Flavorwire Travel Guides: Capturing the Spirit of Italy in San Francisco

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Whether it’s Fellini films or pizza, Italian culture has always had a certain pull for us in the States. When we think of Italy, we think of aesthetic elegance, romance, and a laid-back, joyful way of life. Or maybe that’s just what the Italophiles like me, who’ve been taken in by the genius melodrama of a Verdi opera, or the sublime flavor balance of good pistachio gelato, think. We are the type of people who wonder if you can spend a whole weekend exploring Italian-influenced art, architecture, music, and food — practically pretending to be on vacation in Italy — in an American city. After all, we crave the enchantment of Italian culture, and we’d like to find it closer to home, in places we can explore without dealing with customs and international flights.

Inspired by the recent arrival of the FIAT 500 on American shores, Flavorwire sent me to Miami, New Orleans, and San Francisco to find out if it was possible to recreate Italian grandeur right here stateside. In these cities where you might not expect to pull off a weekend jaunt all’Italiana, I discovered a surprising number of spots that retained their local flavor while staying true to the Italian spirit. Click through to explore the final of my three action-packed weekend itineraries that will show you where to find the magic of Italy without having to cross the Atlantic.

Ignore the people and the spacious highways, and you could mistake most of the Bay Area for a region in Northern Italy. Sloping hills and abundant fruit trees lend a Mediterranean feel to the landscape. Its produce has been used to recreate and reinvent Italian gastronomic classics — like wine, for instance. I happily discovered wineries in the Napa and Sonoma valleys that channel Italy, both in their products and hospitality. But that’s definitely not all there is to the area’s Italian offerings. In San Francisco, food, music and art with origins in Italy are plentiful, and often infused with fresh perspectives.

Evening: Trills and Bites

This season the San Francisco Opera is putting on Tosca and Così Fan Tutte — operas that showcase the elegance and elaborateness of the Italian language. Head to the opera company’s venue, the War Memorial Opera House, for a romantic evening. The building’s stunning Beaux-Arts architecture, lit up stylishly at night, will help set the mood.

301 Van Ness Avenue; (415) 861-4008.

A nightcap is waiting for you in the Mission: a glass of wine and late-night stuzzichini at Bar Bambino. There’s a well-curated list of reds from Northern Italy by the glass; pair your favorite one with some ripened cheese and stuffed olives.

2931 16th Street; (415) 701-8466.

Morning: Un Caffè

Caffè Roma. Photo credit: Alexia Nader

A cappuccino and the tranquil morning atmosphere of North Beach at Caffè Roma, is just the thing you need before hitting the road for the Napa valley. At the entrance to the café, you can admire the old-school machinery used to make the special blends of freshly roasted coffee served at the bar.

526 Columbus Avenue; (415) 296-7942.

Afternoon: Vinous Escapades

Viansa. Photo credit: Alexia Nader

As you enter Sonoma wine country from the south, one of the first buildings you’ll see looks like a villa set atop a gently sloping hill. While this Tuscan-inspired winery, Viansa, is not Sonoma’s most exclusive place, it has a warm, relaxed atmosphere — the type that complements wine tasting the best. After trying the Italian-style wines on offer — particularly the 2010 Vino Rosso, a blend of four Italian red varietals— order a glass of your first choice to sip on the outside patio, which overlooks the vineyards.

25200 Arnold Drive, Sonoma; (800) 995-4740.

Heitz Cellar. Photo credit: Alexia Nader

Viansa may have the impressive sights, but Napa’s Heitz Cellar contains hidden Italian treasures: grignolino reds and roses. The grignolino varietal, which produces light, fruity wines, is common in Italy’s Piedmont region, but rare in here in the States. You can try Heitz’s grignolino — and its better-known cabernet sauvignon wines — at the cellar’s intimate tasting room, surrounded on two sides by lovely fields of grapevines.

436 Saint Helena Highway, Saint Helena; (707) 963-3542.

Evening: More Wine?

Pasta at Oenotri. Photo credit: Alexia Nader

All that wine should put you in the mood for a big Italian meal, making Oenotri a fitting next stop. Located in downtown historic Napa, the restaurant serves fantastic pasta dishes like spaccatelle with braised rabbit, and solid meat dishes with seasonal, often-surprising contorni. Dine on the patio and leaf through the encyclopedia of Italian wines that is the restaurant’s list: a leisurely way to wind down your visit to Napa. Eat outside early in the evening, though, and you might see the butchering of whole animals through the kitchen’s glass walls, which is fascinating, but a little unsettling.

1425 First Street Napa; (707) 252-1022.

Afternoon: Art Hangouts

Caffe Trieste. Photo credit: Alexia Nader

After you’ve recovered from your Napa fun, get back to the city. Start with an espresso at Caffe Trieste in North Beach, once a hangout spot for beat poets and Italian-American artists like Francis Ford Coppola. In an endearing, old-fashioned move, the owners have covered an entire wall with pictures of the artists, writers, and musicians who have frequented the coffee shop. At the next stop, the Museo Italo Americano, you can experience another type of art history lesson. The museum has a permanent collection of paintings and sculptures by Italian and Italian-American artists — both contemporary like Francesco Clemente, and from the early 20th century, like Giorgio de Chirico and Rinaldo Cuneo.

Caffe Trieste: 601 Vallejo Street; (415) 392-6739. Museo Italo Americano: Fort Mason Center, Building C; (415) 673-2200.

Molinari Delicatessen. Photo credit: Alexia Nader

Before you leave the city, seek out one more culinary treat — a loaded sandwich at Molinari Delicatessen, a North Beach classic. You pick a roll from a box and they stuff it with a range of cold cuts, peppers, and sliced provolone, among other traditional Italian-American fillings. The friendly guys behind the counter will also load you up with deli meats, biscotti, and mozzarella cheese to enjoy at home for days.

373 Columbus Avenue; (415) 421-2237.