Cioppino: San Francisco’s Seafood Stew
My wife Amanda and I love to travel and walk around new places, eat new foods, and experience a bit of different culture (even if that culture is just a another region of the U.S.). This Fall we spent a week in San Francisco and its surrounds. One of our favorite regional dishes is a seafood stew called “cioppino.” It’s a spicy, tomato-based sauce that’s loaded with seafood (mostly shellfish), sometimes a few vegetables, but mostly fish. It’s delicious, there are a lot of variations, and it’s fairly low-calorie, especially if you split an entree portion of it with someone, as my wife and I tend to do.
Did I mention variations? All of the cioppinos we’ve had have had mussels and some kind of white fish (although one replaced the white fish with salmon which was also excellent). Most have clams and shrimp. A couple of them had calamari rings and crab. Most are served with garlic bread.
We had cioppino twice during our first time in the Bay Area together back in the Summer of 2009, at Tadich Grill (which claims to be the oldest restaurant in California), which was our first cioppino, and at the Fisherman’s Wharf Boudin restaurant, which was better. While it’s hard to compare our recently sampled dishes with those we tried three years ago, our second time around in San Francisco we wanted to plan better. This time we did some research to find out some of the best places in SFO to try cioppino, and we were not disappointed (although some were clearly better than others).
All in all, we tried five different cioppinos during our seven day stay. We ate the shit out of cioppino.
1199 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
Cioppino price: $19
This unassuming bistro in the heart of The Mission featured the best cioppino of our trip. Beretta features great craft cocktails, Italian small plates, salads, bruschetta, and pizza. They only offer one entree per day. On Tuesday (at least when we went) their offering is cioppino. Because of that, and based on reviews that claimed it the best cioppino in San Francisco (which thus means best anywhere), we made a special trip.
Where Beretta excelled was in their broth, which was spicier (not spicy hot, just nicely spiced) and more delicious than any of the others we had. They added some fresh basil at the end which was unique to Beretta’s cioppino. Sure, they had mussels like every other cioppino, but they also added calamari which was a great addition. The portion size was average (i.e. a large two quart bowl) and Amanda and I split it, along with a panzanella salad.
552 Green Street
San Francisco, CA 94133
Cioppino price: $38 (enough for two)
Sotto Mare is a charming little neighborhood Italian restaurant in the North Beach section of San Francisco. We went on a Thursday night and it was packed with locals and tourists alike. While we waited for a table the hostess offered us a glass of house white or red wine, which we accepted and enjoyed while waiting for our table, which turned out to be at the counter.
We ate our last cioppino this trip at Sotto Mare and it was either first or second best, depending on what you mean by “best.” While Beretta had the tastiest broth, Sotto Mare wins by just the sheer volume of seafood. Their “enough for two” crab cioppino arrived in a massive silver soup cauldron and must’ve contained a couple pounds of shellfish.
They call theirs “The ‘Best Damn Crab Cioppino’ with seafood” and they’re not just boasting. Our cioppino did indeed contain an entire crab, chopped up, and pre-cracked so we shouldn’t have to use a cracker to pop the shell.
We sat at the counter by the kitchen where we enjoyed dinner and a show, although it was very very hot there. Still, the festive atmosphere, watching the waitstaff abuse the happy-go-lucky cooks who laughed as they were being yelled at, and the happy slurps of our fellow diners, most of whom were also eating cioppino, was worth the trip.
Follow up cioppino with a cappuccino and a cannoli at one of the classic cafes in North Beach afterwards (if you can eat another bite after stuffing two pounds of shellfish down your gullet) and browse through the stacks at the City Lights bookstore. It’s all very romantic.
1 Al Scoma Way
San Francisco, CA 94133
Cioppino price: $39
Scoma’s at Fisherman’s Wharf offers what they call the “Lazy Man’s Cioppino” because most of the fish has already been shelled for you. They offer the recipe on their web site (although you may want to make my cioppino recipe, coming soon, instead, as it was better). Scoma’s was the most touristy of places we tried, but what do you expect, they’re located at Fisherman’s Wharf, the most touristy of San Francisco locations.
Scoma’s cioppino is very good (as it should be, they’ve been serving it for years) but at $20 more expensive than Beretta for a similar portion, it feels like you’re paying for the location (and we didn’t even get to sit at a table overlooking the bay).
Sam’s Anchor Cafe
27 Main Street
Belvedere Tiburon, CA 94920
Cioppino price: $26
Sam’s was the worst cioppino of our trip, and it was still really good, so we did pretty well. It wasn’t on our list of the best cioppinos in San Francisco – we just happened to be visiting Tiburon via the ferry and it looked like a nice place to stop and have lunch (although our waitress said that their cioppino has been featured on the Food Network – twice). The price for the lunch portion of cioppino was the same as their dinner menu, so maybe it’s the same exact dish. It was an ample amount for one person.
Their menu claims it includes “dungeness crab, clams, prawns, mussels, fresh fish, in a spicy tomato broth” but there wasn’t much crab (although it does tend to disintegrate in the broth).
Of all of the restaurants we visited to try cioppino, Sam’s had the best view.
It’s nice to take a ferry somewhere – Tiburon, Sausalito, Larkspur, Angel Island – and just get out on the bay. Tiburon was a cute, relaxed place to visit and walk around. It’s not as crassly commercial as Sausalito, but then there’s not as much to see either, unless you’re into natural beauty.
2362 Market Street (between 16th St & 17th St)
San Francisco, CA 94114
Cioppino price: $22
Catch in the Castro is a lively upscale seafood place that technically doesn’t offer cioppino, but instead has a “seafood stew” that just so happens to resemble cioppino in most ways.
We ate our first cioppino this trip at Catch (after seeing Vertigo in the historic Castro Theater, which was awesome). Catch’s version is very good, although by the end of the trip I think this one ranked second to last.
Their cioppino includes – aside from the usual tomato broth – mussels, clams, shrimp, scallops, crab, and some sort of white fish. It was very tasty, and the broth was a little more interesting than all but Beretta’s (although the chorizo broth that accompanied the mussels appetizer was so good we couldn’t stop drinking it).
Cioppino is such a simple dish, inspired by the Italian fisherman that settled in San Francisco, lived in North Beach, and shaped the local cuisine.
It’s easy enough to make at home, and I foresee cioppino being a regular staple of our weekend dinners.