Culture & Criticism From the Far Distant Realms
Graziano Lucchesi’s Caffe Puccini (named after the famed composer from Lucca) is a North Beach institution noted for its aromatic coffees that draw tourists and locals alike.
However, even though Puccini is known far and wide for its coffee, the place is also about pasta and pizza, with Lucchesi’s small kitchen serving up a full menu that rivals the quality found in the biggest restaurants in San Francisco’s “little Italy.”
Patterned after the coffee houses found in Italy (where a full meal can be had along side soft pastry and fresh-brewed espresso), Puccini is a hidden jewel that will surprise even the most skeptical San Francisco diner.
I will confess that, for along time, I was actually one of those skeptics. Even though I had been coming to Puccini for decades with other poets from North Beach, I had never tried the food there – content with the cappuccinos and laid back atmosphere, I didn’t believe that a hole in the wall cafe could actually make a meal worth writing about.
But I was proved to be quite wrong. Sacrificing my snobbery in favor of hunger pangs, the pasta and pesto dish I first ordered at Puccini made me believe that Lucchesi could cook and cook well; I mean this pasta was as good as anything I’d had anywhere in North Beach and the experience inspired me to investigate the rest of his menu.
And there were many surprises in store.
Lucchesi, who purchased Puccini in 1991 after working in North Beach delis and butcher shops, specializes in Toscana cuisine (food with origins in Tuscany), and his menu bristles with these old-world flavors. Essentially, these are Lucchesi’s family’s recipes that came over with him from Italy and he uses them much the same way his great grandmother did over a century ago.
In essence, he’s able to achieve near-perfection with so many of these dishes because of what he puts in the pot. Unlike so many cost-cutters and tourist-callers, Lucchesi is willing to invest in fresh produce and just-cut meat (things which make the taste of these pasta sauces soar).
For example, Lucchesi’s pesto garners its flavor from an amalgamation of pristine basil leaves, fresh pine nuts and extra-virgin olive oil – the result this perfectly tart green-sauce that coats the noodles and gives the plate its punch. Even though it’s a big hearty meal, the pesto-pasta still serves as a nice vegetarian alternative to the meat selections, pleasing from the first bite to the last.
Other pasta plates to pay attention to include the penne marinara, the linguine al tonno and the spaghetti carbonara.
Lucchesi’s marinara is known all over the city and was lauded several years ago by the San Francisco Chronicle. Diners will note its pale orange hue; the chef is able to get this color with his sauce because he only uses fresh peeled tomatoes and some herbs to build it, simmering it a full six hours before he ladles it over the noodles.
The linguine with Italian tuna is a totally unique creation: fresh tomato sauce is infused with Italian tuna (preserved in olive oil) and then topped with parmigiana cheese (a dish both light and savory – the tuna void of that slimy fishy smell that buries so many seafood-pasta courses).
Finally, the carbonara features Lucchesi’s hand-made pancetta. Lucchesi’s pancetta is salt-cured and it hangs a full three months before he serves it. Many others who make pancetta often use a brine bath to cure it; while this process can indeed be faster, it leaves excess water in the bacon and this results in a marked loss of flavor. To the contrary, Lucchesi’s carbonara gushes with taste – a well-arranged marriage of egg and bacon that makes this the heartiest pasta course you’ll ever encounter.
Moving past the pasta, the other can’t miss on the menu is found in the made-to-order pizzas. Quite simply, this is some of the best pizza in North Beach and you will be amazed that it’s coming out of a coffee-house kitchen.
Lucchessi’s secret with his pizza is that he uses foccacia dough and bakes it until its ultra-crisp (just north of singed). Consequently, the slice has a delicate crunch that pops against the tongue and spews ribbons of flavor. For toppings, you can literally build your own pie based on what you feel like at the moment (we tried a couple different selctions – salami with homemade sausage and salmon with pesto. Both were full-bodied and truly special – piled high with toppings, with just the right amount of cheese and sauce to glue the puzzle together).
“What I do is walk around and see how much crust people are leaving in the dish,” Lucchesi says as he discusses the original pizza that he has created. “And most of the time I see they don’t see them leave any crust in the dish. That tells me they like it. That means I am doing it right.”
As for espresso drinks and dessert (what we expect from a cafe!), Puccini offers a stand-tall cup of coffee. Lucchesi has reached the zenith of the cafe circuit because he blends his own brew – 50% Arabica beans (noted for their creaminess and sweetness) with 50% Columbian beans (noted for their harsh bitter bite).
While most places only use 15-25% Arabica (to control cost), Lucchesi chooses to spend extra money to insure quality. The result is absolute consistency- the Latte you had last week will taste like the one you’ll have next August. And that’s a tell-tale sign the place is there to stay.
Stand-out desserts on the Puccini board include the house-made biscotti, the homemade tiramisu (featuring mascarpone instead of whipped cream) and the briosche (which are made at Victoria Pastry around the corner). The briosche (which Lucchesi buys raw and bakes himself) are huge croissant-shaped buns covered with a slightly sweet orange glaze: Light and fluffy, they are the natural bride for any of 10 different coffee drinks.
“What I try to do here is give the people good food, I try to give them something for their money,” Lucchesi says with obvious pride. “And if one person likes it, then they might tell another person and that person might tell somebody else. Over time, you have a group of people coming back again and again. But they won’t come back if the food isn’t good. We try and make the food good. So if you do come back, I know I’m doing it right.”
STAFF: Experienced counter staff knows how to keep the line moving, even when it extends to the door. Additionally, everyone at the counter is an expert at the espresso machine, as Puccini coffee drinks are noted for consistency.
ATMOSPHERE: Brimming with old-world charm, Puccini presents the consummate ‘coffee-house’ experience – perfect for the ones who want to sit in the corner and scribble in their notebooks and those looking for a romantic spot to eat, sip wine and talk.
OVER-ALL: The best coffee-house in North Beach, hands down. What elevates Puccini to number-one is the quality of its food: Pasta and pizza entrees stand-out, in addition to the fine assortment of homemade desserts. In terms of coffee, Puccini offers a robust blend of Arabica and Columbian beans that’s served in deep cups – even though there is a recession going on, Lucchesi hasn’t made the cups shrink (which so many others in the area are doing now to save pennies).
COST: Inexpensive to moderate. Two can dine well for around $30.00, including tip and dessert.
HOURS: Sunday through Thursday, 6 AM to 11 PM; Friday and Saturday 6 AM to midnight.