Born in 1886, SF's Fior d'Italia is now the oldest Italian restaurant in the U.S. Here's what it's like.
At 138 years old, North Beach's Fior D'Italia is the oldest Italian restaurant in the U.S. (Courtesy of @zavian.antonio)

Born in 1886, SF's Fior d'Italia is now the oldest Italian restaurant in the U.S. Here's what it's like.


North Beach was smack in the middle of its rough-and-tumble Barbary Coast days when Fior D’Italia opened its doors.

In 1886, Italian cuisine didn’t yet exist and restaurants in the working-class immigrant neighborhood catered towards provincial specialties. At Fior, that meant Northern Italian dishes that nodded to its founders’ Ligurian and Tuscan origins: veal scaloppine, risotto with clams, tortellini Bologna, each sold for less than 15 cents a pop.

Fior D’Italia was one of several regional Italian restaurants that cropped up in North Beach at the end of the 19th century. For Genoese food like cioppin (now cioppino), there was Bazzuro’s. Campi served Italian-Swiss cuisine, Sanguinetti’s food from Southern Italy. To Coppa’s, artists and bohemians flocked for the Turinese food of chef Giuseppe Coppa.

But over the last 138 years, those pioneers have shuttered one by one—all, that is, except Fior D’Italia. The North Beach fixture is now considered the oldest Italian restaurant in the entire United States.

A peak inside the oldest Italian restaurant in the U.S.(Courtesy of @angieruff)

Fior D’Italia’s Mason Street storefront is not the restaurant’s original location. The first one, a favorite of the patrons who made use of the bordello upstairs, burned down in 1893. The second—a more elegant, high-society-attracting version on the same block as the original—was destroyed in the earthquake and fire of 1906. Within a week, Fior had been reborn again in the rubble, this time as a tent with a false-front wooden facade.

Three more moves in the neighborhood—the last of which was a 2005 fire that drove it from the Washington Square space it had occupied for more than 50 years—landed Fior D’Italia here on the ground floor of the historic San Remo Hotel, which was built when Fior was still operating out of its emergency tent. On the Sunday afternoon I visit, the sun streams through its picture windows and glints from the antique pressed-tin tiles that line the ceiling.

It may not be its original digs, but Fior D’Italia’s atmosphere is thick with old school hospitality. The tables are draped in white tablecloths, the green rug patterned in red leaves. Black-and-white photos, ancient newspaper clippings, and faded menus cover the salmon-pink walls. There are a handful of red-leather banqueted coves where I imagine mustachioed Victorian men once sat hashing out business deals in three-piece suits, and a vintage wood bar lined with spirits. At the front of the dining room, the six-piece North Beach Rhythm Jazz Band sets up for their weekly appearance.

In the century-and-a-half since Fior D’Italia opened, its Northern Italian menu has come to look a lot like what we now consider Italian-American food. There’s a lot of crossover here with, say, Original Joe’s: Big tangles of housemade pasta bathed in cream, veal cutlets dripping with wine sauce, chicken breast sauteed in prosciutto and fontina. Calamari in cesta (lightly breaded and fried squid) and gamberoni allo spiedo in pancetta (pancetta-wrapped shrimp) are perennial favorites, says the server, whose uniform includes a crisp black waistcoat and tie.

Fior D'Italia's menu is made up of hearty Northern Italian dishes. (Courtesy of @fior_sf)

For the last 40 years, Milanese chef Gianfranco “Gianni” Audieri has steered the ship at Fior d’Italia, buying the restaurant with his wife in 2012. His passing last July surely rocked the restaurant as intensely as any fire ever did. But here they still are, going strong, witnesses to yet another century of change.

People trickle in as the band starts to play Jazz Age standards, a mix of neighbors and locals from farther afield. Despite its pedigree, I see no telltale sign of the wide-eyed “Little Italy” tourist.

At the tables, wine flows freely. The clarinetist stands to sing, his voice melodic and jovial. The other musicians echo his words in a chorus of whoops and hollers. They are unbelievably good. When the fish of the day, a petrale sole crusted with almonds, and a bowl of linguine studded with fat, pearlescent clams, arrive at the table, we chew to the band’s rhythm, smiling and laughing and sipping Chianti between bites. After each number, the whole restaurant erupts in raucous applause.

It would be disingenuous to say that Fior d’Italia feels like stepping back in time but it does have a beautifully anachronistic quality. When our plates are clean and our wine glasses empty, I linger in the dining room surveying the ephemera of its past

The North Beach Rhythm Jazz Band plays at Fior D'Italia every Sunday afternoon.(Courtesy of @sunnyssfpix)

There aren’t many places left in San Francisco where you can get a snapshot of how things used to be when the city was young and the possibilities were endless. In this place of constant transformation, Fior D’Italia is more than just a reminder of how it all began.

After 138 years, America’s oldest Italian restaurant is still here to welcome us home.

// Fior D’Italia is open 4pm to 9pm weekdays and noon to 9pm weekend. The North Beach Rhythm Jazz Band plays :30pm to 4:30pm Sundays. Thursday and Friday nights from 6pm to 9pm, Mack Trout is at the piano; 2237 Mason St. (North Beach),

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