Whether it’s the food, wine, art, architecture, people or just the pace of life, there is a distinct feel to the way Romans live. They embrace tradition, simplicity and authenticity – manifest clearly in the food and daily lifestyle common in the eternal city.
We set out to experience a bit of la dolce vita right here in our own backyard in San Francisco and what better way than with the aid of that quintessential Italian mode of transportation – a Vespa scooter, loaned to us by Vespa USA. It was the perfect way to explore the ins and outs of the many neighborhoods and everything this great city has to offer, Roman-style!
Start with a Shot
There is really only one way to start the day in true Roman fashion, and that’s with an espresso (and maybe a sweet pastry if you’re so inclined). We kicked our day off in the Italian neighborhood of North Beach, where there is no shortage of authentic espresso bars within a few blocks, serving locals and tourists alike, including Cavalli Cafe, Caffe Roma and Caffe Greco.
We opted to soak in a bit of local history at the original Caffe Trieste, the first espresso coffeehouse on the West Coast, made famous by a generation of writers and artists. Romans may enjoy their concentrated liquid breakfasts standing at tall cafe tables on the way to work, but we were in no rush and sat to discuss the activities for the day over more a substantial espresso grande and a caffe latte.
Explore the Neighborhood
Like Rome, San Francisco is a city of unique neighborhoods. Now adequately caffeinated, we set out to take in some of the character of this historic Italian neighborhood where our Vespa came in handy navigating the narrow streets, alleys and limited parking in this old part of town.
You can find a good Italian market or deli in almost any city. Two of our favorites in San Francisco for browsing a selection of imported cheeses, olive oils, pastas and other Italian staples are Lucca Delicatessen and Molinari Delicatessen, where we stopped to grab a snack for the road. Chatting with the staff is great way to discover new foods and we find that they are almost always willing to offer recommendations or tastings of a favorite discovery.
Along with the rest of the hungry crowd, we couldn’t leave without one of their signature sandwiches, so we picked out a roll and ordered the recommended Renzo sandwich with prosciutto, coppa, fresh mozzarella and sun-dried tomatoes.
If salumi isn’t for you, walk across Washington Square for a piece (or two or three) of amazing focaccia from Liguria Bakery. Get there early before they sell out and try the plain or the rosemary as a worthy substitute for the pizza bianca you’ll see people snacking on all over Rome.
See the Sights
We packed up and put our Vespa to good use on a quick ride up Telegraph Hill for some of the most stunning views of the city, then stopped at Coit Tower before exploring other parts of the city.
San Francisco’s homage to the architecture of classical antiquity, the Palace of Fine Arts, may not be 2,000 years old, but the impressive rotunda and adjoining pergolas provided the perfect spot to park the Vespa and sit on the lawn to share our sandwich.
Of course, no trip to San Francisco would be complete without stopping to admire the view and snap a few memorable photos at the Golden Gate Bridge before continuing our ride around the Presidio.
Break for Lunch
If breakfast in Rome is on-the-go, lunch is another story. Many businesses close in the middle of the day and the masses take a break for an afternoon meal – and pizza is never hard to find.
San Franciscans are spoiled to have many fantastic pizza options, from the purest Neapolitan of Una Pizza Napoletana, to the pan-Italian flavors of Delfina Pizzeria, to locally inspired combinations at Zero Zero, to the venerable Tommaso’s.
For something unique, we stopped in at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana, where nine-time World Pizza Champion Tony Gemignani utilizes seven different ovens to create such styles as Californian, Sicilian, American and coal-fired, in addition to the namesake classic Neapolitan.
In the spirit of the day, we opted for a pizza Romana – an interpretation of the long and thin pizza cooked in electric ovens all over Rome. There’s no need to order by the inch here; just pick one of their recommended combinations of toppings. Our choice was an impressive tricolore, three topping combinations in one pizza – tomato sauce, mozzarella, pepperoni and sausage; ricotta with garlic, basil, linguica and piquante peppers; and pesto, caramelized onions, garlic, roasted tomatoes and goat cheese. Grab a slice with you hands, or eat it the traditional Italian way with a fork and knife.
You can’t go very far in Rome without being tempted by a gelateria with rows of vibrantly colored flavors on display. Here too, there are several around the city, including Dolce Gelato, Ciao Bella, and nearby Gelateria Naia, where we stopped for an after-lunch treat.
It can be daunting trying to choose from the array of silky-smooth options, but (after a few samples) we ordered the classic vanilla and chocolate-drizzled stracciatella as well as a refreshing seasonal pluot gelato. We barely made it down the block to Washington Square Park to sit for a spell and people watch before finishing off our frozen treats.
Soak up Some Culture
Art is ever-present in Rome, with masterworks seemingly in every public building and church. We may have to seek ours out a bit more here, but there are still plenty of places to view everything from traditional American to contemporary international art. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Asian Art Museum and Legion of Honor all offer some great ways to spend an afternoon, but our visit to the de Young Museum included the added benefit of its location in the middle of beautiful Golden Gate Park. After viewing the exhibits, we took a leisurely ride through the park to see some of the other sights before finding a spot to relax in the late-afternoon shade and enjoy each other’s company in true Roman fashion.
Take a Stroll and Enjoy Dinner
With evening approaching, it was time to park for a leisurely stroll and some shopping back in a commercial district. It didn’t take long, however, for our thoughts and stomachs to turn to dinner. Most Romans eat notoriously late, but we opted for an early dinner as there was really only one thing on our mind at this point – pasta.
For a contemporary American take on the traditional craft and flavors of rustic Italian cuisine, we look to well-known destinations such as flour + water, Locanda or SPQR, where we booked an outdoor table for a meal worthy of any sophisticated Italian in the heart of San Francisco.
While the name may evoke classical Rome, this was thoroughly modern and inventive cuisine, with influences drawn from across Italy and refined American fine dining. If there’s a commonality with traditional Roman cooking, it was most apparent in Chef Matthew Accarrino’s adherence to the philosophy of using seasonal, local ingredients – a characteristic aspect of the best Italian cooking.
With so many tempting primi offerings, we had to try no less than three pastas: buckwheat spaghetti with suckling pig ragu; whole wheat agnolotti with corn filling and squash blossoms; and smoked fettuccine with local sea urchin, smoked bacon and quail egg.
End the Day Right
With the day winding down, it was time to park the Vespa for the night to partake in one final great love of Rome – vino. At neighborhood wine bars in San Francisco such as Uva Enoteca and Ottimista Enoteca, you can end the day with a glass or two and grab a late bite or perhaps a little dolce to satisfy a sweet tooth.
We headed to Bar Bambino where we took seats at the bar and made some new friends while enjoying a few glasses of Italian bianco and rosso, accompanied by a light sampling of their artisinal affettati and formaggi and some olives all’Ascolana. The carefully selected assortment of cured meats included a mix of house-made and imported prosciutto, finocchiona and felino. Our formaggi plate featured a mix of new- and old-world selections, including Heublumen, La Tur and blu di Lanzo.
To finish the night, we ended right where we began, with a strong espresso — this time married with vanilla gelato in the classic affogato — accompanied by something sweet, a plum-almond torta.
After a full yet relaxing day, we had a new-found appreciation for our home city. It’s easy to take for granted much of what makes any city special, but playing tourists for the day provided a great excuse for sightseeing at some otherwise familiar places.
You don’t need all of the same stops we visited where you live in order to re-create a bit of our experience yourself. Get inspired to visit some neighborhoods and restaurants you’ve never been to, or experience some familiar ones in a brand-new way. Try out a new coffeehouse, take a leisurely lunch or a late dinner with friends. No gelateria? Visit your local ice cream parlor instead — it’s not about where you visit, it’s about the enjoying the day and all its simple pleasures at your own pace.
To create your own Roman holiday in high style, enter for a chance to win your very own Vespa LX 50!
For a taste of Rome right in your own kitchen, explore our new collection of Roman-inspired recipes.