Tucked away in a tranquil garden courtyard, down a narrow path off a quiet block in San Francisco’s Presidio Heights neighborhood is Sociale — a haven for homemade Italian specialties. Every year in June, my family and I dine here to celebrate my birthday. It’s a tradition that’s lasted many years — and a visit to this local favorite never disappoints.
The cozy dining room is softly lit and elegantly simplistic, but it’s the patio here that is the true star. Lit with twinkle lights hung in the surrounding trees, the courtyard is the perfect place for a meal on a warm evening (or even a cool one — they have heat lamps; this is San Francisco, after all!)
Sociale’s menu, inspired by northern Italian cuisine, changes monthly, but thankfully there are a few favorites that remain constant throughout the year.
To start, the fried olive appetizer is a must-get. Large, briny green olives are stuffed with gooey Fontina cheese, breaded, and fried to a crispy perfection. Served over mixed baby greens, they are the perfect start to a meal. If you’re feeling decadent, an even richer option to start off with is the roasted bone marrow served with cherries, frisée, and grilled bread. During the summer months, the watermelon and burrata salad is not to be missed. The fresh chunks of sweet fruit and creamy pieces of house-made cheese, set off by basil leaves and a hint of heat from crushed chile flakes, marry perfectly.
My favorite dish on the menu is the pappardelle pasta with braised duck and porcini mushrooms. The thick pasta ribbons mixed with woodsy mushrooms, fresh, bright green peas, and a drizzle of truffle oil is a magical combination.
Chef Tia Harrison is a world-renowned butcher and it shows in her delicate treatment of all the meat dishes. The chicken, served three ways, is moist and delicious — paired with a light and fluffy parsnip purée. The steak, simple, rustic, and expertly cooked, is accompanied by colorful sauces and fennel-dusted fries.
For side dishes, there are two superior options. The polenta fries sprinkled with salty Parmigiano-Reggiano are a nice alternative to traditional potatoes. But the winner for me are the Brussels sprouts. Described on the menu as prepared with amaretti cookies, sage, and brown butter, I was wary they would come out tasting more like a dessert than a side dish. I should have known to trust the chef — the touch of sweetness works wonderfully with the earthy vegetables.
Because I usually come to the restaurant on my birthday, I am well-versed in the dessert menu choices. While I have dabbled in the creamy goat cheese cheesecake and the doughnuts with an espresso gelato shake, I always come back to the Chocolate Oblivion Cake — hands down the best thing on the menu. The decadent cake is dusted with amaretti cookie crumbs and a touch of sea salt for the perfect bite.
Good food, like a beloved song, triggers vivid memories. For me, Sociale is both the food and the memory — a sumptuous meal combined with some of the best ambiance San Francisco has to offer.