Noel in North Beach

Families shop for seasonal treats in San Francisco's Italian enclave

XOX Truffles
A merry Christmas for all with chocolates from XOX Truffles.

Sacripantina cake
Silvia Santucci Scott's sacripantina cake.

Photos by Terrence McCarthy

Hand-painted ceramics at Biordi Art Imports.

It's more likely to be sunny than snowy, but make no mistake ― it's holiday time in the city's North Beach neighborhood. "North Beach at Christmas is all about family," says Silvia Santucci Scott, who, along with sister Christina Santucci, runs popular Stella Pastry. "People come to the neighborhood to get all the things they need to prepare for their own celebrations. Italians value family so much."

Start crossing names off your favorite foodies' Christmas lists at Scott's cheerful Stella Pastry (446 Columbus Ave.; 415/986-2914), with its cloud-painted ceilings and behind-the-register shrine to Marlon Brando. The must-taste here is the handsome sacripantina, an airy layered cake with Marsala wine-infused zabaglione filling ― have a slice with coffee or get a whole one to go as a gift.

A few doors down is Biordi Art Imports (412 Columbus; 415/392-8096), the deservedly loved Italian tableware and ceramics store. And on the corner is the National Shrine of St. Francis of Assisi (610 Vallejo St.; 415/983-0405), where free organ and carol concerts are offered at 4 on Sundays year-round. Also nearby are Molinari Delicatessen (closed Sun; 373 Columbus; 415/421-2337), for imported olive oils, cheeses, pasta, and salami, and Little City Meats (closed Sun; 1400 Stockton St.; 415/986-2601), an old-school butcher where you can order a special holiday roast.

Continuing north on Columbus, stop in for an espresso at Caffè Roma (526 Columbus; 415/296-7942) and check out the hand-picked selection of Italian wines. And don't miss Jean-Marc and Casimira Gorce's XOX Truffles (754 Columbus; 415/421-4814). Their charmingly lumpy, nugget-size chocolates make yummy gifts.

When you're ready for a meal, stash your parcels back at the car and settle in for casual, hearty fare. The sausages and polenta at Mario's Bohemian Cigar Store Cafe ($; 566 Columbus; 415/362-0536) are comforting in winter, as is the excellent roast chicken with coleslaw at Il Pollaio, a local favorite ($; closed Sun; 555 Columbus; 415/362-7727).

Buon natale

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