The success and endurance of pioneering San Francisco restaurant Delfina might come down to a bowl of spaghetti: a humble, eternal dish served with warmth and simplicity night after night.
It still makes chef Craig Stoll marvel. “Our most famous dish is spaghetti with tomato sauce,” he says with pride and a little wonder. “But hey, if you want to come to a neighborhood restaurant, what do you want? You want a roast chicken, a steak, a bowl of spaghetti, a glass of wine.”
After 20 years on 18th Street, a James Beard Award for Best Chef Pacific, the opening of Valencia Street sister restaurant Locanda, and four Pizzeria Delfina locations (with a fifth on the way), Delfina is a lot more than a neighborhood restaurant. But for Craig and partner Annie Stoll, the front-of-house force behind Delfina, thinking of their restaurant as a dining room for locals, and treating all guests like neighbors, has kept their business alive.
“We didn’t do it to be in magazines,” says Stoll, “we didn’t do it to get awards — but that came, and it brought more butts in seats, which keeps the restaurant open.”
If anything, Delfina has redefined the concept of a neighborhood restaurant, with Annie establishing the informal but personal service that Bay Area diners have come to expect. Meanwhile, Delfina has fostered a neighborhood of its own, promoting the 18th Street corridor in particular and the Mission in general as a dining destination.
And more broadly, Craig and his kitchen have helped create a new regional dining style: Cal-Italian, a way of cooking that imagines the Bay Area as its own corner of Italy. That philosophy as encouraged by Delfina has made way for many new classics like A16 (2004), SPQR (2007), Flour + Water (2009), Cotogna (2011), and Che Fico (2018).
“When people said Cal-Italian in the days before Delfina, they were often thinking along the lines of Wolfgang Puck-ish stuff,” says longtime San Francisco magazine restaurant critic Josh Sens. “At Delfina, Cal-Italian meant a traditional Italian approach with local ingredients that still seemed distinctively old country.”
In 1998, years before 18th Street tourists lined up for Tartine morning buns and salted caramel ice cream at Bi-Rite Creamery, a young Craig and Annie Stoll were shopping for groceries at the recently reopened Bi-Rite Market. At the time, nearby Dolores Park was better known for nighttime crime and heroin sales than rosé all day picnics. In 2010, a veteran cop recalled the park’s bad old days: In the early and mid-’90s, shootings and stabbings were a weekly occurrence, he claimed.
And despite its well-established taquerias and some new restaurants like the Slanted Door (opened in 1995 and now located in the Ferry Building), from a dining perspective, the working class Mission was literally off the map. Hotel-room staple Where magazine would stop south of Market Street, excluding the neighborhood altogether.
Bi-Rite owner Sam Mogannam remembers 18th Street as a block rife with metal grates and empty storefronts. In 1998, a long-running cake shop, Carl’s — now Tartine — sat vacant on the corner of 18th and Guerrero. Dolores Park Cafe and Fayes Video had recently set up shop. A few doors down, at 3621 18th Street, a Brazilian restaurant, Canto do Brasil, announced it was for sale with a note taped in a window. Mogannam knew the Stolls were hoping to open a restaurant, and pointed out the vacancy.
“We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Sam,” says Annie.
After striking out with 17 banks, Annie and Craig secured a loan for $100,000 to open Delfina. They used their credit cards as collateral.
The Delfina of 2018 is a well-oiled machine: Outside, it glows from the street, and within, its energetic dining room purrs with conversation and laughter under bright pendant lights.
But in 1998, it was a different story. Initially, the restaurant was half its current size; its opening budget a shoestring. And rather than humming, with no soundproofing, the restaurant was a “shrieking hell hole,” as San Francisco Examiner critic Patricia Unterman wrote in her review. Wine was stored under banquettes, and the bathroom doubled as more storage space.
But if Delfina was overcrowded, at least it was crowded. “The idea, when we started looking, was to open a neighborhood restaurant our friends wanted to eat at,” says Craig. Those friends, and some new ones, showed up on day one.
“We were blown away from the day we opened,” says Annie.
“It’s like they were waiting for us to come,” says Craig.
Now, diners from all neighborhoods flock to the Mission. Five restaurants in the district hold Michelin stars.
“Places like Delfina and the Slanted Door helped make the Mission more of a dining magnet, which brought the type of people,” [read: the wealthy], “whose presence helped attract more and more ambitious and interesting restaurants,” says dining critic Sens.
There’s an upside to that dining boom: According to Bi-Rite’s Mogannam, on the 18th street block where there were just 30 jobs in 1998, there are now 300. But some, including politicians, see a downside. Citing decades of gentrification in the neighborhood — of which its dining scene might be a consequence and a cause — city legislators placed a legal cap on the number of restaurants in the Mission this year: 167. There are now more than 140.
Told one way, Delfina is a love story: A mid-’90s restaurant rom-com.
“On our first date, all we talked about was restaurants, and on our second date, we fantasized about opening our own restaurant together,” says Craig.
The couple eventually met after years of near misses. “We knew all the same people,” Annie recalls, “but we didn’t know each other... So I’d be hosting at Moose’s,” a restaurant favored by politicians in Washington Square that’s now Park Tavern, “and he’d come in to say hi to his friends in the kitchen.”
They finally collided in Mill Valley: She was running the Depot Cafe, a former railroad depot selling books and coffee, and he worked at the Frog and the Peach, a trendy new restaurant across the street.
“He had long hair — I just dismissed guys with long hair,” she says. “Then finally he cut his hair off, and I noticed him.”
At the Depot, Annie made Craig coffee, and convinced him to ask her out. It may not have been difficult. “I knew from the minute I met Annie that we would wind up dating,” says Craig.
If there’s a single secret to Delfina’s success, it might be the Stolls’ relationship.
“They make a damn good team, the two of them,” says Anthony Strong, a longtime Delfina chef who recently struck out on his own with a new restaurant, Prairie.
“One of my favorite things about Craig and Annie, and it tends to pass down through the ranks, is [the idea] that everything is important in a restaurant — that the food on the plate is as important as the greeting people get when they walk in the door.”
As dot-com companies boomed in ’98 and ’99 and high-end restaurants like Fifth Floor downtown and Bacar in SoMa courted a wealthy tech clientele, Delfina kept things informal.
“We didn’t have tablecloths, we played rock and roll — all that was unheard of,” says Craig. “We were in our 30s, and still to this day, I don’t feel particularly comfortable in a formal restaurant, with all the rituals and trappings.It didn’t appeal to me. But it seemed like people felt that, if they had a restaurant, they had to do that.” The Stolls disagreed.
To pay the bills while Delfina was being built, the couple kept their day jobs. Craig took catering gigs and worked part-time at elegant Rockridge Italian restaurant Oliveto, while Annie was a server and host at Scala’s Bistro downtown.
“I worked with some amazing people [at Scala’s] who, when they were at their tables, seemed very robotic,” she recalls. “They wore bowties, they were forced to wear a uniform... Some philosophies are that waiters are supposed to be invisible.”
“I would hang out with these people, whether it was at the wait station or after work, and they had these great personalities. So when I opened Delfina, I brought some of those people with me and I said, ‘I want those personalities to show at the table.’”
The idea: “If the server feels comfortable, the guest feels comfortable.”
Servers at Delfina rolled up their sleeves and showed off their tattoos. They advised tables on wine without immediately deferring to a sommelier. Annie chose her staff carefully: “The one compliment I get is that I know how to hire,” she says. But she also empowered her employees.
“There was nothing on the menu we didn’t get to taste; there were no wines on the menu that we didn’t get to try,” says Jeanine Gade, a longtime Delfina server.
“They took us as seriously as they took their chefs, which was a revelation for me. That didn’t happen at other restaurants that I worked at.”
When the first reviews rolled in, Delfina was a hit. “Michael Bauer gave us an amazing review and that kicked everything off,” Annie remembers. “Once he wrote about us, we started getting a lot of national press.”
“Who would have thought that such a little restaurant in the Mission would make such a splash?,” Bauer, the San Francisco Chronicle food critic, wrote in 1999, observing that “Stoll cooks as if he’s in Italy.”
Gourmet magazine took notice. Mark Bittman visited the “crowded box of a place” for the New York Times with his 13-year-old daughter in tow, celebrating the “simple but sensational food.” Years later, Bittman’s daughter went on to work at the restaurant.
Delfina, the Atlantic’s Corby Kummer wrote in 2001, had the simplicity of Chez Panisse, Oliveto, and Zuni Cafe, the same “basic Italian vocabulary, and desire to show off what’s local and freshest.” Food & Wine named Craig a best new chef for 2001.
Looking back, local critic Sens comes to a similar assessment. “Though it’s by no means the same in its national reach as Chez Panisse or even Zuni, I think of Delfina as something of a kindred spirit in its emphasis on really great seasonal ingredients prepared with incredible care but without a whiff of fuss.”
“We take that kind of approach for granted nowadays, but that wasn’t always the case, especially when it came to Italian cooking — which either tended toward the red-sauce Italian American joints of North Beach or more refined places like Acquarello. Delfina split the happy difference between the two.”
As Delfina and its reputation grew, the Stolls saved up and started to expand. Securing a loan from the Mission Economic Development agency, they annexed an old novelty shop next door, doubling Delfina’s size. They hired Douglas Burnham, the principal architect at Envelope A + D, to design the space: Now, they’ve used his work for 20 years and four more openings, plus their own Cole Valley home.
“We weren’t these businesspeople coming in and saying, ‘We’re gonna open five restaurants,’” says Craig. “The restaurants in the city, we basically bootstrapped them all — bank loans, and using the cash flow from one to open the other.” In today’s venture-capital-backed world of SF restaurants, that approach is increasingly rare.
In 2005, there was another vacancy on 18th Street, and the Stolls opened neighboring Pizzeria Delfina. “I like to joke that this was before there was an authentic Neapolitan pizzeria on every corner,” says Craig. Ahead of the opening, he went to Naples for a research trip, while Annie stayed home with their young daughter, now 16.
For Craig, inspiration from Italy is a chief ingredient. Delfina is named for Da Delfina, a restaurant in Tuscany where he staged. Craig worked all day and lived in the restaurant, which owner Carlo Cioni named after his mother Delfina. At the Culinary Institute of America, where Craig studied prior to his trip, “I was trained that everything was always French technique, so there was a lot to unlearn.”
When it was time to open his own restaurant, Craig wrote to Da Delfina’s manager to ask permission to use their name.
“It was such a big influence and big impact on the way I cooked that I wanted to pay tribute. He said, ‘Yes, as long as you make it clear they’re not associated.’”
By now, the association can’t hurt. Guests have bounced from one restaurant to the other, and Craig still sends chefs to stage at Da Delfina: Locanda chef Melissa Reitz was there this month.
“[Delfina] happened to happen at the same time that people became aware that there were regions of Italy,” says Stoll. He sought to imagine the Bay Area as one of them. “I was there and I’m thinking, ‘Oh, cool we’re working with wild fennel, we have wild fennel [in the Bay Area].’ We’re using borage flowers, and I’m like, ‘We have borage flowers [in SF], those are weeds, they grow in the cracks of the sidewalk in Cole Valley where I live.’ Or, we’re butchering little lambs and serving them, and I was thinking, ‘You see these all over in West Marin.’
“I wasn’t the first person or the only person to do it,” says Craig, citing restaurants like NYC’s Babbo, which also opened in 1998. “But I came back and started working it hard.”
At the first Pizzeria Delfina and all the rest (California Street, opened in 2008; Burlingame in 2013; and Palo Alto in 2014) a mural makes that metaphor literal, exchanging the San Francisco Bay for the Bay of Naples. A new mural at the next Pizzeria Delfina, which opens at 688 Mission Street next year, will do the same.
The Stolls have seen booms and busts before, but as they ready their next restaurant, there might be no harder time to do business in San Francisco. “We’re really lucky because we weathered through all those economic ups and downs,” says Annie. “We were still really busy — we weren’t a high-end restaurant — but it’s getting harder and harder in the city.”
Craig agrees. “I’d say it’s the hardest it’s ever been.”
“Costs are way up — we can’t raise our prices more than we have,” Annie explains. ”It’s hard to get staff, front and back.” After Locanda lost a string of managers, the team decided to close the restaurant two days a week.
“We’ve had a lot of ups and downs — it’s a really, really hard business,” says Craig.
Losing beloved staff has always been a blow. An owner of Range, Cameron West, worked at Delfina before leaving to open that restaurant, and much of the Stolls’ front-of-house team left to join him. That happened again with Flour + Water, whose opening crew included several Delfina servers.
That’s how it works, the Stolls have learned. They’ve matured and mellowed along with their restaurant. “In 20 years of doing something, you learn not just business, but how to treat people right,” Craig says.
“I always knew how to run a restaurant,” says Annie. “But I didn’t know how to run a company.” Now, Delfina has 300 employees, and half her job is working with her HR director to ensure strict compliance with California labor law. It’s a lot of paperwork.
Delfina’s food, for all its classics, has evolved, too. “We’ve been able to get more and better products. Nobody had burrata; you couldn’t get burrata when we opened,” says Craig.
“A dish will evolve over the course of years — that fucking chicken that’s still on our menu, that we just can’t get rid of, because people love it... even that’s evolved over the years. What I try to teach constantly is to look at everything you do critically every day.”
During a kitchen remodel in January, the team installed a wood-fired grill. “The same steak that we’ve had on the menu, it’s better than it ever was: We’ve got a new beef source, a wood grill. You never let your foot off the gas pedal.”
“It’s just like service,” says Annie. “It’s never robotic.”
Difficulties aside, when the doors open every night, the Stolls still get a rush. “It feels like we’re about to throw this amazing party,” says Annie.
The guest list is varied. After so many years, Delfina is a tourist destination where celebrities like Kylie Jenner stop in for dinner — but it’s still a cornerstone of its neighborhood, as the Stolls intended.
“There’s a family that lives behind us, they’re still here, and when we were building the restaurant, their kids were 4 and 6 years old,” Annie remembers. “Those two kids worked for us, one in the kitchen, one in the front — they babysat our kid for us, our own kid. And now they’re grown, and going to have kids of their own.”
“People have celebrated births and marriages here,” says Craig.
Now, it’s time for an anniversary. On November 19 and 20, the restaurant will feature a special menu, live music, and champagne for the occasion.