San Francisco's Best Italian (Just Don't Call It Italian)

By Antonio Barrios of The St. Regis San Francisco
San Francisco's Best Italian (Just Don't Call It Italian)

Most guidebooks will tell you about the dime-a-dozen Italian restaurants that populate North Beach. But few, if any, will point you five miles south to La Ciccia, a little gem of a Sardinian restaurant in Noe Valley.

This place is totally off the radar in what is a mostly upscale residential neighborhood — but it draws a fiercely loyal following from foodies all over the Bay Area. Myself? I almost always eat there — as in once a week.

This restaurant is very different from what you'd expect from "regular" Italian food — after all, Sardinia is a Mediterranean island with its own unique culture and cuisine, and La Ciccia dances to a different beat, too.

The food here is organic, super fresh and relies heavily on seafood (the octopus stew is to-die-for, as is the calamari, which isn't your typical rings of fried batter thing but comes as a whole grilled baby squid). The menu changes daily, though I often veer toward their fresh pastas (all homemade), like the fregula with ricotta and shaved tuna hearts, and the spaghetti served with parsley, garlic and bottarga (cured fish roe).

What makes La Ciccia such a truly great neighborhood restaurant is the inviting, unpretentious husband-and-wife team who run it. The chef Massimiliano is a former wine merchant — which accounts for the restaurant's list of 180 Italian labels (around a quarter of which are from Sardinia). Lorella, who's front-of-house, used to be a concierge at the — ahem — Mandarin Oriental.

La Ciccia actually means "fat of the belly," which tells you something about its warm, homestyle vibe. For true loyalists, the full La Ciccia experience is not complete without vying for a place at its quarterly farmer's table: once every three months, the restaurant closes its doors and does a special set menu for forty people. It's one big table where everyone sits family style, and often they serve suckling pig.

It's an amazing evening and they never advertise it. To book a spot, you just need to ask to be put on their mailing list. That's the easy part. What you need to do is make your reservation as soon as you get their email blast, because that's when everyone else is scrambling for a spot.