While tourists craving pasta might head to North Beach, San Francisco's "Little Italy" neighborhood, locals know the real-deal dishes are scattered throughout the city at our many standout Italian restaurants. Start a pasta journey with the classics like a cacio e pepe at Fiorello then wrap up with an elegant yet hearty cappelletti at Acquerello. The choices can be daunting, so here's a cheat sheet for Nebbiolo-worthy noodles — and speaking of wine, we're including sommelier tips from each restaurant.
Spaghetti with tomato at Delfina
Sometimes, the simplest dish on the menu can be the most transformative. Yes, we know spaghetti and tomato sauce can inspire yawns anywhere outside of a children's menu. However, since Delfina opened its doors just under two decades ago, hundreds of thousands of diners have had spaghetti revelations thanks to chef Craig Stoll's robust bowl of the pasta with plum tomatoes. The key to the dish’s success: the on point al dente noodles, which are cooked with the sauce to absorb all that sweet tomato umami.
Somm says: A rustic, dry Rosso di Montalcino
3621 18th St.; 415-552-4055
Spaghetti alla carbonara at 54 Mint
Leave it to one of the city’s few Roman restaurants to offer a pitch-perfect version of the Italian capital’s iconic dish. As with many classic pastas, carbonara has its holy trinity of ingredients: eggs for richness, Pecorino for umami and salty bursts of guanciale scattered throughout. A good dose of black pepper ties everything together in the rib-sticking favorite, faithfully executed by this rustic Mid-Market restaurant.
Somm says: A Litrozzo Bianco from Lazio — a rich, crisp white with five kinds of grapes
16 Mint Plaza; 415-543-5100
Spaghetti with bottarga at La Ciccia
Bottarga (salted mullet roe) looks more like breadcrumbs than caviar. But look beyond the appearance, and you’ll appreciate this great Sardinian secret ingredient. Tense strands of spaghetti are dusted with heaping tablespoon after tablespoon of bottarga, plus a healthy dose of olive oil and hint of garlic. This is the low-key, soulful distant cousin of caviar and blinis, the kind of dish that inspires diners to research flights to Sardinia.
Somm says: The oxidative sherry-like Vernaccia di Oristano from the west coast of Sardinia
291 30th St.; 415-550-8114
Raviolo with brown butter and farm egg at Cotogna
This adrenaline rush of a dish at chef Michael Tusk's casual sibling to Quince feels like a perfect amuse-bouche — if a rather large one. A giant single raviolo comes to the table ready to burst at the seams, filled with a delicate liquid egg yolk, sitting in a pool of sweet, nutty brown butter. Pro tip: Start with a bite of the perimeter of the pasta to appreciate the excellent housemade dough. Then puncture the center and enjoy the rich, messy mix of sauces. It's an exquisite hangover helper masquerading as fine Italian dining.
Somm says: An earthy, dry Etna Rosso from Sicily
490 Pacific Ave.; 415-775-8508
Agnolotti dal plin at Perbacco
San Francisco's pastas can be modern and inventive (Flour + Water and SPQR) or traditional and rustic (A16 and Delfina). Perbacco, the FiDi's upscale yet relaxed Northern Italian classic, straddles this line effortlessly. In its decade of serving financial titans and casual dates alike, there has been one standby dish: these delicate parcels filled with roasted whole rabbit, pork shoulder, veal, Savoy cabbage, carrot, onion and celery — all lightly coated in an intensely concentrated roasted meat jus.
Somm says: A strong, refined Nebbiolo from Barolo
230 California St.; 415-955-0663
Taleggio scarpinocc with aceto balsamico at Flour + Water
It’s not often listed on the menu, but diners can always ask for this regulars’ favorite that is stunning both visually and for its bright, rich taste. The uncommon scarpinocc pasta is shaped like a wrapped candy — but instead of a caramel in the middle, diners will find a creamy taleggio. An artistic and generous drizzle of top-shelf balsamic vinegar from Acetaia Leonardo in Modena (who produces the balsamic used at royal weddings in England) tames the taleggio's funk and essentially functions as the sauce.
Somm says: A light-bodied but full-flavored Ruché from Piemonte
2401 Harrison St.; 415-826-7000
Cappelletti at Acquerello
All the pastas on the prix fixe menu at this elegant Polk Gulch destination are extremely tempting, even in their teeny portions. We’ll steer you to this offering that feels both soulful and delicate, with rich flavors expertly layered by chef-owner Suzette Gresham. She partners plump cappelletti filled with fontina and roasted potato with a short rib sugo, finished with broccoli and hen of the woods mushrooms.
Somm says: A dry, tannic and light-bodied red like a Rosso Piceno from Tuscany
1722 Sacramento St., san francisco; 415-567-5432
Squid ink conchiglie at Stones Throw
This Russian Hill New American restaurant offers this Italian-tinged menu regular that pairs a hearty coastal pasta dish and a handful of mega trends. Dollops of onion soubise foam sets the contemporary tone and dissolves in a bowl of squid ink-stained pasta shells (conchiglie literally means "shells" in Italian). Everything is mixed with clams, mussels, shrimp and tender greens — it's like an Italian Riviera version of a San Francisco cioppino.
Somm says: A crisp, mineral-driven white from the Mediterranean coast. Perhaps a Vermentino (called Pigato locally) would do the trick.
1896 Hyde St.; 415-7962901
Bucatini cacio e pepe at Fiorella
There is no flash and glamour to a great bowl of cacio e pepe. It’s a stick-your-ribs dish of bucatini coated with Pecorino cheese and pepper. That's it. But the creaminess of the sauce and the calibration of the pepper for just the right “zing” can be daunting for the cook. The most satisfying version of cacio e pepe we've found locally comes from this Outer Richmond pizzeria. Chef Dante Cecchini opts for a generous dose of pepper and adds Parmigiano and some butter for a hearty bowl that never fails to fight off the neighborhood’s frequent chill.
Somm says: A crisp, tart white wine from Emilia Romagna made of the Famosa varietal
2339 Clement St.; 415-340-3049
Aged beef agnolotti at Rich Table
Amidst all of the sardine chips, porcini doughnuts and tempting main plates, the pastas at this inventive Hayes Valley restaurant can easily be forgotten. The pasta styles and ingredient combinations are often head-scratchers on paper that work flawlessly (sea urchin cacio e pepe anyone?). Its only pasta mainstay is an absolute keeper: agnolotti filled with tender, slightly funky dry-aged beef. The recent addition of tiny, fragrant bits of Perigord black truffles brings out the best of the beef. Like Rich Table's best creations, it's elegant and edgy.
Somm says: A fresh, medium-bodied Rosso di Montalcino
199 Gough St.; 415-355-9085
Meyer lemon linguine with abalone "alfredo" at SPQR
Chef-owner Matthew Accarrino offers some of the most creative pasta combinations in the Bay Area at his intimate Fillmore spot; think coconut milk and kaffir lime in a raviolini dish or a ragu made from Tuscan blood sausage. Somewhere between experimental and classic, this "alfredo" offers old-fashioned comfort but doesn’t use cream. It’s a lighter sauce based on milk and gets a seafaring double kick from bottarga and abalone. As for the Meyer lemon, the zest is in the linguine dough and the sauce. A straight-forward fettuccine alfredo? Thankfully, never at SPQR.
Somm says: Skip the Barolo and have a lighter red from Piemonte — made of the Pelaverga grape.
1911 Fillmore St.; 415-771-7779