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Eat Like a Native: An Italian Expat on Where to Go, What to Buy

Viola Buitoni teaching one of her cooking classes

Welcome to a column wherein we track down a cook good with an accent and milk them for all their best kept eating secrets.

Viola Buitoni—a direct descendant of the famed pasta and chocolate family—hails from Perugia in the heart of Umbria. She came to the U.S. in 1985 for a business degree, but soon after graduation found herself drawn back into the genetic passion for food. She lectures on Italian food traditions and trends and cooking classes in collaboration with the SF Italian Cultural Institute and Italian Consulate. She also leads “The Italian Kitchen," a monthly workshop at the Cavallo Point Lodge Cooking School and an ongoing series of food articles and cooking videos for MissionLocal.org.

1. Caffé Sant'Eustachio at Spuntino di Ottimista (Cow Hollow)
To get a deeper understanding of the relationship between an Italian and their coffee, think of it like a marriage—you are choosing the one to which you will wake up every morning. These beans, toasted by a historic café in the heart of Rome, are a definite keeper.

2. Cappuccino at Caffé Roma (North Beach)
For a flawless cappuccino experience, I skip the lines of Mission hipsters and head to this North Beach mainstay, where they get that it isnʼt about the art on my foam, but an espresso short and strong topped with the right amount of milk, all served quickly at the right temperature.

3. Freshly grated parmigiano at Lucca Ravioli Company (Mission)
You say cheese, Italians say Parmigiano. It is a necessity for the pantry of any Italian, even that rare one whoʼs not so handy around pots and pans. The guys at Luccaʼs on Valencia will grate this “re dei formaggi” fresh and right in front of your eyes.

4. Italian Pine Nuts at Boulettes Larder (Ferry Building )
Elegantly elongated, fragrant of tangy resin and tasting of sweet wood, Italian pinoli cost their weight in gold. But try them once and you will not be scale your pesto back down.

5. Latte Fritto at Farina (Mission)
A thick custard, cut in squares, battered and deep fried—for a native Italian, no sweet harks back to the comfort of childhood like this one.

6. Bottarga at Avedanoʼs (Bernal Heights)
Just for the record, bottarga is fish roe sacs that have been pressed and salt dried. Itʼs great with pasta, delicate cheeses, grated on crostini.

7. Stracotto at Perbacco (Financial District)
Itʼs not that itʼs difficult to make this slowly braised meat dish, itʼs just that it takes a really long time. So, many Italians I know here rely on the impeccable Perbacco for a fix of this bone-warming Piedmontese winter staple.

8. Any of the hand-made pasta dishes at La Ciccia (Noe Valley)
When dining at La Ciccia, I make an exception to my rule that pasta is to be reserved for having at home. Have whatever is a special that evening. It will be as good as your Italian grandmotherʼs, provided she cooked with Gualtiero Marchesi at some point in her life.

9. Guanciale at Bi-Rite (Mission)
A successful matriciana, a good carbonara: these cannot come to be unless guanciale-cured pig jowl-is in your pantry. And though many sell it, I find Bi-Riteʼs to be the most consistently flavorful.

10. Blu del Moncenisio at 24th Street Cheese (Noe Valley)
Piedmontʼs answer to gorgonzola—itʼs perfect, itʼs nutty, itʼs creamy, itʼs pungent, itʼs decadent, and most of all, my child loves it.