In a city bursting with Italian eating spots, Caffe Baonecci may be the most authentic, and endearing, of them all.
Located in the heart of North Beach, this cheerfully painted blue-and-yellow cafe inhabits the former Danilo Bakery, which itself was one of the most beloved, old-school Italian landmarks in San Francisco.
The Gambaccini family, visiting from their village near Lucca, noticed that the bakery was for sale and bought it three months ago, fulfilling a dream to live in America. They put in some tables and started serving pizza, pasta and a few other dishes, along with baked goods.
The mom, Stefania, the dad, Walter, and two bellissimo grown-up sons, Elio and Filippo, one of whom trained as a baker, project the same warmth as the Italian ladies who used to tend the counter at Danilo.
Time passes inside this little cafe with the same cadence as in small towns in Italy, where everyone is known, and dropping in for a coffee or a sweet is part of daily life.
Caffe Baonecci — “baonecci” means “cool” in Lucchese dialect — could be a set in an Italian movie like “Pane è Cioccolata” or “La Vita e Bella,” which, in fact, Baonecci screens on Thursday nights.
Of course, all this good feeling would mean nothing if the food weren’t delicious. I’d put Baonecci’s pizza up against any. Their crust is white, thin, sweet, almost crackery — crisp on the edges, chewy in the middle and full of character.
The king of pies here is the monte bianco ($15.95), baked with tomato sauce and a little creamy mozzarella, then paved with moist slices of top-quality imported prosciutto and a scoop of mascarpone — thick Italian cream, which melts.
It’s a little masterpiece, but the mushroom pizza ($12.95) comes close, scattered with meaty mushrooms and finished with a handful of arugula. Each bite delivers full pleasure.
Baonecci’s rigatoni puttanesca ($8.95), wide, ridged tubes, coated with spicy tomato sauce, is provocatively al dente, the way pasta is cooked in Italy. It made me happy to find it here.
A velvety soup of cannellini beans and farro ($4.95 or $7.75) swirled with lively olive oil embodies the soul of Tuscany.
A prosciutto and provolone sandwich ($7.50) on a toasted baguette was so tasty because of the right proportions of dewy proscuitto, slightly melted cheese and a piquant green olive spread.
You must dress the romaine that comes on the side yourself, if someone remembers to bring the oil and vinegar. Otherwise, go get it yourself from a shelf by the counter.
Yes, service can be disorganized. Some order at the cash register, others at the handful of tables. The shiny metal ones on the south-facing sidewalk reflect like magnifying glasses, so be sure to bring your shades.
Up until last week, you had to bring your own wine. But happily for all concerned, the application for a beer and wine license came through. We need a little glass of wine with this fine pizza.
To end, an espresso with deep flavor and a creamy top ($1.75) with a tiny, crumbly, ball-shaped sandwich cookie called a Lady’s Kiss (35 cents), hit the spot.
Good thing the Gambaccini family ended up in North Beach, because homey, old-fashioned, neighborhood places like Caffe Baonecci could survive no place else outside of Italy.
Patricia Unterman is author of the second edition of the “San Francisco Food Lovers’ Pocket Guide.” Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Location: 516 Green St., San Francisco
Contact: (415) 989-1806; www.caffebaonecci.com
Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays
Price range: $4.95 to $15.95
Recommended dishes: Mushroom pizza; pizza monte bianco; farro soup; pasta puttanesca
Credit cards: MasterCard, Visa
Reservations: Not accepted except for $20 Thursday night movie dinners