I loved reading Carl Nolte's San Francisco Chronicle column a few weeks back about the old Italian delis of San Francisco but it made me sad. It's true: there aren't many left, particularly in North Beach, where Molinari is the last of the old-timers. The atmosphere there in the narrow little store on Columbus near Vallejo remains the same as it has for more than a century: worn wooden floors, crates and boxes of canned tomatoes and tuna piled high, glass cases full of cold meats (still one of the best selections in the city), shelves packed with well-priced imported goodies from Italy, the long, housemade salamis hanging from above and the cheery camaraderie of the counter guys. It's all as comforting and familiar as a bowl of mom's minestrone.
When I lived in North Beach in the 1980s, there were several decades-old delis in operation: my family's favorite was Florence, which made good ravioli and had some of the best prices. Iacopi up on Grant was the place for sausages, however. A friend told me yesterday her Italian grandmother took the 5-Fulton MUNI a few times a week from Cole Valley, changed to the 30-Stockton to make her way to Florence or Molinari to pick up groceries. Her family still shops at either Molinari or Lucca in the Mission, but now those trips are reserved for special occasions -- Christmas holidays and Easter week -- when the deli counters are three-deep with a steady stream of customers picking up panettone (for Christmas) and colombe (for Easter) . It's not surprising that few of the old delis survive: 20-30 years ago it was difficult to find Italian specialties outside Italian communities. Today, all kinds of gourmet supermarkets carry Italian imports.
I poked around North Beach on a sunny, warm morning last week doing research on my next travel app and found Molinari as busy as ever. Their salami and sausages still are the best in the Bay Area. What fun shopping there. You just don't get that kind of earthy, old-deli smell -- think of the thousands of salamis that have been hung here over the last century, the dried mushrooms and the marinated vegetables -- at places like Trader Joe's or Whole Foods.
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