clean).
Here are a few of my favorite sandwiches in North Beach, in alphabetical order, and where to find them:
300 Francisco Street (at Stockton), 415-433-2882
Not-to-miss ’wiches: Italian combo (dry salame, ham, salame cotto, pressed ham, and cheese); chicken salad; hot coppa; pastrami; corned beef.
303 Columbus Avenue (near Broadway), 415-397-2767, www.giordanobros.com
Other not-to-miss ’wiches: Hot coppa (disclaimer: I grew up loving coppa, a cured Italian pork salume, so you’ll find it on most of my Not-to-miss ’wiches lists); hot cappicola (I also grew up with hot cappicola, a pork salume seasoned with crushed red peppers, salt and garlic, and like coppa, I highly recommend it on any self-respecting Italian deli sandwich); Italian sausage (hot or sweet); double egg and cheese; pastrami; steak; salame.
59 Columbus Avenue (near Jackson), 415-986-5100, www.macellato.com
Not-to-miss ’wiches: There are only two, which are definitely a meal for two, but smaller appetites can choose the Half-Wich (half a fried chicken or fried fish sandwich) for $5. The Fulton Valley Farms chicken breast (also used at Naked Lunch) has a crispy, well-seasoned crust that surrounds the surprisingly juicy white meat within. Basa, a sustainable catfish from the Mekong Delta in Vietnam, is tender, white and flaky, making it a good alternative to the threatened Atlantic cod. Definitely order some warm beignets and chicory coffee for the perfect end to your lunch.
Mama’s on Washington Square
1701 Stockton Street (at Filbert),
Mama’s is a breakfast and lunch institution almost as famous for its long lines as for its homey, satisfying food. The Sanchez family has been serving their signature egg dishes, pancakes, French toast, house-made jams, and fresh baked goods for over 50 years. While they’re famous for their breakfasts, they also make one of the best sandwiches in San Francisco – the Monte Cristo: breast of turkey, baked ham, cheddar and Havarti cheeses, and bread dipped in egg and grilled. It’s not for the faint of heart (or the heart in general), but it’s a decadent treat.
Other not-to-miss ’wiches: Classic club; California (vegetarian); grilled chicken with smoked mozzarella and basil mayonnaise.
Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store
566 Columbus Avenue (at Union), 415-362-0536
Founded by Mario Crismani and his wife, Liliana, and now run by their son Paul and his wife, Debbie, Mario’s is steeped in North Beach history (it’s one of the oldest cappuccino cafes in the United States), and you can’t beat the views of Washington Park. Along with those great views and cappuccinos, Mario’s is known for its oven-baked sandwiches on onion focaccia from Liguria Bakery, which are some of the best in town.
Not-to-miss ’wiches: Breaded eggplant with Swiss cheese, red bell pepper and marinara; grilled eggplant with balsamic vinaigrette, feta, tomato, and arugula; meatball with Swiss cheese, onions and marinara; sausage with Swiss cheese, onions and marinara; tuna melt.
373 Columbus Avenue (at Vallejo), 415-421-2337
The granddaddy of Italian delis in North Beach, Molinari offers not only the classics but also some gourmet versions like the Renzo (prosciutto, hot or mild coppa, fresh mozzarella, sun-dried tomatoes) and the South Beach (turkey, provolone, artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes, garlic-basil spread). Grab a number, pick your bread, and watch the masters show you how it’s done.
Other not-to-miss ’wiches: Imported bresaola (salt-cured air-dried beef); hot coppa; garlic and rosemary turkey; any sandwich made with their famous salame products.
504 Broadway Street, 415-577-4951, www.nakedlunchsf.com
The menu changes daily and with the seasons at this artisan lunch hot spot (check the website for that day’s menu), but I’ve never eaten a sandwich at Naked Lunch that I didn’t wake up craving in the middle of the night, particularly Begg’s signature foie gras torchon and duck prosciutto (served on an Acme baguette with a restrained sprinkle of black truffle salt), which made my list of the 15 best things I ate last year under $15 (even though it’s a dollar over, this is one rich, satisfying sandwich that can easily be a meal for two people). And forget the potato chips – at Naked Lunch, it’s all about the addictive 4505 chicharrones (trust me, you can’t eat just one).
Other not-to-miss ’wiches: Wood oven-roasted salmon; Fulton Valley farms fried chicken; grilled Kurobuta pork belly with apple and scallions; cipollini onion confit and Manchego cheese.
752 Columbus Avenue (at Greenwich), 415-398-1682
Petite Deli is arguably the most unsung sandwich hero in the neighborhood, but true sandwich lovers flock to the tiny shop run by the friendly, hard-working Mrs. Young, who offers generous portions of quality ingredients on your choice of bread (for most choices, go with the crusty ciabatta roll) at exceptionally reasonable prices.
Not-to-miss ’wiches: Young’s Chic-ken; Turkey Delight; basil-tomato-mozzarella; tofu; egg salad.