The local papers will soon be writing about some of the public places to catch World Cup 2006 in Germany, which starts this Friday and culminates in the final on July 9. The local press’ regular favorite public hangout for watching any of the 64 matches is the Steps of Rome. But if you want to chant “Forza Italia!” in style, with a good espresso in hand (most matches are broadcast live in the morning), and at an establishment that truly appreciates the finer details of soccer, pass on the Steps of Rome and check out Panta Rei further up Columbus Ave.

This very-Italian North Beach restaurant has generally inexpensive food that’s better than most of the fare in the area. Sure, there are barkers in front. But it’s a great spot for people-watching, and it’s about the only legitimate spot in SF for watching Italian soccer on a big screen TV (this is particularly true during the regular season of Italian league soccer: the staff here aren’t pretenders as at Steps of Rome). Being on a sharp corner, the restaurant is wedge-shaped, with open windows all along Columbus alongside ample sidewalk dining under a blue and white awning.

Panta Rei's bar Panta Rei readies for the WC with a 1-1 friendly draw between Italy and Switzerland

So how’s the espresso? They use a two-group La Spaziale behind the bar to pull espresso shots that are served in measured shotglasses (though sometimes they use ceramic cups). The resulting shot is the proper size (just over the one-ounce line) and has a pale crema of decent thickness. Despite its good looks, it lacks any punch: it has a muted flavor of mild spice and some herbs. Still, a worthy stop in North Beach for some espresso, food, and classic Italian alcoholic drinks.

Italian NT loyalties proudly on display out front Panta Rei literally serves shots of espresso

As for the soccer? Italian soccer is in crisis mode these days — on the heels of key player injuries to the national team and a massive domestic league match-fixing scandal that has consumed the entire nation. And while some of you may be surprised that I’m pulling most for Portugal in the WC, Italy ranks right up there among my favorites and I will undoubtedly find a seat at Panta Rei to watch them during the next month.

Read the review.