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September 26, 2022

Cafe Niebaum-Coppola: A Review

By Bernie and Sand Pilarski

Columbus Street

Bernie said:

There are some major celebrities from our end of the country that I think exemplify why I like living here. George Lucas, for example, grew up just down the road in Modesto, made a few movies, and bought the Presidio in San Francisco, which he turned into Skywalker Ranch. George is by all accounts a cool guy.

Robin Williams is also one our local celebs. Mr. Williams has a little place in the Seacliff neighborhood of The City. Seacliff is one of those places where my social standing would not be sufficient enough to date the butler's illegitimate daughter. I can just imagine Mr. Williams at one of the neighborhood's block parties.

There is also Sharon Stone, but I prefer not to think of Ms. Stone as a San Franciscan. She married into the area and never really seemed to fit in -- too L.A..

And then there is Francis Ford Coppola. I've never actually met Mr. Coppola, but I keep running into him, and each time I do, I am delighted. In the movie business, he has a finger in tons of stuff. As a director, he has entertained us with the Godfather movies, The Cotton Club, Peggy Sue Got Married, Apocalypse Now, and Tucker, The Man and His Dream. As a producer, he was involved in Lucas' early career, and a bazillion other things, including one of my favorite movies of all time, The Black Stallion. While not involved in movie business, Mr. Coppola bought a vineyard and winery in Napa, and produces excellent wines. And if all that is not enough, he also markets gourmet pastas and sauces, and has a couple of restaurants.

All of that activity swirls around one spot in San Francisco -- The Sentinel Building, on the corner of Kearny and Columbus. On a corner where the financial district, Chinatown, and North Beach's Little Italy meet, in an area where the National Shrine of St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church sits in bold but quiet contrast to the brash but busy strip joints on nearby Broadway, The Sentinel Building houses Coppola's American Zoetrope movie business and his Cafe Niebaum-Coppola that features his wines and his Italian cuisine.

Sand and I made our way to the Cafe Niebaum-Coppola (aka Cafe Zoetrope) on a beautiful late August Sunday afternoon. It was a little too cool to avail ourselves of the sidewalk tables, so we went inside to the tiny dining room/bar. I don't know the capacity of the place, but I would guess that 40 people would fill it. As a result, the staff is never out of sight. That might have been a problem if the crew had had any grumpy old waitresses, but at least on this day, the staff was pleasant, laid-back, and very welcoming. By the end of lunch, we learned that Dana, the bartender, had only recently moved to The City from Southern California. She is an actress, interested more in theatre than film, although she hopes there may be some opportunities for voice-over parts in some of the productions being planned upstairs at Zoetrope. Having only been there three weeks, she has not yet met Mr. Coppola, but has already met Mrs. Coppola. That's more information than I know about most of my family members.

But we didn't go there to meet girls, we went for the wine (which we knew we liked), and the food (which we were curious about). On the label of the Coppola Rosso, Mr. Coppola says "My earliest memories as a child include wine. My family has always made wine. To hear it from my uncle Mikey, these were not fancy wines, but everyday wines; Wines that were on the dinner table every night." Coppola Rosso is not a trendy varietal (wines made using only one type of grape), but a blend of Zinfindel, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. The result is a very drinkable, pleasant and smooth red wine. And at about $12.00 a bottle, it is very affordable.

At the cafe, I opted for a varietal, the Coppola Syrah, and I was glad I did. Syrah is a lighter red wine, not as meaty and powerful as the flagship red Cabernet. The Coppola Syrah was light, bright, and had a short, pleasant finish that allowed it to complement the food.

The Cafe's menu was short, and completely dominated by pastas and pizzas. I chose a Calzone Italia, a simple and straight forward calzone with ricotta, ham and mozzarella. Like Mr. Coppola said of his wine, this calzone was not a fancy calzone, but an everyday calzone. But it was excellent. The cheeses were fresh and smooth, the prosciutto tasty.

Dana tried her best to diplomatically tell us that one calzone or one pizza (Sand's choice) would have been enough for the two of us, but I figured that at $14.00, how big could it be what with being a San Francisco restaurant and all. But she was right, the calzone was much more than I could eat at a sitting. Being totally stuffed and totally satisfied, however, did not stop me from ordering dessert.

I ordered an orange sorbet which turned out to be a lesson in how presentation can make the ordinary extraordinary. The sorbet was served in a real orange that had been opened and hollowed out, then frozen to form a bowl in which the sorbet was packed. ( Lemon and coconut sorbets were similarly available.)

Cafe Niebaum-Coppola is friendly, accessible, wholesome and fun. It is not fancy, it is everyday. But it is everyday done right.

Sand said:As soon as we got to street level from the train, I was sure that the experience was going to be a good one. The weather was absolutely perfect for a San Francisco adventure: sunny, about 70 degrees, with a sweet cool wind coming off the bay. We had about half an hour to kill before the restaurant opened, so we took the long way around, walking along the Embarcadero, watching the sailboats and the seabirds for a while. Then we cut up Union Street on a rambling path that took us to Sansome Street, then Vallejo to Montgomery, steep sidewalks and gorgeous views of the city.

We wandered down to the pyramidal landmark, the Transamerica Building, then up Columbus to Pacific and Chinatown, watched dragon dancers perform on the street, peered into storefronts, and grew hungrier by the second as the aroma of cooking filled the air from the many eateries. A block away was our destination: Cafe Niebaum-Coppola on Kearny Street.

Francis Ford Coppola first won my heart by producing The Black Stallion, a movie that took my favorite book from childhood and made it a visual gem; not so very long ago he impressed me by producing a very, very scrumptious table wine called Coppola Bianco. Well, he's done it again. Cafe Niebaum-Coppola is a delightful restaurant that I'm certain we'll visit many times in the future.

The front doors were open, allowing that beautiful cool breeze to bring the perfect day inside. The marble-topped tables and mosaic tile floor brought an earthy comfort to mind. The wide windows allowed us to watch the myriad of people passing by, as well as allowing the passers-by an opportunity to look in to see what dishes were being served. Some restaurants seem to tuck their guests away from the outside world; this one seemed to embrace both the climate and the neighborhood.

The menu was mostly Italian, inexpensively priced. And while I had intended to try the Linguine alle Vongole, I was distracted by the Pizza Capricciosa, which promised tomatoes, mozzarella, mushrooms, ham, artichokes, olives, and salami. And of course, a glass of Francis Ford Coppola Presents Pinot Grigio. From the price on the menu ($12.50), I assumed that this was a personal size pizza (the city is San Francisco, after all). However, it was easily plenty for two people to share ... and delicious, one of the tastiest pizzas I have ever eaten. Now, the wine ... I actually choose my restaurants for the wine. If need be, I can choke down a Bud Light or a Seven-Up, but serious food begs to be accompanied by seriously good drink. Chardonnays and cabernets give me heartburn; sweet wines are only good over a lot of crushed ice. Pinot grigios are my accompaniment of choice, and by and large, I prefer Italian pinot grigios over their California counterparts. The Italian ones tend to have more body and crispness, while the California ones can be a little too fruity or sweet. Francis Ford Coppola Presents Pinot Grigio is without a doubt, the BEST California pinot grigio I've had so far.

There was also a "Worst" to be discovered in Cafe Niebaum-Coppola. Feeling adventurous, I thought I might try an Italian pinot grigio on the menu, called "Stella," just for comparison's sake. This is where Dana saved the day. Dana had assured me that Mr. Coppola's pinot grigio would be good, and had described some of the dishes in more depth than the menu did. In an act of more than kindness, Dana suggested that I taste a sip of the Stella wine before ordering a glass. I will never forget Dana, because the Stella was beyond the shadow of a doubt, the worst Italian pinot grigio ever, even more awful than the legendarily bad Gabbiano. Thanking Dana, I had a second glass of the good stuff.

Full and happy, Bernie and I continued on our trek through the city, stopping on Columbus Street to turn and take a picture, heading down Stockton Street towards Pier 39. I kept my eyes open ... I've already figured out a shortcut for the next visit.

Cafe Niebaum-Coppola (sometimes called Cafe Zoetrope)
916 Kearney St.
San Francisco, CA

For more about the restaurant, see www.cafecoppola.com.

For more about Coppola wines, see www.niebaum-coppola.com

Article © Bernie and Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2005-09-05
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