The Best Italian Restaurants In San Francisco guide image


The Best Italian Restaurants In San Francisco

19 great spots for Italian in San Francisco.

From fast-casual pasta bars and neighborhood pizza spots to very fancy restaurants that require you to make reservations weeks in advance, there are lots of fantastic Italian spots in San Francisco. The next time a craving for tagliatelle bolognese or eggplant parmesan hits, avoid the Columbus Ave. tourist traps and use this guide.


La Ciccia

If we could be on a first name basis with any restaurant in this guide, it would be La Ciccia. It’s a small neighborhood spot in Noe Valley with Sardinian food that surpasses almost anything that some of the bigger, fancier places around the city charge way more for. We’d cross six neighborhoods just for the fusilli with uni or the spicy baby octopus stew. But what sets La Ciccia apart from other places is that the staff always make you feel like you’re family coming home from a long vacation every time you come here.

Dinner at this upscale-ish Northern Italian restaurant in Nob Hill moves at a slower clip, which is fine by us. We want as much time as possible to appreciate their perfectly light fritto misto, seafood skewers grilled over binchotan, and deceptively simple pastas, like the cream-filled ravioli carbonara topped with crispy guanciale. This spot looks like a cafe, filled with neutral tones, black-and-white photos, and bistro chairs. It’s also all about warm ambiance—so embrace the delightful five-minute chat you might have with the chef about the handmade copper fork rests, and order that third glass of wine, even if you think your night is over. You won’t want to leave. 

Cotogna, located between FiDi and North Beach, has simple, fresh, and consistently delicious food. This place is perfect for date night, special occasions, or lunches when you call in “sick”/decide to abuse the unlimited time-off policy at work. Maybe it’s the dim lights, the brick walls, the wood oven firing away in the back, or the perfect pasta—or the whole package—but Cotogna has the kind of romantic feeling a lot of places try to fake, but can’t.

Itria is the rare place that excites us every time we come back—and not just because their Californian-Italian dishes change with the seasons. The freshest raw bar dishes get added texture from unexpected toppings like baby potato chips and salty sea beans. And the excellent vegetable and seafood-heavy pastas are as gorgeous as they are well-executed. Cabbage is paired with bacon and saucy pumpkin butter, and Itria’s take on spaghetti amatriciana uses smoky bits of octopus instead of guanciale. Fantastic seafood and bowls of carbohydrates aside, the minimalist, wood-filled space will draw you back for standing dates or catch-ups over a bottle or two of wine. 

Penny Roma is the sister restaurant of Flour + Water, but it’s a bit more casual and serves occasionally changing traditional Italian dishes like tagliatelle bolognese, agnolotti dal plin, and chicken al mattone. This Mission spot also has great crudos and small plates that you should get for the table, and enjoy from their plant-filled space with a glass of wine in hand.

From big bowls of spaghetti and meatballs to eggplant parmesan, the menu at Emmy’s Spaghetti Shack is full of Italian American dishes. The portions are huge, so you’ll want to come as a group and order as many things as you can to share. In addition to the great food, this Bernal Heights restaurant is one of the funkiest places in the city. Inside you’ll find a fantasy horse mural, a Dolly Parton pinball machine, and hand-drawn menus with sketches that look like the pages of a middle schooler’s notebook.

For excellent wood-fired pizzas with bubbly, charred crusts, book a table at Del Popolo. The wood-fired oven is right in the middle of the Lower Nob Hill restaurant, so you can watch as pies topped with hot salami or winter squash emerge from the flames and land on your table. We also love sitting on their back patio, which feels like a hidden, subterranean garden. Be sure to save some room for their rotating desserts—if it’s soft serve, absolutely finish your meal with a cup of it.

Che Fico Alimentari makes simple dishes like spaghetti amatriciana and cacio e pepe that are as good—if not better—than the ones they make at their older sibling restaurant upstairs. This place also serves pizza and is much more casual, so it’s perfect when you want great food but don’t want to blow through a car payment's worth of cash on dinner, like when you’re going on a third date or catching up with a friend you haven’t seen in forever.

This Italian place in Nob Hill is a great low-key, special occasion spot. It’s got a menu of fantastic food, from 'nduja toast to split over a few glasses of Nebbiolo, to larger plates like their 10-hour bolognese. The best part—it’s never hard to get a reservation, so if you’re in need of a dinner spot at the last second, Altovino has you covered.

If you started to tell someone about all the different doughs, ovens, and temperatures that Tony’s uses to make their absurdly long menu of pizzas, their eyes would probably glaze over faster than you can say “900 degree wood-fired oven.” But if you just bring them here instead, they’ll be begging you for more when you leave. We like their classic Neapolitan pie and the coal-fired New Yorker, but if you want something else, you’ll definitely find it in their phonebook-sized menu.

It's still hard to get a reservation at Flour + Water—and that’s because they continue to make the best pasta in the city. The constantly changing menu of pastas are made with flavor combinations that'll make you do a double take. Corn-and-cheese-stuffed pasta topped with mint, anyone? But after you try them, they’ll be burned into your mental list of things you want to eat again.

There are a lot of delis in San Francisco, but Molinari is the one we come to regularly for cured meats to make charcuterie boards. Yes, they have tons of wines and Italian snacks to take home, but the best thing about Molinari is their sandwich selection. Go for the Renzo, which is piled high with prosciutto, coppa, mozzarella, and sun-dried tomatoes.

This old-school Italian restaurant has been open for a few decades and is stuck in 1987, in the best way. It feels like somewhere you’d go with your extended family to celebrate an anniversary or some other big family event. And having that many people would be a good idea so you can get every pasta on the menu, along with the pork tenderloin saltimbocca. You’re going to need to-go boxes when you come to this Russian Hill spot, so make room in your fridge before you leave.

This city loves great Cal-Ital, so we welcome Norcina. The Marina restaurant turns out creative handmade pastas and pillowy Neapolitan pies that are perfectly charred. But the salads, snacks, and large plates aren’t afterthoughts, which is exactly why this spot rises to another level. The face-sized truffle raviolo is decadent and creamy. Impressive-looking pork shanks and sausage-stuffed pork snouts come over well-seasoned grains. For dessert, roast your own marshmallows at the table for s’mores. The experience might seem hokey, but it perfectly matches Norcina’s “just hanging out on the beach” aesthetic we’ve also fallen for. 

Roma Antica is our go-to for pizza and pasta in the Marina. The eggplant parmesan and carbonara in particular are very much worth your time. Come with friends when you want to drink wine and eat Italian food, and not get intense anxiety when the bill comes—this place is low-key and easy to hit for lunch, brunch, or dinner.

This casual Richmond spot serves great pizza and pasta in a non-serious environment—they also have a Russian Hill location and another with a really nice covered patio in the Sunset. And while it would certainly be a great strategy to come and focus on the pizza, you’d miss the amazing arancini and other small plates. So the best plan is to eat here often and try something different every time.

If we ever successfully hypnotized our boss into having a more relaxed work attendance policy, we’d spend a good chunk of our afternoons at Piccino. The light, open space at this Dogpatch spot is beautiful, and the food, particularly the meatballs and mushroom pizza, is fantastic. At night, the menu of Italian-inspired Californian dishes is a bit longer but the atmosphere is still laidback. But Piccino is really at its best during the day.

The pasta at this counter-service spot is homemade (go figure). It's also just around $15 for a heap of noodles, which is one of the best bang-for-your-buck meals in town. You customize your order here, so just pick your pasta and sauce and let the food come to you. We love all the Italian Homemade locations, but this North Beach one—with a “pasta lab” in the back and Italian disco blasting at all times—is our favorite.

When we’re around Union Square returning oven mitts and jean shorts that never caught on with the rest of our friends, Tratto is one of our favorite stops. It has an awesome Happy Hour and a menu of Italian dishes that do the job (our go-tos are the mushroom pizza, meatballs, and spinach tagliatelle). Thanks to its location near the Financial District and being surrounded by hotels, it’s also an ideal spot for big group dinners with work folks or people in town.

Chase Sapphire Card Ad

photo credit: Erin Ng

The Best Italian Restaurants In San Francisco guide image