A North Beach Culinary Tour

Food is a big part of the San Francisco experience, and Tom explained that San Francisco is a city for foodies – high quality fresh food plays an enormously important role in the locals’ lives. Shopping habits are very similar to the old European ways: people go shopping on foot in their local neighbourhoods and visit all sorts of specialty stores such as bakeries, pastry shops, vegetable stores, delicatessens, butcher shops and many more. Food is bought fresh almost every day, and a home-cooked leisurely dinner is an important part of the social agenda. Cafés and coffee houses also thrive here.

Toni Azzolini from Caffe Roma, with Tom Medin


Our first stop was Caffe Roma where owner Toni Azzolini, a real character who was great to talk to, explained to us the coffee roasting process and had us taste some of his famous capuccino. Coffee is roasted freshly on site and their most popular blend includes four different coffee varieties from different countries, all purchased from small-scale farmers who don’t use pesticides or fertilizer. Toni introduced us to his father who had immigrated from Italy and started the business in 1976.

The famous coffee roaster


Toni himself has lived just outside of Rome for a number of years, and today he runs three family-owned cafés with his father Sergio, his sister and brother-in-law. Numerous locals were getting together at the café and chatting or watching the stock market on the television screens. Toni also imports fine wines and showcases them on the premises. Various light Italian meals such as panini and pizza as well as Italian sweet treats enticed our tastebuds at Caffe Roma.

Jean-Marc Gorce & assistant from XOX Truffles


The culinary temptations continued when we walked a short distance to XOX Truffles where we saw the truffle-making process in action. Tom explained that truffle-making involves a number of steps, starting with the inner core of the truffle, called the “ganache”. Other truffle fillings include cream, caramel, nuts, berries, nougat, and various types of liquor. The outer part of the truffle is then dipped in powder, which can, for example, be bitter chocolate, hazelnut powder or coconut powder. The display case featured a wide assortment of truffle flavours, including raspberry cream, amaretto, rum & raisin, and white chocolate. There are even sugar-free truffles for diabetics and soy-based truffles for vegans.

Jean-Marc Gorce, the owner, was busy making truffles, a very time-sensitive business, but I was fortunate to get his story. He originally hails from Valence in the Loire Valley of France and was one of the top French chefs in San Francisco until a heart attack changed his life. He decided to get out of his stressful restaurant kitchen and dedicated himself to truffle-making, aided by his wife, who is a successful sales person. Today, XOX truffles are purchased by hotels, restaurants and catering companies, and consumers can either pick them up through the website and at different Whole Foods locations throughout the United States. Before we left, he even equipped us with a grab bag full of goodies, and the raspberry cream truffles quickly became my favourites.

Another view of Saints Peter and Paul


After leaving Jean-Marc to his busy job, we headed back on the street and strolled past Washington Square which forms the heart of Little Italy. On its north end the square is anchored by Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church, also known as “La chiesa d’Italia ovest” (“The Italian Church of the West”). A beautiful and imposing white limestone building, this Neo-Gothic Church was consecrated in 1924 and became the location of Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio’s wedding photos in 1954. Some scenes of the epic movie The Ten Commandments were filmed here when the church was still being constructed.

The interior of Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church


Our next stop was Liguria Bakery where we got to taste a few delicious samples of real Italian focaccia bread, fresh out of the oven. Focaccia is a flat oven-baked Italian bread, which is often topped with onions, herbs and other items, similar to a pizza. After another delicious tasting we continued and dropped by the Italian-French Bakery which has been around for about 130 years. On the way Tom told us about the importance of sour-dough bread in San Francisco: when the Boudin Bakery relocated, its proprietary starter (the yeast culture that starts fermentation) was transported under police escort. That’s how seriously bread baking is taken in San Francisco.

Baking is underway at the Italian-French Bakery

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