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A Gastronomic Mecca by the Bay

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All across the spectrum of gastronomic penchants, desires and necessities, from Vegan to Italian, Indian, Seafood, Caribbean, Korean, French, Thai, Russian, Japanese, Soul Food and more, the food scene in San Francisco draws from its 850,000 multifarious denizens who have come here from all over the globe, infusing the city with their familial, cultural, and individual ingredients, recipes and styles.

A great many city standouts have been hailed in numerous print and online publications, as well as local, hidden gems that only the locals—or those that relish dining at local neighborhood digs—whole-heartedly support.

That being said, there are so many amazing places (estimated to be over 5,300!), as well as those on my very long list of personal favs, that offering an eating “bucket list” just can’t be done. However, I will offer you the following taste-tempting morsels:

The Stinking Rose: A Garlic Restaurant (North Beach) for contemporary California-Italian cuisine  whose motto is, “We season our garlic with food;” Taddich Grill (Downton), serving in my opinion the finest and freshest seafood on the planet; Eric’s Restaurant (Noe Valley) for outrageously good Mandarin and Hunan cuisine; La Mediterranee (Castro) offering a wide array of outstanding, affordable Lebanese, Greek, Armenian and other Middle Eastern cuisine; and La Taquería (Mission) for great authentic, “grandma’s recipe” Mexican food, just to name a very few.

Despite my urge to run back to some of the aforementioned, on this particular visit I forced myself to broaden my palate (pardon the pun) and add a few new bites to my plate.

One of them was for the killer clam chowder at Cioppino’s on the Wharf (Fisherman’s Wharf), a thick, aromatic, chunky New England-style white clam chowder loaded with potatoes and pancetta (Its worth braving the tourist crowds, it’s that good!). They also serve very tasty Italian and seafood dishes including their signature cioppino, chicken and seafood risotto, scampi linguini, penne Bolognese, and local Dungeness crab cakes.

And then there was Piperade (The Embarcadero), serving what they call “West Coast Basque Cuisine,” a nod to the classic Basque (stretching from Northern Spain to France along the Atlantic Coast) style of cooking.

This upscale yet relaxed quintessentially European-feel restaurant serves sumptuous, hearty, traditional dishes with a twist including roasted rack of lamb with baked garbanzos, chorizo, pistachio and basil aioli, braised albacore rillettes with pimenton, Basque rice “gaxuxa,” seasonal vegetables, sheep’s milk cheese and espelette, crisp crab croquettes and cheese with cherry preserves and quince paste, and seared sea scallops with parsnip purée and shaved apple salad.

Their impressive almost 200 bottle wine list spans the gamut from Basque reds and whites to Bordelaise, Malbec’s, Tempranillos, unique whites and others from Spain, France and California. All told, it was definitely one of the best “stateside” European meals I have ever enjoyed.

No disrespect to the others, but one of my new “must haves” is definitely Trattoria Pinocchio. Situated in North Beach, the restaurant almost takes a backseat to its owners—husband and wife team Giovanni and María Zocca—who have infused every aspect of their Sicilian heritage into the food, presentation and ambiance.

Their almost entirely homemade specialties are unreal, exuding deep, intricate flavors in each bite stemming from their use of fresh seafood and meats, homemade pastas and sauces, and fresh herbs and vegetables grown in their own garden, including mint, Sicilian garlic, rosemary, basil, tomatoes, arugula, lettuce, lemons, apples and other garden delights.

For appetizers we enjoyed their House-cured marinated olives, grilled portabella mushrooms with pine nuts and sundried tomatoes on a bed of arugula, and a to-die-for eggplant parmessan.

What absolutely blew me away was the sample Pasta Trio, fettuccine with fresh pesto, penne with tomato sauce and prosciutto and the lightest, most flavorful gnocchi with gorgonzola sauce that literally had us moaning at the table. And if we thought we had already gone to see Jesus, their Boba, a light sponge cake filled with rum imported from Sicily, had us singing with the angels.

Speaking of singing, Giovanni must have been an opera singer in a past life because throughout the evening he sauntered among the tables, belting out Italian operettas so exuberant and pitch perfect that passersby stopped on the sidewalk for a listen.

The entire experience went far beyond the food, to a heartfelt, authentic love for creating family—which the Zoccas call their customers, whether new or frequent diners—through enjoying and sharing a meal. There’s absolutely no doubt that at Trattoria Pinocchio, you’re in for an exceptional dining experience.

Written by Lysa Allman-Baldwin

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