Jeremy Fish (Illustration: Rob Goodman)
When Jeremy Fish moved to San Francisco from Albany, New York to attend the Art Institute more than 20 years ago, his love affair with the neighborhood of North Beach began. And years later, this renowned and prolific fine artist, sculptor, illustrator, and lover of hip-hop, has grown to be a mainstay of the community. He describes North Beach as one of the few places in San Francisco to be left untouched by the passage of time and the tech boom.
As an artist, Jeremy’s work has drawn acclaim the world over and he has made an indelible mark here in San Francisco. You most likely saw his welcoming pink bunny statue in the Lower Haight in years past. And when it comes to shining a spotlight on the city he calls home, Jeremy has a certain sense of duty to preserve San Francisco’s history. He wants to make sure its rush of new inhabitants know there was something here before Google and Facebook arrived. And the city has shared its love back. He was chosen to document City Hall’s centennial with a 100 drawings in a 100 days and recently took up the first artist residency at Coit Tower. Jeremy’s Coit Tower exhibition “Civic Beautification” and original pink bunny statue are now on display at the new Haight Street Art Center.
In this edition of Favorite Haunts, the series where I speak with Bay Area artists and musicians about their favorite places, Jeremy documents what he calls the North Beach “pizza triangle” of amazing, authentic Italian food. And he shares a few other gems to put on your must-visit list for this little Italy neighborhood.
North Beach Ship Mural by Jeremy Fish.
Jeremy’s affection for North Beach comes in part from his Italian ancestry. His family background is both English and Italian, but Jeremy says, “I’ve always felt a strong connection to Italians, which is probably why I am drawn to places like North Beach.” Jeremy’s passion for this place has roots in the city’s history and his personal history, too. He says, “It’s also the neighborhood where our city started…and it’s the neighborhood where my art career started. There are a lot of reasons why I enjoy it. Without question it’s the most special neighborhood within the city limits.”
It should come as no surprise that some of Jeremy’s favorite haunts are adorned with his artwork, too. Tony’s Pizza Napoletana has a massive exterior sidewall dedicated to Jeremy’s mural. Golden Boy Pizza features one of his paintings just above the kitchen and Baoneccia Restaurant‘s logo is Jeremy’s handiwork. Those projects with restaurants that are a part of the “pizza triangle” come with some pretty sweet perks for Jeremy. “I traded artwork for free food for life,” Jeremy says. He can walk into 14 restaurants around the city and eat to his heart’s content.
Golden Boy Mural (above) and Tony’s Pizza Mural by Jeremy Fish.
Now without further ado, let’s breakdown Jeremy’s favorite haunts and his glorious “pizza triangle” of North Beach.
Tony’s Pizza Napoletana
At the tip of Jeremy’s so-called “pizza triangle” is Tony’s Pizza Napoletana, home of 12-time World Pizza Champion Tony Gemignani. Tony is well known for great pizza in the city and for good cause. Jeremy says, “He had a huge reputation behind him and all this energy when the restaurant opened. And Tony’s Pizza is newer than a lot of places in North Beach, but there’s a good reason that the line goes all the way down the street. It’s incredible.” When I stopped by Tony’s Pizza, the pepperoni slice did not disappoint and it’s easy to see why neighbors and tourists alike line up for a bite.
(Photos: Rob Goodman)
There’s lots of East Coast shade that comes down on San Francisco pizza, but Jeremy, who hails from upstate New York, isn’t having any of it. “Tony’s Pizza is respected by your favorite chefs in New York City. I guarantee you…because they all come and visit. I’ll see them out front taking photos with him. The biggest names in pizza bow down to Tony.” To put it more bluntly: “If you’ve never tried it and you’ve lived here for more than 10 minutes — you’re fucking blowing it.”
Golden Boy Pizza
Next up is Golden Boy Pizza, the left heel of the slice that is the “pizza triangle.” It’s been around since the 1970s and is owned by the Sodini family. That same family also owns Sodini’s Restaurant (which we’ll get to shortly) and, as Jeremy describes, is a “very big neighborhood family that are just great people.” It’s the sense of a place existing outside of time that makes Golden Boy so unique. “There’s something to be said for any business that’s been in San Francisco for decades and has changed nothing.”
Golden Boy doesn’t sell anything extra: just delicious, loaded square slices. When I stopped by to investigate (hey, if I’m writing an article about pizza…I’m going to eat all the pizza), I grabbed a slice loaded with veggies and promptly wolfed it down in a couple of minutes. It’s just great-tasting, thick-crust pizza, ready to eat at the sticker-decorated bar or on the sidewalk. Jeremy says no matter what slice you pick, “You can’t go wrong.”
One of his favorite things about Golden Boy, besides the food, is the VIP treatment he gets as part of his art-for-food deal. Jeremy is on a very short list of people who, at any time, can walk up and knock on the window twice to bypass the crowd and get his pizza immediately. “I traded artwork for free food for life, but the Golden Boy thing is its own animal. Because it’s one thing that the Sodinis are generous and they feed me free food, but to be able to knock on that window and cut to the front of the line, especially late night when there’s 40 or 50 drunk people standing there waiting, man…I know it’s dickish, but it’s so satisfying.”
Even if you aren’t on that very short list of VIP pizza patrons, Golden Boy is well worth the wait. And the restaurant is a staple of this city’s great longstanding culinary culture. “Golden Boy is a precious gift to this city,” he says. “It’s one of those things that I love about North Beach — it’s just a nice place to go and have a timeless night out.”
Walter and Elia Gambaccini of the family-owned and run Baonecci Restaurant.
The other heel of the triangle and the third restaurant in Jeremy’s favorite haunts of North Beach is Baonecci. Owned by the Gambaccini family, who moved to the Bay Area from Lucca, Italy in 2006, Baonecci serves a classic Italian pizza. The kind that feeds an individual eater excellently — with ultra-thin crust and the freshest, most perfectly seasoned tomato sauce and toppings you can find. Jeremy points out: “To get that kind of traditional Italian pizza pie — there are a lot of overblown places in San Francisco that are making their version of this. But this is a family from Italy that just moved here to open up a restaurant. It’s very reasonable. And it’s a wonderful place owned by very friendly, kind people.”
When I stopped by to try out this delicious pizza — I met Elia Gambaccini, son of owner Walter, who runs the place with his mother Stefania and younger brother Filippo. When the family moved here in 2006, they initially bought the space and took it over as a bakery. It evolved into a restaurant around 2012, and has since been dedicated to serving the kinds of pizza and Italian food so loved in Lucca and across Tuscany. Jeremy adores this place and the journey this family went on: “Their dad was a hairdresser back in Italy and their family now owns and runs an incredible restaurant.”
So next time you are in North Beach, swing by Baonecci and get an authentic taste of Italy. And for an extra-warm greeting, say hello to the family and tell them Jeremy Fish sent you.
Don’t Miss Sodini’s Green Valley Restaurant
After connecting a triangle of amazing slices and pies, there’s another Italian restaurant that’s on Jeremy’s must-visit list. And that’s Sodini’s. The restaurant is owned by the same family behind Golden Boy. “I’ve been going there since I moved here. The same people still work there. It’s a family-run business and anybody that has ever had a good night in North Beach and knows left from right has had a nice meal there and met somebody interesting.” It’s another timeless spot for Jeremy. “Except for the guy next to you playing on his phone, you’ll have absolutely no idea what year it is once you walk in.”
Jeremy can’t pick a favorite dish from the menu, but does recommend going rogue when it comes to the sauce selection. He says, “My favorite thing to do is instead of getting red sauce or white sauce, I prefer whatever you order you get with pink sauce — because that’s a pretty old-school thing to do and a lot of other places would look at you weird if you asked for it.”
Sodini’s is also the oldest joint on Jeremy’s favorite haunts food tour. So make a night of it: Step back in time and pull up a chair at this North Beach neighborhood staple.
North Beach is a neighborhood designed for going out. Restaurants and bars line the blocks, so be sure to make a game plan for a nearby watering hole after your food odyssey. First up, Jeremy recommends Specs’ Bar: “It’s not just one of the best bars in North Beach, I think it’s one of the best bars in the world…for a long, long list of reasons.” Jeremy celebrated his 21st birthday at that bar, and now a couple of his old friends are bartenders there. “That was a bar that I was looking in the window before I was even old enough to go in and would say, ‘Now that’s a bar.’ That place would make a sober guy start drinking.” Specs’ is such an institution it was one of the first of nine places to be named a “legacy business” by the city of San Francisco last year.
Jeremy also suggests the classic style and atmosphere of Tony Nik’s cocktail bar, which on the right night, as he puts it, can be “fucking magical.” Another one on his list is Grant and Green Saloon, which he says has a “great mix of people.” Grant and Green is also stellar for sports watching and Jeremy adds, “if you’re in the neighborhood and you want to be around a lively group of people” check out Maggie McGarry’s bar.
So make yourself an evening or weekend itinerary and follow Jeremy Fish’s abbreviated guide to North Beach. Be sure to visit Jeremy’s Facebook to see his amazing artwork, stop by Haight Street Art Center to view his “Civic Beautification” exhibition from his Coit Tower Artist Residency, and listen to our conversation about Jeremy’s unexpected path to his life as a fine artist and commercial illustrator on my podcast Making Ways. Now get yourself to North Beach and discover a favorite haunt all your own.