I first heard the old Italian toast Cent’anni spoken in The Godfather, a heartfelt wish for living a hundred years with luck and health. This phrase is almost a reality in the Bay area, immortalized by the hilly streets that come together as San Francisco’s North Beach, the city’s Little Italy neighborhood.
Whenever you’re here, it’s easy to forget that you’re in California. Each Italian storefront is lined in beautiful wicker dining sets, enticing you to sit down, sit back, and spend the rest of the day nosing gnocchi with a steamy side of strong espresso. Once you visit, you’ll vow to yourself that this will be your next one hundred years.
Primarily shaped by typical ristorantes, the other fascination of Little Italy is that they’re buzzing in business all the same and with little competition. I’ve realized it’s just the variety; the way some sparkle with lights strung in windows and on black awnings, some just shine with their family homemade menus, or the Old-World atmosphere spills out into the street. Somewhere in each one is authenticity; you’ll definitely get that in the flavors at The Stinking Rose, where every bite stings with a perfect touch of garlic.
The populace isn’t defined by these restaurants, however. Chinatown’s Stockton Street ends at the Columbus intersection that marks the neighborhood’s beginning and a continuation of many Asian locals, most stopping over for collective t’ai chi and cha-cha dancing within the poplar trees of lush Washington Square. Don’t be afraid to go French, either! Bay Area-based La
Boulange stands out with its blue location right along the main Columbus strip, if you’re pacing on the Italian.
Oddly enough, though I haven’t been lucky enough to see them up close, you’re sure to hear the sounds of another famous flock around North Beach at the Square– the wild parrots of Telegraph Hill. These exotic birds are alleged house pets who once escaped their confinement, and now cheerfully rest among the branches of the park.
Another reason North Beach is my preferred neighborhood haunt–one of the grandest 20th-century movements of literature emerged here: the Beat Generation. It’s a beauty to walk these misty streets, thinking to myself of a Midnight in Paris-esque encounter with Jack Kerouac or Allen Ginsberg themselves. While that may never happen, it doesn’t mean they’re not there at all. The Beat Museum keeps that free-spirit and unconventional “It” alive on Broadway Street, where curator Gerry Camino proudly delivers an intimate tour on first-edition books and Kerouac’s glass-encased tweed jacket.
Just a block away, I’ve browsed the aisles of City Lights Books to read the words that were likely penned next door at ancient Vesuvio Café, most likely under the influence of gin and other indulgences.
Whenever it’s raining, pop out your umbrella and head over to a live poetry reading at Caffe Roma on Friday nights. If you’re bold enough to get up there and read, like I have, prepare with more than a grain or salt. However, you can warm your pride back up with their hot glass of coffee and a couple of inimitable cannolis.
North Beach honors its glorious past. One of San Francisco’s oldest neighborhoods encapsulates a peace of mind within its few blocks. There is a livelihood that reminds us San Franciscans that in the small time we do have in this world, living each moment gives us those hundred years we crave.
PHOTO CREDS: North Beach at night, twogees.com; Wild Parrots, travelblog.viator.com; Vesuvio Café, terragalleria.com; Stinking Rose Interiors, thestinkingrose.com; Cannoli and Washington Square Cathedral, Paris Kim.