San Francisco is an amazing town for Italian food, with more than a half dozen regions represented by restaurants dedicated solely to one region, and dozens more places that reflect the Mediterranean influence of California cuisine and SF's long connection to the Italian people.
Below, seven of our favorite dishes from some of the best representatives in the city's Italian pantheon. We could name ten more, easily -- like the bucatini all'Amatriciana at Locanda, the alfredo at Emmy's Spaghetti Shack, or the handkerchief pasta with pesto at Farina -- but let's start with these.
Squid Ink Tonnarelli, A16- We're starting at the top of the alphabet, in the South, in the region of Campania which has been the focus of the menu at A16 since it opened. Chef Christopher Thompson turns out excellent pastas all around, but the slightly spicy squid-ink tonnarelli with tender braised squid, senise peppers, garlic, parsley, lemon, and breadcrumbs is a classic and has always been a favorite. Try it with a crisp white wine from owner/sommelier Shelley Lindgren's well curated list.
Wild Boar Sugo, Delfina - It's currently being served with chestnut pici pasta (handrolled fat spaghetti), but chef Craig Stoll's pork and boar sugos have been star of the pasta section of Delfina's menu going back over a decade. The restaurant is about to celebrate 15 years on 18th Street next month, and honestly you can't go wrong with any of the pastas, or nearly anything on the menu, period.
Cocoa Strozzapreti with Braised Pork, Flour + Water - The menu changes frequently at Flour + Water, and if you want to truly experience the restaurant's mastery of pasta, you should check out the seven-course pasta tasting menu, which often features special dishes not available on the regular menu. For our money, though, anytime you see the strozzapreti (hand-made twists, literal translation: "priest chokers") with any kind of sugo, or any pasta involving chicken or duck giblets, you must order it. Again, pasta is the star at this place, and you won't go wrong with any of the dishes.
Fregola with Cured Tuna Heart, La Ciccia - At this incredibly popular, tiny, white-tablecloth, Noe Valley spot, it's all about Sardinia. And one of the signature dishes on the menu for years has been this one, with toasted fregola (small pearls) topped with tomato, sea urchin, and grated tuna heart. Don't be freaked out by that last part -- it's basically just a Sardinian version of bottarga, the cured fish condiment that adds a delicious, marine-flavored umami to the finished pasta.
Raviora with Roasted Sunchokes and Ricotta, Perbacco - Chef Staffan Terje has an amazing talent for pasta, and at his Piemontese restaurant in the Financial District you can find some of the finest examples in town. He, also, does a mind-blowing pork sugo, but his delicate, elegant raviora (large ravioli) are a must-order. This season you'll find them stuffed with sunchoke and ricotta and served with a sage brown butter, radicchio and pomegranate.
Bludnudlen with Blood Sausage Ragu, SPQR - Take a contemporary restaurant in Milan, where chefs are innovating the same way they are in every stylish, cosmopolitan city, and transplant it in San Francisco with the benefit of our produce, and you have SPQR. Ever since chef Matt Accarrino took over the kitchen here four years ago, the place has been wowing adventurous diners, and it garnered its first Michelin star last year. Again, you won't go wrong with virtually any of Accarrino's pastas, but check out his rich and delicious bludnudlen -- a pig's blood pasta that comes from the German-influenced, northeastern part of the country -- topped with Tuscan blood sausage ragu and pig's foot breadcrumbs.
Gemelli,Tosca - On April Bloomfield's new Italian menu at the recently reopened, revamped Tosca Cafe, you'll find just a couple of pastas for now (we're told there are more to come). One is her take on cacio e pepe (black pepper and pecorino), which she serves with gemelli pasta, and which is a hearty, satisfying take on the classic Roman dish.