At the Italian-French Bakery Tom took us into the back of the bakery where we saw ovens that are over a century old. Tom explained that bakery ovens actually get better the older they get. A flamethrower generating temperatures of about 2000 degrees Fahrenheit was heating up one of the ovens, getting the oven ready for the baking process which uses residual heat. Tom explained that the heat sears the crust of the bread and keeps the inside soft.
The croissants look delicious
Our learning continued a few hundred meters away at Palermo Delicatessen, one of the most established Italian delicatessens in all of San Francisco. Tom introduced me to the owners, Frank and Vince Balistreri. We first got to try different types of olive oil on white bread, until Frank brought out the goods: a taster’s plate of hot dry Italian salami, mild dry Italian salami, mild copa (cured pork shoulder) and fresh mozzarella with sun-dried tomatoes.
Frank indicated that all the food is local, and that he purchases his salami products from a local company called Molinari that has been producing meat products according to authentic Italian recipes for more than 110 years. The taste treats kept coming, and Tom continued educating us about olive oil, indicating that olives pressed with skin and pits result in a pepper-flavoured dark oil, while oil without pits and skin has a more buttery texture. This tour was really starting to sharpen my culinary awareness.
Real Italian flavours at Palermo Delicatessen
Then we headed to Victoria Pastry, an Italian sweet bakery since 1914. Tom explained that traditionally there were two different kinds of bakeries: bread bakeries and pastry bakeries, and Victoria Pastry is obviously in the latter category. Here we got to taste some authentic cannoli, Sicilian pastry desserts that consist of tube-shaped pastry shells containing a sweet creamy filling made of ricotta cheese or sweetened Mascarpone.
Tom offers us some cannoli at Victoria Pastry
Our discoveries of North Beach’s Italian heritage continued at Caffe Trieste, a popular neighbourhood café that became famous as the location where Francis Ford Coppola wrote the script for Godfather III. Founded in 1956 by Giovanni Giotta, an Italian immigrant from Rovigno, Caffe Trieste has become a very popular neighbourhood hangout for residents, tourists, musicians and artists. Even various celebrities have been enjoying their coffee here, including Bill Cosby and Luciano Pavarotti. Papa Gianni still plays music here regularly, and his granddaughter Ida showed me around and pointed out the photo wall in the back that shows an entire collection of famous local and international celebrities that have visited this unique place which has even been depicted in a number of movies.
Caffe Trieste, a popular movie location and writers’ hangout
We had now spent almost three and a half hours with Tom and his friends on this culinary tour in the North Beach neighbourhood, and by the time we were finished, we had learned so much about the special flair that characterizes San Francisco and the lifestyle that makes this city so liveable. And even better, we had filled our bellies with a variety of Italian delicacies.
Our next destination: Coit Tower
This three and a half hour culinary tour had given us great insight into the San Francisco mindset and strengthened us for a steep walk to our next destination: Coit Tower.