Local tastes of the City

One inspired Christmas present later, and Dave and I have fully explored the North Beach neighborhood on foot via a guided tour by a local expert.

This year for Christmas my brother purchased two gift vouchers for Dave and I to go on a “Local Taste of the City Tour”.  We chose the daytime North Beach tour, which included three hours of walking around a little San Francisco neighborhood, trying food and visiting some landmarks.

Although the food was great, the sights were gorgeous and the neighborhood was very much worth the exploration, own tour guide herself was the highlight of the day.

North Beach native Blandina, is a bright-blonde-haired bubbly personality who not only knows everything about the history of North Beach, including what original shops were located in all the current spots, but also seems to know all the people who live in the neighborhood.  Everyone around the streets said hi to her, and there wasn’t one block where she couldn’t provide background details and interesting facts.

Blandina also peppered the tour with some noteworthy tidbits, like the fact that the neighborhood of North Beach does not allow chains to ruin its “mom and pop feel”, and Starbucks had repeatedly tried to enter the area, but was always turned down.  To get around it, Starbucks purchased the La Boulange bakery mini-chain, just to set up a presence in the area under a different name.

Blandina also offered a quote from Benjamin Franklin — which may or may not be true — while explaining that a time capsule containing Levis jeans was buried under his statue in the center of a North Beach park.  She said Benjamin Franklin was a drinker and once proclaimed, “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.”  I looked it up, and apparently that quote is an often-referenced urban legend.

The tour allowed us to really see the historical parts of the neighborhood, in addition to the restaurants.  We went into a gorgeous church, Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church, which is where Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe took their wedding pictures.  We also went into the National Shrine of Saint Francis of Assisi Nuova Porziuncola, which is designated by the Pope as the Fifth Holy Site of the Catholic Church in the world.

Sights and scenery aside, we tried some great food.  It started with cappuccinos at Caffe Roma; continued with flavored and home-made biscotti at the little French Italian Bakery; it continued with sourdough bread and coconut macaroons delivered in the backroom of that bakery, known as one of the originals in North Beach, where we even got to see inside a more than 130-year old brick oven.  We continued to Z. Cioccolato, known as “the sweetest spot in North Beach” for specialty fudge and a lesson in chocolate-making.  We sampled aged balsamic vinegar at Mercato Artisan Market; had fresh pasta at Trattoria Pinnochio and finished our day with bread and olive oil, gourmet pizza and a cannoli at Cinecitta Ristorante.

We walked for nearly three hours, which gave us ample time to digest between courses.  Having done a food tour previously, Dave and I were expecting to gorge.  Although this was a carb-fest, the miles of walking, cold weather and length of the tour made it seem more like an outdoor adventure.

I’m all for educational excursions, where you not only enjoy what you’re doing, but take away some new knowledge.  Today’s local tour made me want to return to North Beach, sit down at a sidewalk café and people watch with a nice glass of Chianti.  It seems the personalities, the shop owners and the long-time residents give this area its charm.

Even if some of her tales were a bit tall, Blandina successfully put the “local” in this taste of the City tour.

Definitely recommend it.

Warm beverages at Caffe Roma to begin the tour.
Warm beverages at Caffe Roma to begin the tour.
Dave enjoying his frothy cup of caffeine.
Dave enjoying his frothy cup of caffeine.
Walnut biscotti in the French Italian Bakery.
Walnut biscotti in the French Italian Bakery.
Bread samples, served with a side of pep.
Bread samples, served with a side of pep.
Where all the bread-making magic happens.
Where all the bread-making magic happens.
Gourmet fudge, adorned with names like "Fat Cat" and "White Tiger".
Gourmet fudge, adorned with names like “Fat Cat” and “White Tiger”.
A great street-corner shot of North Beach.
A great street-corner shot of North Beach.
Benjamin Franklin statue in the center of Washington Square.
Benjamin Franklin statue in the center of Washington Square.
A sweet ending from Stella Pastry.
A sweet ending from Stella Pastry.
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