North Beach Parade & Fall Bounty from Italia

Cavalli Tuscan Treasures

North Beach’s Italian-Heritage Parade, the oldest in America, is Sunday, October 7. Book your lunch table now at one of the many caffes and restaurants on the parade route. They’re going fast. It’s a fantastic holiday. You don’t want to miss it. Everyone will be there.

We’re in for a really special treat this year. Piero and Lorenza Cipriani are flying in from Italia laden with bounty from the fall harvest. Santo Esposito who owns Cavalli Cafe is pitching a big tent outside on Saturday & Sunday so the Ciprianis can share tastes of their Italian culinary loot with anyone who stops by.

They’re bringing this year’s extra virgin olive oil from a small producer in Tuscany, just-picked truffles from Emiglia-Romagna and Umbria, just-milled Tuscan chestnut flour and fresh and dried porcini mushrooms.

I’d kill for a fresh porcini. I like to grill them with garlic-infused olive oil and a light sprinkle of oregano or marjoram and sea salt. It’s like eating steak.

All of the Cipriani goodies are for sale so grab some while you can. And stop in Cavalli Cafe before you move on for an espresso and Santo’s cannoli, the best in all of North Beach. I hope I see you there after our Parade lunch party.

I have a few seats at my lunch table if you want to join us. Send me an email and I’ll let you know the details and where to meet up.

Read more about my Parade experiences.

 

Sweet Potato Gnocchi

Sweet Potato Gnocchi

I was hosting a 4-course birthday dinner for a friend. I asked her what she wanted. “Nothing special. You come up with something. It’s always good,” she told me. But the next morning she sent me an email. “Can you make sweet potato gnocchi? I’ve been craving them.”

How could I say no, but the pressure was on. Everyone at my dinner loves the puffy, light sweet potato gnocchi at da Flora, one of  our favorite North Beach restaurants. Would mine pass muster with this exacting crowd?

I use both russet and sweet potatoes here. Sweet potatoes can be wet so I roasted the potatoes instead of boiling them in their jackets to keep them as dry as possible.

The sweet potato gnocchi were light little pillows that just about melted on my tongue. The sage butter sauce is classic in its simplicity and adds richness to the gnocchi’s sweetness. The grated parmigiano really balances the flavors and adds to the complexity of this dish.

This recipe made over 100 gnocchi. Lucky for me I had more than enough for dinner so some could be frozen to enjoy another day. Just spread them out on a cookie tray and put them in the freezer. When frozen store them in a freezer bag. Drop the frozen gnocchi right into the boiling water. They’ll take a bit longer to cook through. Frozen gnocchi are good but fresh gnocchi are better.

Watch my gnocchi video episode to see how to make them.

Buon appetito!

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Pickled Eggplant

Pickled Eggplant

It’s getting near the end of the summer season so I’m putting up some eggplant to tide me over until spring.

This a simple recipe from the south of Italia. The pickled eggplant is preserved under olive oil (sott’olio) and will keep in your refrigerator for weeks, even months.

Let the eggplant sit in the refrigerator for a few days to reach its peak flavor. The vinegar mellows and the eggplant picks up a hint of garlic, oregano and bay as it marinates in the jar. The red hot pepper adds a little sparkle at the end of each bite. (I used a small Calabrian chili pepper packed in EVOO.)

The pickled eggplant is a wonderful addition to an antipasti platter. Use it as a crostini topping. Serve it as a side with meat or fish.

Buon appetito!

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Take advantage of the end of the summer bounty. If you like this recipe try my giardiniera and pickled vinegar peppers.

N.B. I have to tell you that these are not canning recipes. My stuff lasts weeks or even months in the refrigerator. Just be sure that the eggplant is always fully covered by olive oil. If you want to keep the eggplant for a long time in your pantry, follow standard canning techniques to ensure food safety.

Square 5 Best in SF

North Beach’s Graffeo Coffee Roasting Co.

The Chronicle’s food writers just completed a year-long culinary tour of San Francisco, one square mile at a time.

The city was divided into 49 “squares”. Each Sunday the culinary adventurers shared their take on the best restaurants and food attractions in each square. After exploring all that San Francisco has to offer, one square topped the heap.

Square 5, including North Beach, Chinatown, Fisherman’s Wharf and Jackson Square, is the best in all of San Francisco. Woohoo!

What’s not to like? It’s one of the oldest parts of the City, home to the first public square, the first air-dried salami, the bawdry Barbary Coast, vibrant Italian and Chinese neighborhoods, and coffeehouses loaded with colorful locals.

Why Square 5 over all the others?

If I was going to pick one square to explain the quirkiness, vibrancy and ethos of San Francisco, it would be Square 5. Here lies the heart and soul of San Francisco. This square mile encapsulates the city’s beginnings, its forced acceptance of ethnic diversity, its independent entrepreneurial spirit, its love of life.

So what to pick as the best of Square 5? There are so many fabulous restaurants and food outlets in these rich neighborhoods.

It was a tough choice. “Yet in the end we picked Graffeo Coffee because it represents the type of creative and entrepreneurial spirit the city embraces.” Interesting choice.

Graffeo Coffee Roasting Co. is one of the country’s oldest artisan coffee roasters. The’ve roasted beans on Columbus every day since 1935. That’s all they do. Only go there if you want to buy some of their world-renowed coffee.

While you’re at Graffeo’s, if caffeine isn’t enough and you need a chocolate fix too, stop by XOX Truffles across the street for some of the best chocolate anywhere.

Here’s the Square 5 article.

 

Chicken Cacciatore

Hunter’s Style Chicken–Pollo alla Cacciatore

Flavor memories of my Mom’s hunter-style braised chicken overwhelmed me. I headed down the hill to get what I needed to make this easy, rustic dish.

I’m a breast man but go ahead and include all of your favorite chicken parts. The breasts take less time to cook so just simmer dark meat pieces a bit longer. Use bone-in and skin-on chicken for more flavor.

My recipe includes my father’s “secret” ingredient. He always added a sweet vinegar pepper to his chicken cacciatore. If you’re really energetic make my easy vinegar pickled peppers. (If you don’t have vinegar peppers use a dozen vinegar-brined capers or just a few drops of red wine vinegar. The acidity balances the sweetness of the peppers.)

I served the chicken cacciatore up with creamy polenta so I didn’t lose any of the sauce on the plate. Boiled rice works well too. You can also use the sauce for pasta.

The chicken is moist and tender, bathed in the chunky, sweet tomato-pepper sauce. I like to get a piece of bell pepper with each bite of chicken. Sometimes when I’m lucky, I get a piece of the piquant vinegar pepper too. Heaven!

Buon appetito!

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Ciao Caesar’s

Last Day Crowds at Caesar’s Restaurant

It’s the end of a North Beach era.

After 56 years as a destination for locals, Caesar’s Restaurant near Fisherman’s Wharf, closed yesterday.

The family-owned restaurant is a victim of changing San Francisco and North Beach demographics, changed tastes at the table, and a sour economy.

Eat Where the Italians Eat Caesar’s proclaimed. For more than a half-century, this was the place for wedding receptions and other large family gatherings.

Caesar’s was also famous for the North Beach Italian-American 7-course meal.  Locals lingered over the huge meal at lunch or dinner: salad, antipasti, soup, pasta, entree, dessert and coffee. Who eats this way anymore?

When I moved to North Beach twenty years ago there were a bunch of these family-style restaurants. The Gold Spike, New Pisa, La Felce, San Remo, Fior d’Italia, are all gone. Gone too is the North Beach community that supported these businesses.

Here’s a glimpse of those bygone days from the Caesar’s website.

Caesar’s was established in 1956 by Caesar Fabrini and his three partners, who all came to the United States as youngsters and knew each other from playing soccer at the Italian Athletic club still in existence in North Beach today. At that time the neighborhood consisted of many small factories and there was a big Italian community made up of workers and fisherman and their families. Caesar Fabrini had the inspiration to serve a seven course dinner at a moderate price for this community and so Caesar’s Italian restaurant was started.

That North Beach Italian community is much smaller today. Businesses closed. Families moved to the suburbs. There aren’t enough of the old-timers and their progeny around to support these old-time places.

But, if you’re in the mood for this North Beach Italian-American culinary experience, you can still have a family-style dinner at Capp’s Corner on Green & Powell.

Caesar’s owners’ note announcing the closing is heartfelt, as is the Chron’s Carl Nolte’s Caesar’s farewell story.

Galloping Figs

I love fresh figs. I don’t care, black or white, I eat them all while they are in season. It all started when I was a kid.

We had 3 fig trees in our Jersey backyard, 2 black, 1 white. I couldn’t wait for the end of summer when the figs ripened so that I could eat them right off the tree, still warm in the late summer sun. My fall job was to wrap the trees with newspaper and plastic sheets and put a bushel on top so they survived the cold winters.

The figs are fantastic this summer, big, fat and sweet. I don’t peel fresh figs the way many do in Italy. I hold the short stem and bite off the whole thing to fill my my mouth with a burst of their rich flavor.

Poor me, I got stuck with 2 pints of Mission figs. No way they’d all be eaten before they spoiled. So I decided to make Galloping Figs, a simple dessert that gets its name from the plopping sound the figs make as they cook in the syrup. The figs have a jammy intensity with just a hint of lemon and bay in the background. Thanks to Lidia for this one.

For dessert, I served the sweet, syrupy figs with Robiola, a creamy soft cheese from Langhe in northern Italy. Galloping Figs make a fantastic topping for vanilla gelato too or just enjoy them on their own. Don’t forget to spoon the luscious syrup on top before serving. The figs will keep for a few days in the fridge to prolong your enjoyment.

Buon appetito!

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The Purple Onion: Bye-Bye

The Purple Onion, the North Beach cellar club where Phyllis Diller, Woody Allen, Richard Pryor and the Smothers Brothers performed early in their careers, will close next month. A new owner has new plans for the building.

A comedy cooperative staged shows at the Purple Onion over the last 3 years. They filled most shows with “guerrilla” marketing–Tweets and Facebook posts the comedians send to their fans about upcoming gigs.

The Purple Onion is just down the street from Tosca Cafe, another old-time North Beach spot, that was served with an eviction notice last week.

Change is in the North Beach air.

Here’s Paolo Lucchesi’s Chronicle piece with a link to C.W. Nevius’ original story. Check out The Purple Onion 60s street photo.

Victoria Pastry Is Back

Victoria Pastry Company’s New Home on Filbert

Victoria Pastry Company has reopened in its new digs near Washington Square Park, on Filbert just down the street from Saints Peter & Paul Church. Victoria moved after almost 100 years on the corner of Stockton & Vallejo, across the street from Little City Meats.

You can get the famous St. Honore and other cakes, cannoli, lemon polenta pound cake, Italian cookies and all your other favorites once again. They make a good espresso too.

Everyone is stopping by to welcome them back to the Village. Why don’t you? Let’s support our local businesses so they stick around for all of us to enjoy.

Sicilian pastries and a whole lot more. Take a look at what could be yours.  Victoria Pastry Company

Umbrian Black Truffles @ Cavalli Cafe

I was navigating through the crowd waiting for the bus outside of Cavalli Cafe on Stockton and didn’t notice the hand-written sign in the window. Owner Santo Esposito saw me passing by and ran out to tell me that black truffles (tartufi neri) had just arrived from Umbria. My heart raced as we hurried inside.

Santo opened the box with the black beauties inside. The truffle aroma wafted across the counter. I was overwhelmed and had to have one. I knew exactly what I would do with the tartuffo I was holding in my hand, my take on a classic Umbrian pasta.

I had chestnut flour in my cupboard so I made fresh pasta and served it with a simple black truffle sauce. Set a plate of pasta before each guest and shave truffle on top. The aroma of the Umbrian forest fills your head as you go in for your first forkful. The tender pasta has a delicate, sweet chestnut flavor that blends nicely with the woodsy truffles. (You can find chestnut flour at Italian delis and at many supermarkets or just substitute spaghetti or your favorite imported Italian dried pasta.)

Friends in Italia supply Santo with the best products all year: Tuscan EVOO from last fall’s first press; dried porcini mushrooms; chestnut flour; white and black truffles depending on the season. These black truffles were harvested just a few days ago. Don’t delay, get fresh black truffles at Cavalli Cafe now @ $2/gram.

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Tosca’s Last Act?

North Beach’s Tosca Cafe

Not Puccini’s opera, the North Beach cafe on Columbus with opera on the jukebox. Tosca Cafe, a favorite with the famous and locals alike, is 8 years short of its 100th anniversary. Owner Jeannette Etheridge just got an eviction notice.

It all started earlier this week. The landlord wants his unpaid rent. He’s a major stockholder in Deja Vu Showgirls, a Seattle company that owns strip joints on Broadway. Rumor had it that he wanted the space for another one.

A true North Beach character, Jeannette Etheridge lawyered up with John Keker, one of the best in the country. Her powerful clientele mobilized support to save this North Beach institution.

“Look at the place,” Etheredge told the SF Chronicle’s C.W. Nevius. “It’s out of an Edward Hopper painting. It has always been a hangout for artists, painters and actors.”

“What’s interesting to me is why this girlie club guy is going to try to take away a San Francisco institution,”  Keker said. “This stands for a lot of what’s wrong with North Beach in general.”

Both sides say they’re willing to talk. I hope they work out a settlement so that the North Beach icon is still around to celebrate its centennial.

Nevius broke the story and provides the latest developments.

 

The Big Dig Begins

Central Subway Construction Begins

When I walked down the hill early this morning I was surprised to see San Francisco police and a dozen workers all in their reflective vests standing in a straight line on the edge of Washington Square Park. Heavy construction equipment lined Columbus Avenue. Their work day was about to begin.

Despite strong opposition from North Beach neighbors and merchants, the dreaded Central Subway tunnel work is underway. I thought that recently filed lawsuits would postpone the project but that didn’t happen.

Columbus Avenue from Stockton to Filbert will be ripped open to relocate utilities in advance of boring the Central Subway tunnel. If the North Beach work is anything like the Central Subway downtown around Union Square, this will not be fun. Vehicular and pedestrian traffic will be a nightmare during the 4-month project especially during the week.

And the worst is yet to come. The last station on the subway line will be on the corner of Clay and Stockton in Chinatown, 5 blocks south of North Beach. But the machine will continue beyond the station, boring under Stockton Street to Columbus and down Columbus to the Park.

There are no plans to build a North Beach station so why tear up North Beach and disrupt our enjoyment of Washington Square Park? City officials decided the Park was the best spot to bring the huge boring machine back up to the surface. Geniuses!

Get ready for years of dirty surface work and foundation rattling from deep beneath the ground. The Central Subway extension isn’t scheduled to open until 2019.

North Beach has enjoyed a renaissance over the last 2 years. Established businesses are flourishing. New restaurants, shops and galleries opened. Some days there are so many visitors that it’s hard to make your way up Columbus. Will it last?

My neighbors are not hopeful. Many think the Central Subway assault will be a slow death for many North Beach businesses. Oh no, not those dreaded “For Rent” signs in all those storefront windows again. The Village vitality we all enjoy may soon be but a short-lived memory.

Italian Festival Saturday

North Beach Festa Italiana

Don’t miss the annual Festa Coloniale Italiana this Saturday, August 11, 2012 on Washington Square in front of the San Francisco Italian Athletic Club (SFIAC).

The Festa is the only Italian festival that celebrates San Francisco’s Italian and Italian-American heritage. It’s our version of Ferragosto, the Italian mid-summer holiday.

Catch Italian music on the stage. Watch an Italian dance performance. Award-winning pizzaiolo Tony Gemignani will enthrall us with his world-famous pizza tossing skill. Stop in the SFIAC’s main ballroom transformed for the day into an Italian piazza complete with a fountain.

Sample delicious Italian-American street foods including calamari, sausage and pepper and meatball sandwiches. Enjoy wine and beer on the street or at the wine-tasting in the SFIAC’s 3rd floor Parkview Room with a terrace overlooking the park.

Here’s the whole Festa Italiana line-up.

I hope I see you there.

Baked Baby Eggplant

Don’t miss the next new video recipe. Please subscribe now to my YouTube channel.

I love the small Italian eggplant now in the market.

Here’s a quick recipe that explodes with flavor. Just cut the eggplants in half and bake them in the oven topped with crushed  San Marzano tomatoes and grated pecorino. The eggplant are soft and sweet and the grated cheese forms a crispy top.

As the eggplant cools many don’t make it off the top of the stove. Pilferers grab one to make sure they turned out well. I always have to make extra so I have enough for an antipasti platter or as a side for meat that I’m serving that day. You can keep leftovers in the fridge for a couple of days.

I like the baby eggplant hot out of the oven but I like them better at room temperature.

This is one of the recipes in my Vegetable e-book. Do you have yours? Just click on the e-book on the homepage to get one.

UPDATE (2/15/14): This blog post was so popular, I decided to show you how to do it. Check out the video above!

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Panzanella (Summer Tomato & Bread Salad)

I never throw away bread. I use stale bread for my meatballs, for stuffings and for breadcrumbs. I always have some hanging around.

Day-old bread inspires panzanella, a simple summer tomato and bread salad. Some of you asked for this recipe based on the classic dish from Florence. I love my rustic version. You can get fancy and make crustless croutons in the oven but who wants to turn on a hot oven in the summer. Make it my way!

I’ve been making this salad a lot since prime heirloom tomatoes hit the market. Tomatoes, cucumbers, sliced onion bloomed in red wine vinegar, basil, cubed bread, extra virgin olive oil. That’s it. Make sure you use the best ingredients. This is the time to break out your best fruity Italian olive oil.

I only make panzanella in the summer when I can get big, juicy, ripe tomatoes. When the local heirloom tomatoes are gone from the farmer’s market, the panzanella is gone from my table.

Put all the ingredients in a bowl, mix well and let the salad sit for a half-hour to create the juices that moisten the bread. How easy is that?

Try to get a little bit of everything in each bite. The tomato is sweet, the cucumber crunchy and the marinade-soaked bread ties everything together.

Serve panzanella as part of an antipasti platter or as a side for fried seafood, grilled or roasted sausage or meats. (This is the salad I paired with the fried shrimp in Sunday’s post.) Sometimes panzanella with some cheese and salami or prosciutto on the side is my summertime lunch or dinner.

Buon appetito!

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