Nestled amongst the many Fauxtalian sidewalk cafes clustered in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood, I have managed to find one authentic, non-touristy spot that’s actually worthy of your time and money – Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store Cafe. Despite the shop’s name, it actually doesn’t have anything to do with cigars. They say it’s just more of a nod to a time when food was prepared fresh every day, the kind of simple, old fashioned Italian food you can still experience at Mario’s.
It’s a narrow shop situated on a pointy, angled corner just off of Washington Square Park, with a bit of outdoor curbside seating, a couple small tables inside, and long bar counter where more patrons can sit. Since I was dining alone, I pulled up a seat at the bar next to a number of obviously long-time regulars.
In contrast to other restaurants in the neighborhood, the shop has still managed to retain all of its old world Italian charm. It’s not nearly as overrun with clueless crowds of tourists as the others, though it probably should be. Still, I’m glad it’s not. It’s definitely got its fans. While I was seated there, one middle-aged gentlemanly longtime patron walked in to be greeted by the staff who clearly knew his name and usual order. Hell, there was even another regular local slugging red wine and hollering his curmudgeonly critical thoughts about the playlist at the bartenders. That guy was a little annoying, but still that’s some truly authentic charm. I can only dream of becoming a regular like these old guys one day.
But, the place is actually comfortable and cozy as hell. They have a nice local beer and wine selection and their no frills Italian food is legit. When I sat down, I glanced at the menu, but I already knew what I had come for – their infamous Meatball Sandwich. Mario’s is pretty well known for it and as I’ve written before, I have a mega soft spot for quality meatballs and have been looking for a suitable Italian sandwich source in SF. Mario’s definitely has more of a bar vibe than a sit-down restaurant, but that doesn’t stop them from constantly firing out epic pizzas, pastas, and sandwiches from their compact oven and panini press behind the bar.
On this visit, I decided to get a beer to wash down my inevitably hearty sandwich. They were offering a Saint Archer Brewing Company White Ale from San Diego which I found was a light, refreshing, and perfect pint to pair on this sunny Sunday afternoon.
But, let’s get to the real reason I had come. In SF food circles, this Meatball Oven-Baked Sandwich is generally regarded one of the best meatball parm style sandwiches you can get. In fact, this sandwich used to be on nearly every food writers’ Best Under $10 list, though the price has admittedly raised slightly above the $10 mark to a still very reasonable $11.75. Even at that price, it’s still so amazingly good. And this is by no means your average meatball sandwich. Like all of the hot sandwiches served at Mario’s, the meatballs come served on big fluffy onion-studded focaccia bread from the even more famous century-old Liguria Bakery located directly across Washington Square Park.
Now, I had definitely heard exuberant exclamations about this homemade Italian bread, but I don’t know if I was fully prepared for the level of awesomeness that was about to occur when the sandwich fillings were fused between the two crusty sides. The texture of this focaccia was totally incredible – pillowy, but chewy with a nice toasted crust and light, oniony bite. This was an absolutely incredible vessel to house Mario’s crispy, crumbly, moist, and very well spiced meatballs. The sandwich was smothered with a rich, spicy tomato sauce that tied the whole thing together incredibly well and transformed these simple ingredients into something miraculously delicious. This was without a doubt the meatball sandwich I had been searching for in SF.
And to conclude this wonderfully authentic, low-key Italian lunch, the perfect closer – an Espresso. Mario’s was one of the first places to serve a proper espresso in San Francisco and they’re still doing it right every day. It was a damn good espresso, made fresh and the perfect meal-ender to perk me up after an excellently hearty, meatball-filled lunch.
If you’re looking to get something other than the meatball sandwich, I’d direct you towards the less often written about, but just as delicious Sausage Oven-Baked Sandwich. It’s served on the same incredible Liguria onion focaccia bread with plenty of melty cheese and well-spiced tomato sauce, but instead of getting stuffed with ground beef it’s piled high with layers of thin-sliced sweet Italian sausage.
It’s such an incredibly impressive and delicious sandwich and it still costs the same, reasonable $12.75 as the meatball variety. I the sausage sandwich is actually a bit more filling than the more famous meatball, but I’m honestly torn between which of the two I love more — they’re both outstanding. The move — go splits on a meatball and sausage sandwich with a friend.
I’m so incredibly happy to have found a second place that I can safely rely on to quench my cheap, Italian sandwich cravings. The meatballs and focaccia at Mario’s really are as good as everyone says and when the two combine, prepare for pure, unadulterated magic to occur. Get your ass to Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store Cafe stat and see why this is truly is the best meatball sandwich in San Francisco. And if you’re looking for a different treat, go for the sausage sandwich and close it out with a real-deal espresso.
Got another meatball sandwich in San Francisco that you think I’ll love? Let me know in the comments below.
Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store Cafe
566 Columbus Ave. San Francisco, CA 94133
Sant Archer Brewing Company