The Sights and Flavors of North Beach

by Nancy Bestor

One of my favorite San Francisco neighborhoods is North Beach. I have great memories of outstanding pasta dishes at authentic Italian restaurants (Firenze by Night Ristorante), drinks at popular watering holes (Vesuvio), and long Friday afternoon work lunches at the Washington Square Bar and Grill. Returning almost 20 years later as a tourist, I still find the neighborhood a delight. There’s much to see and explore, including a hike up to Coit Tower for a look at the impressive New Deal era murals in the lobby and a chance to see San Francisco from the top of the 210-foot tower that was built in 1933. Before our recent visit, we had just watched the quirky documentary about the more than 200 wild birds that live in the neighborhood below the tower (Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill). Seeing them fly around the tower on our visit made this stop even more fun.

After some extensive first hand taste testing research, we have determined the best San Francisco gelato shop to be in North Beach as well. We’ve eaten gelato at Gelato Classico Italian (just off Washington Square at 576 Union) on many occasions. We usually try at least four different flavors on each visit, and have not been disappointed. My favorite remains a combination of dark chocolate and vanilla (which my family deems as “incredibly boring”), but we’ve also loved the blood orange, mango, peanut butter and chocolate, and coffee flavors. Gelato Classico is a cash only establishment.

We can’t visit North Beach without stopping to people watch in Washington Square Park (Union & Columbus). With the beautiful Sts. Peter and Paul Church in the background (where Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio were photographed after their wedding in 1954), the Park is a great place to catch some sun and watch the locals toss a frisbee, play with their dogs and even get their formal portraits taken with their most prized possessions (in one case a szitzu puppy). We also find this an excellent spot to eat our gelato from Gelato Classico.

We recently happened into a delightful North Beach antique map and bookstore. Schein & Schein (1435 Grant Ave.) sells fascinating antique maps with an inventory that boasts everything from maps of San Francisco neighborhoods to maps of the world. We had a great time viewing maps from the early days of the East Bay, our original stomping grounds. Owner Jimmie Schein is amazingly knowledgeable and enthusiastic about his collection and how each piece ties into Bay Area, U.S. and world history. And to top it off he’s truly delighted to share his love of maps. Schein & Schein is definitely worth a stop on any tour of San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood.