North Beach is San Francisco’s central hub for all things Italian. Locals and tourists alike flock to the district in pursuit of the perfect pizza or the warmth of their favorite cup of cappuccino. If you take a left on Green Street, just off of Columbus, you will find Italian home cooking at its best!
Caffè BaoNecci is a family-run restaurant that serves authentic Lucchese dishes. The owners of this North Beach gem are the Gambaccini Family: Stefania, Walter, and their sons Elia and Filippo. They are originally from Altopascio, a town famous for producing exquisite bread, in the Italian province of Lucca. I chatted with Stefania, the gracious chef of BaoNecci, over a slice of one the best pizzas I’ve had outside of Italy.
Stefania, why and when did you decide to move to San Francisco?
My family and I visited San Francisco many times on vacation before we decided to move here. Every time I visited, I was impressed by the organization and great customer service in this country. I would say that is one of the main reasons I thought I would love to live and work here. We decided to move here in 2005. Prior to moving, we met with the owners of Danilo’s Bakery -where our restaurant is now located - who told us they had the intention of retiring and were looking for new owners. At that time, it really felt like a sign from above. My son Elia had been training to become a baker and that would have been the perfect opportunity for him to do what he loves as well as for the rest of us to start a new adventure. On September 13th, 2005 we bought the bakery.
How did it go, and how did you transition to the current Caffè BaoNecci?
It was real hard work! The old owners helped us a lot at the beginning; they stayed with us for several months before we completely took over. In 2008 the economy was in crisis and we suffered the consequences along with the rest of the country. Business slowed down for many restaurants and we did not sell as much bread as we used to. We decided to introduce breakfast foods – eggs, focaccia bread, soups, salads…and increase our hours of operation in order to attract more customers. It was a very difficult time. Five years ago we submitted the application to acquire a beer and wine license. After we received it, not without difficulties, we started to keep our restaurant open at night. On behalf of all my family, I would like to take the opportunity to thank all of the people who have been helping and supporting us through the most difficult times. Without them we wouldn’t be where we are now. Caffè BaoNecci exists thanks to their support.
Where did you learn to cook?
I have always been passionate about cooking, especially home cooking, having been born in a family of farmers. My paternal grandmother was a fantastic cook, as were my mom and my mother-in-law. I have always been surrounded by great cooks, who have also been my teachers. It would be fair to say that I learned from them through “osmosis”.
Caffe’ BaoNecci is a family-run restaurant – a formula much appreciated by many, especially in San Francisco. How do you organize yourselves?
I work in the kitchen and prepare all the dishes, sauces, and noodles from scratch. I make my own lasagna and cannelloni. Additionally, two people help me with the basic preparation of dishes, salads, and pizza. My husband and sons, with the help of a bus person, manage the dining room, organize the tables, take orders and reservations, and welcome our guests.
What dish are you most fond of?
If I have to pick one, I will go with the classic lasagna! I used to cook this dish at Christmas and it always reminds me of good times spent with my entire family. As soon as I added it to our menu, it became one of the most appreciated dishes by our customers. I still prepare it the way I used to back home: with classic ragù and béchamel sauces. I cook for the restaurant the same way I cook for my own family.
Lastly, where did you get the name BaoNecci from?
It is a very old word that comes from the Lucchese dialect, but it is still used nowadays. It is an expression that intensifies what one says. I guess similar words would be “cool” or “groovy”!
If you want to taste real Italian home-made cooking, you owe it to yourself to try Stefania’s delicious cuisine. You won’t be disappointed. Soon, she will introduce authentic “Bistecca alla Fiorentina” to her menu! Keep your taste buds tuned.