Sights and smells – and stories – about food can define a city and portion it into ethnic enclaves better than canny politicians with their eye on bloc votes. So it is with San Francisco, North Beach, ‘Little Italy’ and still offering yards of crisp Cannolis, the Sicilian “little tube” of fried pastry filled with a sweet creamy, beautifully piped mass that may or may not contain chocolate chips, or chopped pistachios, citrus peel, cherries or be simply flavoured with vanilla or orange flower water and cinnamon.
In North Beach too, there are gallons of Cioppino, the fish stew that began life in the thrifty kitchen of Italian fish wholesaler Achille Paladini in the late 1800s. Legend has it that in a leap of creative commercialism that all immigrants everywhere would understand, San Francisco’s very own “Fish King” used the leftovers from the day’s catch to rake in a little bit more of the moolah. It’s thought that the name Cioppino comes from the Ligurian word “to chop” or “chopped”, which was about the size of the seafood in the tomato-ey broth that Mr Paladini inventively boiled till the crabs, clams, shrimps, scallops, squid, mussels (and everything else) simply fell apart.
But North Beach nourishes the soul as well as the body. A little pastry shop serves up a more-ish Cannoli ($4.75 + tax) with a Geraldine Arata oil on board ($275) of the sweet treat on the wall above you with directions on where to buy it. (Just down the road, on the same Columbus Avenue, as it happens).
Then, there’s City Lights, probably one of the best bookstores in the world (though London’s Heywood Hill in Mayfair @HeywoodHill runs it close). The Beat Generation of poets wrote crazy verse here but the counter-culture isn’t over here, not by any means. Under a board that reads “printers’ ink is the greatest explosive”, jostle all sorts of titles. And a bit more: ‘The Circle’ by Dave Eggers, ‘Empress Dowager Cixi’ by Jung Chang, Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘The Lowland’, Hans Fallada’s ‘Once a Jailbird’ and Manu Joseph’s ‘The Illicit Happiness of Other People’ (staff pick incidentally).