In almost any city, it's possible to find a place that looks like a getaway but feels like home. North Beach in San Francisco is that place for me.
The steep hills, crisscrossing streets and clustered shops and restaurants all reflect the urban delights that make San Francisco distinct. Yet, the level of comfort here reminds me of home, found simply by walking around the neighborhood, sitting in Washington Square or dining in a favorite quiet Italian restaurant.
My 13-year-old stepdaughter, Dana, gave my husband and me her best huffy expression when we announced plans to spend a restful day in North Beach's Little Italy. Only the promise of a trip to nearby Ghirardelli Square for ice cream sundaes earned us her full cooperation.
But by day's end, even she had to admit that North Beach has a charming appeal, one she wouldn't mind experiencing again.
North Beach is a treasure trove for historians, writers, artists and, to a far lesser degree, baseball fans. After all, this is where Hall of Fame ballplayer Joe DiMaggio grew up. His name graces a playground on Lombard Street and the upscale Joe DiMaggio's Italian Chophouse on Union Street.
North Beach also has deep roots in the Beat movement, with alleys named for writers Jack Kerouac and Bob Kaufman. Most notable is City Lights, an institution among independent bookstores, where customers are encouraged to sit and read.
In the basement, Dana got a kick out of a door painted, "I Am the Door.
"Well, obviously," she quipped. To which I then explained far more than she wanted to know about poet and City Lights owner Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
From there we trekked to my favorite corner: Washington Square. On a warm day, the park is filled with sunbathers, dogs and the famed parrots of Telegraph Hill, who perch in the tall branches of the park's trees. Across the street sits the impressive Saints Peter and Paul Church. Inside are works of art reminiscent of the great Italian cathedrals, just on a smaller scale. A gold-dome painting hovers above a stunning high altar. Designed by Charles Fantoni, the 40-ton altar is made of Carrara marble, the same stone used for Michelangelo's David.
Equally impressive are the Coit Tower murals, depicting life in San Francisco and the city's working class. Even if you skip the elevator ride to the tower's top, you can still visit the rotunda murals for free.
As part of a Public Works of Art Project in the 1930s, 25 area artists created the mostly fresco murals. Some depicted scenes led the public to denounce the artists as communists; yet, in 2008, those murals had Coit Tower placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Parking is limited at Coit Tower, so expect delays of 10 to 20 minutes. Or if you have the stamina, try hiking up the steep Filbert Street Steps, which rise in three sections from Sansome Street. Along the way, you'll see handsome art-deco buildings and stunning views of San Francisco.
No stop to North Beach is complete without cannoli. A popular Sicilian dessert, cannoli are fried, tube-shaped pastry shells stuffed with a thick, sweet, creamy filling.
We trudged up Columbus Avenue so I could buy a few of my favorites at Mara's Italian Pastry shop. The cannoli there are nothing short of sinful. The sweet cream is packed with mini chocolate chips, and the cannoli come either plain or partially dipped in chocolate. Dana declared these even better than the ice cream sundae.
Mara's also serves generous portions of authentic gelato. Not to be confused with ice cream, this frozen treat has less fat and is churned more slowly, giving it a denser and smoother consistency. While Mara's sticks mostly with the basics, Gelateria Naia across the street is more imaginative, with flavors ranging from biscotti to Numi Tea Aged Earl Grey.
But before indulging in dessert, sample a little Italian comfort food for dinner.
Ristorante Ideale on Grant Avenue serves genuine Italian cuisine in American-sized portions, plus you'll find ample Italian wines.
A personal favorite of mine is Capp's Corner on Powell Street. My mixed heritage delights in this family-style Italian restaurant with Irish bartenders and San Francisco memorabilia. Large bowls of minestrone and salad are served first at the table, followed by generous entrees of pasta, chicken, beef or seafood. Try the lasagna; even my grandmother couldn't have found fault with this one.
And you can cap the night with laughs at Cobb's Comedy Club or Beach Blanket Babylon, San Francisco's longest-running musical-cabaret spoof show.
Or you can do as we did - make the slow walk back to the car, smiling as our 13-year-old asked when we would be coming back to North Beach.