When it comes to Italian food, there are a lot of fantastic options in SF - from fast-casual pasta places and neighborhood pizza spots to very fancy restaurants that require waking up at midnight 30 days in advance and/or giving up rent control to get a Saturday night reservation. Instead of waiting for a server to usher you into one of the tourist traps on Columbus Ave., here’s where you should be eating instead.
This place in Nob Hill is a great low-key, special occasion spot. It’s part Italian wine bar and part full restaurant with a menu of fantastic food, from small oxtail-stuffed olives to split over a few glasses of nebbiolo, to larger plates like their 10-hour bolognese. It’s never hard to get a reservation, so even if you’re in need of a place last second, Altovino has you covered.
From big bowls of spaghetti and meatballs to eggplant parmesan, the menu at Emmy’s Spaghetti Shack is full of Italian-American classics. The portions are huge, so you’ll want to come here as a group and order as many things as you can to share. In addition to the great food, this Bernal Heights restaurant is one of the funkiest places in the city. Inside you’ll find a fantasy horse mural, a Dolly Parton pinball machine, and colorful hand-drawn menus - all things that make Emmy’s feel like it was designed from someone’s middle school memories.
When you want to impress someone from out of town, taking them to this massive restaurant with colorful tiles and a better looking crowd than the background extras in a CW drama would be a good idea. The food at Che Fico ranges from Jewish-Italian small plates like chopped liver and suppli to fancy pastas to some of the more interesting pizza in the city, and all of it is pretty great. If you can’t get a reservation, it’s still fun to sit at the bar and split a few things over wine.
Che Fico Alimentari makes simple dishes like rigatoni amatriciana and shrimp scampi that are good - if not better - than the ones they make at the older sibling restaurant upstairs. This place is much more casual too, so it’s perfect when you want great food, but don’t need to pull out all the stops, like when you’re going on a third date or catching up with a friend you haven’t seen in forever.
If you started to tell someone about all the different doughs, ovens, and temperatures that Tony’s Pizza Napoletana uses to make their absurdly long menu of pizzas, they would probably glaze over like Fred Savage at the beginning of The Princess Bride. But if you bring them here instead, they’ll be begging you for more when you leave, like Fred Savage toward the end of The Princess Bride. We like the classic Neapolitan pie and the coal-fired New Yorker, but if you want something else, you’ll definitely find it in their phonebook-sized menu.
Prairie feels like a restaurant from the far-reaching future that makes dishes of what they think the food was like in this era. It’s Italian food, but with ingredients from China, Korea, Japan, and wherever else seems to make sense, and it all works out to be fantastic. Start with guanciale-wrapped mochi, and then get the XO-rubbed spare ribs they cook over the wood-fire grill.
Years later, it’s still hard to get a reservation at Flour + Water and that’s because they still make the best pasta in the city. The menu changes constantly and the pastas use combinations that you couldn’t think of even if it was your job, but after you taste them, they’ll be burned into your mental list of things you wish you could eat again. If you come on a random night early in the week, the line won’t be too bad. And it’s one of the rare places that’s absolutely worth waiting outside for before they open.
If we could clone one restaurant and put it in every neighborhood in SF, it would probably be Flour + Water Pizzeria. This offshoot of Flour + Water (that’s also in the Mission) makes incredible pizzas, salads, and small plates in a space you’d feel as comfortable coming to with your boss as you would with your whole dodgeball team. And because nothing costs more than $20, it’s the perfect option for almost everything - first dates, dinner with visiting family, and a quick bite in the form of The Big Slice, which is only available from their takeout window in the back.
There are a lot of delis in San Francisco, but Molinari is our favorite. We come here regularly for cured meats to make charcuterie boards with, but the best thing about Molinari is their sandwich selection. They have a set menu of things like the Renzo with prosciutto, coppa, mozzarella, and sundried tomatoes, but we usually go custom and walk out with something piled high with imported mortadella.
This place serves seriously good pizza and pasta in a nice and non-serious environment, which means that everyone in the Richmond who wants delicious Italian food is coming here (either to eat or for takeout). While it would certainly be a good strategy to come and focus on the pizza, you’d miss the amazing octopus and other small plates. So the best plan is to eat here a lot and try something different every time.
SPQR is one of the only places in the city where you can get pasta about as good as what you’ll find at Flour + Water, but with a much more businesslike feel and an older crowd. All of the dishes here are phenomenal, but if you’re in the mood for a lot of pasta, they have a five-course tasting menu that’s worth trying.
If we could be on a first name basis with any restaurant in this guide, it would be La Ciccia. It’s a small neighborhood spot in Noe Valley with Sardinian food that rivals almost anything that some of the bigger, fancier places around the city charge way more for. We’d cross six neighborhoods on a skateboard just for the Sardinian macaroni with uni or the spicy baby octopus stew. But what sets La Ciccia so far apart from other places is that every single time you go here, the staff is nice enough to make you feel like you’re family coming home from a long vacation. Reservations are tough to get, but after you get your first, you’ll want it to be a standing one.
Focaccia is the only thing that this tiny bakery in North Beach makes, but it’s some of the best bread in the entire city. They make a few different kinds like rosemary, mushroom, and pizza with red sauce and green onions on top, and all of it is amazing. The most any focaccia will cost you is $7, and if you’re hanging out in Washington Square across the street, it’s the perfect thing to snack on while you lie in the grass and contemplate learning tai chi.
Cotogna, between FiDi and North Beach, has simple, fresh, consistently delicious food. This place is perfect for date night, special occasions, or lunches when you call in “sick”/decide to abuse the unlimited time-off policy at work. Maybe it’s the dim lights, or the brick walls, or the wood oven firing away in the back, or the close to perfect pasta - or maybe it’s the whole package - but Cotogna has the kind of romantic feeling a lot of places try to fake but can’t.
If you’re looking for classic Italian-American food, you can’t beat Trattoria Contadina. This place has been open for a few decades and is stuck in 1987 in the best possible way. It feels like somewhere you’d go with your whole extended family to celebrate an anniversary or a soccer championship, and having that many people would be a good idea so you can get every massive bowl of pasta on the menu, along with the veal saltimbocca. You’re going to need to-go boxes when you come here, so make sure you’ve got room in your fridge before you leave home.
The only thing wrong with Barzotto is that they don’t have any sofas for us to hang out on all the time, but beyond them not letting us live here, we love this counter-service Italian place. All of the pastas are made in house, are delicious, and, at around $16, are actually affordable enough for a random weeknight catch up with a few friends. They also have $10 glasses of wine and soft-serve ice cream that we’d come in for on its own.
Roma Antica is our go-to for pizza and pasta in the Marina. The eggplant parmesan and carbonara in particular are very much worth your time. Come with friends when you want to drink wine and eat Italian food and not get intense anxiety when the bill comes. This place is low-key and easy to hit for lunch, brunch, or dinner.
If we ever successfully hypnotized our boss into having a much more relaxed work attendance policy, we’d spend a good chunk of our afternoons at Piccino. The light and space at this Dogpatch spot are both beautiful, and the food, particularly the octopus and the mushroom pizza, is fantastic. At night, the menu is a bit longer and the atmosphere is still great, but know that Piccino is really at its best during the day.
Ragazza is the kind of place you want for a going-away dinner, a double date, a birthday, or pretty much any other meal that involves getting a group together, sharing lots of things, and trying not to drop an absurd amount of money. If you’re a planner, reserve the heated back gazebo area. The thin-crust pizza is excellent, as is the baked rigatoni, and they even do a good job with the salads - especially the baby kale. It’s a place that will please everyone you know, and even works if you’re gluten-free.
All of the pasta at this counter-service place is homemade (go figure), and if $17 sounds expensive for a plate of pasta from a fast-casual spot, one serving is really enough for two people. We love all the Italian Homemade locations, but the North Beach one - with Italian disco blasting at all times - is our favorite. The Union Street location has beer and wine though, and is a perfect stop before heading out in Cow Hollow.
When we’re around Union Square returning oven mitts and jean shorts that never caught on with the rest of our friends, Tratto is one of our favorite places to stop by. It has an awesome Happy Hour and a menu of Italian classics that do the job (our go-tos are the mushroom pizza, the meatballs, and the spinach tagliatelle). Thanks to its location near the Financial District and being surrounded by hotels, it’s also an ideal spot for a big group dinner with work people or visiting clients.
We love Delfina because it’s one of the most consistent spots in the city. This is an SF classic for well-executed upscale Italian - they do a solid take on everything from grilled calamari to gnocchi. You’ll never be disappointed with a dinner here, and if you need to play it safe with parents, clients, or a second date, this a great choice.