December 16, 2019

Fresh Every Day: Giovanni The Place For Pasta In North Beach

by Joe Bonadio

Nearly everyone loves fresh pasta, and when it comes to making the very best, North Beach is a neighborhood that has been on the map for a long time. Since Panama Canal back in the Seventies there have been scores of small independent producers here, and the availability of things like fresh pasta, pastry and cured meats is part of what helped forge this neighborhood’s Italianate identity early on.

Tony mixes the filling for his fresh Butternut Squash Ravioli. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

Of course we’re also very well known for pizza, and no one does it better than Tony Gemignani. But what a lot of people don’t realize is that Tony is also an ace pasta maker: he’s been serving his own pasta since the very beginning at both Tony’s and Capos. A few years back, Tony opened Giovanni Italian Specialties, a petite shop with a plentiful selection of Italian products of all kinds. Tony makes pasta for all of his neighborhood restaurants at Giovanni–including ravioli every Friday.

But let me amend that: Leo is actually the one who makes the ravioli–every last one of them. And in turn, Pedro makes all of Tony’s pasta. “They’ve been with me since the beginning,” he says, teasing the two as they prep the machines at Giovanni’s on a recent morning. “Too long.”

Shortly after opening Giovanni, Tony invested in a very elaborate pasta making machine for his ravioli, one of only two being used in the U.S. at the time. Leo is the only one who knows just how to work it, and it was no easy task learning. He spent lots of hours and ruined many a ravioli before he finally divined the magic–and now Tony doesn’t let anyone else near the machine.

All the trouble was worthwhile, though. If you’ve ever tried to find fresh ravioli (and I’m talking about the never-frozen stuff), it’s damn near impossible. Most small producers tend to freeze product so they can sell it over the course of the week, and even restaurants typically freeze their house-made ravioli. So when you find it fresh, it’s very special indeed.

Leo Fills

Leo packs a cylinder with filling as he prepares to make the day’s ravioli at Giovanni Italian Specialties. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

Today, Leo is making a coveted seasonal variety: butternut squash ravioli. Made with fresh butternut squash puree and ricotta cheese, this isn’t something you see everyday. Tony puts it on special at both Tony’s and Capo’s, where he prepares it with a decadent brown butter-sage sauce. Topped with a little Parmigiano-Reggiano, it’s truly the ultimate Fall dish, savory with just a hint of sweetness from the butternut squash. Mouth-watering.

Did I mention that Tony also makes fresh rigatoni? This is something you rarely see. When I lived in Lower Manhattan, I only knew of one place to get these–and I used to walk over 50 blocks to that shop.

I wandered into Tony’s yesterday for lunch as an antidote to the rainy day. Sitting at the bar, I ordered the Bucatini: a rich pork ragu made with ground beef and calabrese peppers, and served with a calabrese sausage link, it is a blockbuster dish. A little on the spicy side, and definitely big enough to share. (Full disclosure: I ate all of mine.)

Giovanni’s sells fresh pasta every day, and offers just one type of ravioli a week, including traditional ricotta cheese and meat varieties. They’re making a lot of the butternut squash right now, because it’s only in season for so long. “We make them on Friday.” Tony says. But he quickly warns, “If you come by Sunday, we’ll probably be out! You’ll have to wait till next Friday.”

Don’t wait. Head to Giovanni for some fresh pasta today. Or visit Tony’s Pizza Napoletana or Capo’s, both right around the corner, here in the heart of historic North Beach. See you in the neighborhood!

Giovanni Italian Specialties
629 Union Street
San Francisco, CA 94133
(415) 576-8806