Science Experiment: My Dinner at Caffe Cozzolino

Restaurant of Mystery

The news that the mysterious old Old Clam House has been transformed into the mysterious new Old Clam House prompted a discussion in the comments about another timeless (and mysterious) Bernal Heights restaurant: Caffe Cozzolino on Folsom Street, at the southwest corner of Precita Park.

Caffe Cozzolino is a spacioius Italian restaurant blessed with an unbelievably ideal location, but the place is never, ever crowded. In fact, it usually looks empty. And since it is always empty and suffers from horrific word-of-mouth, one part of the mystery is this: How does Caffe Cozzolino stay in business?

I live around the corner from Cozzolino. I’ve walked by it hundreds of times. But I’ve never dared to eat there. Someday, however, someone might swoop in to purchase Caffe Cozzolino and transform the space into the dining hotspot that the location so wants to become. In the name of science and inquiry, I felt obliged to sample the current cuisine, so that I might have a first-hand opinion to express if that scenario ever comes to pass.

Thus with an open mind and a spirit of adventure, I took my 3.5 year-old daughter on a date to Caffe Cozzolino. My simple hope was that the restaurant would serve up solid Italian-American cuisine. That means Italian food that’s less Mario Batali and more Tony Soprano. (I grew up in New Jersey, so I think I have a fair palette for that kind of grub.) Joe’s of Westlake does this well. Pasta Pomodoro franchised a totally acceptable version of it. Emmy’s Spaghetti Shack elevated it to a form of street art.

But Caffe Cozzolino doesn’t come close to pulling it off. I kept it simple by ordering spaghetti and meatballs. Spaghetti and meatballs! A staple! Here’s how it looked:

Spaghetti Cozzolino

Lovely parsley. So how did it taste? Frankly, rather ungood. I’m convinced the sauce came from a can — and a very cheap can. I’ve had better spaghetti and meatballs at truck stops, sad to say.

My daughter ordered a pizza from the kid’s menu:

Pizza Cozzolino

It was okay. No real complaints. But no inspiration either.

Put simply, the food at Caffe Cozzolino is unlikely to generate many wails of Proustian nostalgia if the restaurant were to close. That part of the mystery is now resolved. But the mystery of how Caffe Cozzolino remains in business endures.

67 thoughts on “Science Experiment: My Dinner at Caffe Cozzolino

  1. Man, so how come they couldn’t have bought THIS place and changed it up instead of doing it to the Old Clam House, which was already fooking awesome and didn’t NEED any meddling.

  2. The household name for this place is “Music For Italian Restaurants” since that’s what was actually in the tape player when we went there…

    Does it still have the player piano?

  3. I first stepped into this space around 1980. At that time it appeared there was no “owner”. Rather it was a hippie coffee and hangout collective. Most people were barefoot, and stayed forever. There was no such thing as service as the coffee menu and the food menu were whatever someone was making. I forgot the name of it back then. It was one of the last of its kind. I got the sense that the collective that ran it lived upstairs? I know that the NE section of Bernal was full of hippies in the late 60’s and 70’s, and some it was latino hippies. Carlos Santana grew up and grew his bands in NE Bernal.

    I think that Dennis Perin (?) the infamous 420 dealer in the Castro who bankrolled Harvey Milk’s campaigns still had is “Islands” open at 16th and Sanchez on the SE corner covering what is now Tangerine to all 3 stores there now. Islands was a coffee house, beer joynt. Some live nights jazz started around 8:30pm Poetry at 9:30pm and Rock around 10:30pm. All that for the cost of a cup of coffee. Place was packed and fun.

  4. It was a very nice neighborhood bar called the Precita Park Cafe in the late 70s. In the early ’80s it was purchased by a small collective and renamed the Mission Blue Cafe, and it was the site of many political and musical events. It was a great place then.

    I also have not been to Cozzolino for quite a long time, but my recollection is that it is own and operated by a Uruguayan family.

  5. Any update from Gordon Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares people, Nina?

    This has to be one of the best candidates for that show in all of SF.

  6. go visit Stefano at Stefano’s (30th & dolores) for the scoop on this place (which he at some point co-owned or managed or something), long story short they were serving frozen safeway lasagna etc

    • How is Stefano’s? This is another place like Cafe Cozzolino… never tried it but curious…

      • Stefano’s isn’t bad. The owner is a little cranky but he knows how to put out perfectly creditable basic Italian dishes. I’d say the food is roughly on-par with Emmy’s, without the hipster factor or liquor licence. It has assuredly not the weird deal that Cafe Cozzolino is.

      • Stefano’s is a sweet place, very kid-friendly too. Their butternut squash ravioli with brown butter and sage is stellar!

    • And Stefano’s, while not awful or anything (I’ll give it a B-) uses Safeway’s French bread and Safeway’s garlic spread.

    • Pretty much. I’ve eaten there twice now and was completely underwhelmed. Its priced for what decent Italian goes for in the city, but is just mediocre. I’d probably go there a lot more if they cut the prices in half, but otherwise its not really worth it.

  7. I have had this idea to go and talk to the cozzolino owners, and see if they’d be interested in doing a mission-street-food ( sort of experiment in their space once a week, featuring local or aspiring chefs. I don’t have the time or energy (or experience!) to pull it off right now, but if anyone is interested in cooking up some ideas together, i’m in!!

  8. Always wanted to eat there. Maybe on my next pilgrimage home to BH I can have dinner there and then for breakfast the next morning….Silver Crest!!! 🙂

      • Dear god, that place frightens me. I think this has something to do with the phrasing “We Never Close,” which seems more ominous than, say, “Always Open.”

        Also, I think you can smell it through closed car windows as you drive past at 35 mph.

      • As I understand it the family has owned the land and building for years. No overhead, and a small but loyal old timey clientele

    • Silver Crest is one of these places that could SO easily be AWESOME, but it falls really short. It is overpriced, and the food is not good, and it smells WEIRD in there. Maybe like plant food? Not really sure what.

      But decor-wise it is kind of awesome. It LOOKS like something out of a Tom Waits song or a Jim Jarmusch film. Complete with a bank of ancient not-really-pinball machines (sort of a cross between pinball and pachinko? I think they were originally kind of a gambling thing).

      I really, REALLY do not understand how it stays in business. I went there recently, thinking/hoping that it would have improved in the 11 years since I had been there last. but, alas, it had not. It had just gotten more expensive and marginally more decrepit.

      That being said? It could certainly do with the full TelStar Photo Documentation Package.

      • Oh, that is a good one. But the ancient nicotine-brown menu on the wall and the weird donut case full of house plants are also sights-to-see.

        I guess they survive by dint of the bar on the other side? But even that doesn’t seem like it would/does draw enough business to pay for the operation as a whole. It is just a weird place all-in-all.

      • Last time I ate breakfast there, maybe 2005?, the people on the bar side outnumbered the people on the diner side 2 to 1 at 7:30am on a weekday. Which makes me think the morning/daytime drinkers might be keeping it in business? Truck drivers from the nearby Bayshore warehouse district?

      • I ate breakfast there a month or two ago. Ordered the French Toast, it was surprisingly expensive, I want to say about $8? It consisted of four slices, normal-white-bread, so really thin and kind of limp. No sides. French toast itself was definitely not up to make-it-at-home quality, even, but not actively BAD. I mean, if I had paid $3 for it I would have felt that I was getting what I had paid for. But at eight bucks? Not so much.

        I think that it also had a huge dollop of what I *THINK* was margarine (as opposed to butter, I mean), but I scraped that off to the side, since I don’t like margarine. Also it looked really nasty .

      • I am trying to remember a small store…think it was Bald Eagle Sporting Goods or Bald Eagle Sports next to Skips Tavern (this was back in the mid 70’s)that had those machines in the back. When I was a kid, the guy who ran the place would give us some change when we won something or hit a certain score on the machine.

      • Over the years there have been a bunch of rock videos done at the Silver Crest. I think Chris Issak, The Movie Stars and recently an indie bank you featured here, all had MTV like videos shot inside there.

      • Eating at Silver Crest is a slightly frightening and extremely David Lynchian experience. As shown in someone’s photo, they have 4 pinball machines that are ALL THE SAME. The place mainly exists as a late-night hangout for hookers and cab drivers. As someone who really embraces and downright loves a dive, I plan *never* to go there again.

    • We actually had a fun time at Silvercrest, just for the experience (the food was edible diner fare, but nothing remarkable, of course). Cozzolino, not so much. It was wretched, but we did see two or three takeout pizzas go out the door.

      • Their potstickers are actually decent. I wouldn’t go out of my way for them, but they’re definitely preferable to Cozzolino’s pathetic chicken parm.

      • I think we need to compile a list of what to order at Bernalwood’s Weirdest Restaurants.

        Chinese place = Potstickers
        Old Clam House = lost Cioppino
        Cozzolino = Pesto chicken pizza, cabonara
        Silver Crest = ???

      • How about Deli Pub on Cortland and Bocana? Maybe not mysterious or weird enough. We had friends who swore by it. My wife went once and said it was really, really expensive (for sandwiches) and that there were ants on the ferns. Yelp reviews are alternatively glowing and hating.

    • I’ve eaten there, but not in at least ten years. The main thing I remember is that there were two caged finches, one at either end of the restaurant, and they were singing to each other, which was kind of pretty.

      The other thing I remember is that I stopped eating there because every time I did I felt sick afterward.

    • Ate at the Chinese once or maybe even twice when we moved in 14 years ago. Not inedible, but no reason to ever go back. Ever.

      • ya! great article, i was going to post it when someone mentioned silver crest and i kept scrolling down and was so happy i did not have to loook for it myself! maybe the food is not great and not cheap, but open 24 hours that is definitely worth something!

  9. So the neighborhood boycott of Cozzalino remains justified. Oh well. I ate there two years ago and it was just the same, like food from a can. I assume the owners are already rich since they don’t seem to need a successful business.

  10. whenever I find a place like the one you described I begin to wonder if perhaps it’s a front business or something. There’s a few places on the westside that are like that too – no one’s ever there but they’ll never close!

  11. maybe someone will start a kickstarter project to take over ownership of the place! in a town like this, in that location, what a shame. The comment about safeway lasagna is hilariously sad

    i know quite a few people that get takeout from the chinese place on Cortland, but i think Jasmine Tea House ( is actually good, so i have never managed to go for it

  12. You might try Giovanni’s Pizzeria & Italian. Since Pizza Express fell off the cliff we’ve gotten pizza there. Last time the adults had pastas. Not as precious (in quality or cost) as Emmy’s, but I like having a spot like this in the neighborhood.

  13. Cozzolino defies belief. Surely there is some principle of eminent domain which will allow the city to buy it and sell to a more motivated restaurateur. It’s literally the only restaurant that’s an easy walk from my house, and I would never go there again.

    My neighbors quite happily eat there regularly, though. I’ll have to remember to ask them what they order.

  14. The pizzas at Coz at really good!!! I think you’re being too hard on them though I wish it were better.

  15. My wife and I went to Cozzolino about 5 years ago. Bewildering food, I think my pasta had tinned vegetables in it, (carrots!) and the dessert had squirty cream from a can. We noticed the only other folks in the restaurant were eating something decidedly off menu which looked Mexican or more probably Uruguayan, and a deal better than our dinner.
    Maybe that’s the secret.

  16. As an aside, if people are willing to venture off the hill for Italian food, I can heartily recommend La Traviata on Mission between 25th and 24th.

    My personal favorites there are the Gnocchi and the Salmon in parchment. Yum!

  17. A.) David hasn’t had the pesto pizza he liked at Cafe Cozzolino in about 15 years.
    2.) Hunan Chef used to have its Cheap Eats review in the window, and the headline was “Hunan Chef Doesn’t Suck” and I’d agree. People regularly get take-out there, even though the place is empty. For us, it’s super close and a source of war wonton soup when we’re sick and lazy.
    C.) If you are going to go to the Silver Crest Donut Shop (Bar), I recommend going on April 23, which is Greek Orthodox St. George’s Day. The owner (George) will celebrate his Saint name day by pouring shots of ouzo to those who come in. Since there’s really not much in the way of drink selection, you can chase that with a bottle of Budweiser.*

    *We discovered this by accident one fateful April 23rd, but went back another year to confirm it. Ouzo and Budweiser is a recipe for disaster, but it will be a disaster with several interesting stories attached.

  18. Don’t they own the building?

    I think they do. And I think it has been for sale intermittently over the last five to six years. That is how they stay in business with their horrid food. Yes, horrid. You cannot serve Oscar Meyer Baloney for antipasti, for example.

    So until somebody buys the building it won’t be anything good. Sorry but I’m not following the Italo-American –> Joe’s —> Pasta Pom –> Emmy’s progression one bit. Joe’s, which I like and is good, OK. The other two don’t belong there.

    • Mmm, Emmy’s is yummy.

      But not really an italian restaurant.

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