Sunday, January 30, 2011

The 'Italian' Streets of San Francisco

The streets of San Francisco are diverse, as diverse as the pieces of a puzzle, all marginally different, yet with the ability to fit together into the living fabric of a casual Friday. Here lies Chinatown with its tenement windows spilling over with life; the lively Castro District with its rainbow banner by the trolley stop announcing your arrival; the Tenderloin District with its vulnerable human quiver of homeless street dwellers, and the steep streets of the Russian Hill District stretching down to the Marina District and beyond to touristy Fisherman’s Wharf. For me, a sometimes visitor to this city by the bay, I find most appealing and feel most at home in the North Beach District, originally known as the Latin Quarter. This area quickly grew into the home of the Italian community following an enormous influx of Italians starting in the 1870s. Today, telling from the number of restaurants, delis, taverne (taverns), bakeries and coffeehouses, North Beach’s Columbus Avenue has become the Via Sacra (Sacred Way in the Roman Forum) to the city’s Italian culture.

Self exiled from ‘Bella Italia’, going on now for the last six months, I quickly felt comfortable among the trappings of Italy I found there, though some were as shallow as the veneer facade of a Hollywood set. Because of our indomitable will to believe, we sometimes respond as powerfully to fictions as we do to realities. So even though much was not authentic, I very much wanted to believe it was. It was refreshing to hear the hum of Italian conversation spoken over frothy cappuccinos and pastries by many of the locals holding court along a colonnade of street-side tables. As anecdotal evidence, the solid aromas and tastes of Italy permeated the area and included bruschetta, aglio-olio pasta fresca (fresh-made pasta with garlic and oil), tender veal shanks, ravioli, gnocchi, ricotta pie and those ever-present essential wedges of pizza.

Unfortunately, time prohibited us from being able to sample the cuisine of every establishment, though god only knows I'd have loved to. We had eaten at both 'Colosseo Ristorante' and 'Sodini's Trattoria' on an earlier visit. We had especially enjoyed Sodini's, though crowded and close, but found Colosseo to be touristy by half. I suspected there was not an Italian on the premises, let alone in the kitchen. So much for the authenticity of the place, beyond the requisite strings of garlic and bottles of olive oil that decorated the inside of this, I must admit, popular eatery.

Two eateries that we especially favored were 'Caffe Puccini' and 'GiGi's Sotto Mare Oysteria' (a play on 'Osteria' - a place where the owner 'hosts' people). Though we had planned to eat at Gigi's, we unfortunately never were able to make it. What I saver, however, was the brief visit I made to this seafood dining bistro, a scant street over from Columbus Avenue, hidden in plain sight on Green Street to be exact. The Sotto Mare (Under the Sea) is owned by none other than its namesake, Gigi Fiorucci, who is present in one form or another, be it as kitchen chef, waiting on a customer or ensconced outside at a street-side table. In fact, it was at a table by the Green Street curb where I got to meet this man of many talents and stories. I soon learned he is from the Marche region of Italy known for its mountainous terrain. His parents were farmers who worked this harsh landscape in order to coax it to yield enough to support a family of five. He is my age but other than that, all similarity ends. I doubt I can even boil water for pasta as well! He's one of those wiry sorts with no more than a 36" waistline, which at least to me is hard to believe, him being so close to food all day. I know if it were me, I'd be overweight more from my constant i gusti (sampling) indulgences then from any inactivity on my part. All I know is that my weight is perfect for my height, which varies! By the time our brief chat had ended, I sensed that little escaped his tough-guy eyes, which had observed the evolution of North Beach since he'd arrived at age eleven. Neither was he the sort to mince words. This was his turf after all and I but another tourist, camera and all. I'm guessing Gigi has seen it all, having been involved, one way or another, in thirteen other restaurants. Gigi admits that 'Sotto Mare' is his last and like the old-time restaurant pro he is, he's giving this last hurrah his all as evidenced by a full house of hungry customers at mid-afternoon.

Gigi's ostreia was a button of a place, deep and narrow like a diner with tables to one side and a stool-lined marble counter taking up the other. He’ll serve you up sumptuous meals on either side. Not seeing a hostess, I self-toured the place as though I was already a customer and walked from front to back taking in the feel as well as the aroma of the place. It certainly looked touristy from the overdone maritime paraphernalia adorning the walls. Captain Nemo had surly been their interior decorator, but after all, they do specialize in seafood there. Not the spot for quiet intimate dining either - more on the order of a lively Italian family kitchen where you'd expect shouts across the table to "gimme da baccala". They featured oysters of course ($1.50 each) and something called a 'sanddab' that had the appearance of an east coast flounder, but a fish with two eyes on top can fool anybody. Per the menu, they also claim to have the “Best Damn Crab Cioppino" with seafood ($33) or you might try the chef’s choice, "Risotto with Seafood" ($19). I'd recommend a seat at the counter sipping a Bellini ($8) while you decided. You need to try this place sometime and so do I.

Today, North Beach's Italian village is home to many artists and writers. We were fortunate to sit beside one in Caffé Puccini recently. We were informally introduced to the place by Gerald Hurtado. Gerald is a watercolor artist who happened to sit beside us one evening. Those of you who know me also know that that is a blatant invitation for me to start a conversation and I did just that. This character trait compliments my attempts at Italian immersion, which are more like a mosh-pit experience - I just jump in. It was Gerald who told us about this very special place, affectionately known as the "Pooch" and introduced us to its owner, Graziano Lucchesi. During the day, the mistress of ceremonies is his first cousin Deloris, whom we had met on our earlier visit.

Graziano hails from San Cassiano de Controni, a terraced, Tuscan medieval village just north and east of the beautiful walled city of Lucca. I discovered that many of the fellow restaurant owners of North Beach were also Lucca natives. His memories of childhood remain vivid. His zio (uncle) was the town's campanaro (bell ringer) and would take young Graziano up into the dizzying heights of the bell tower to show him how to ring the giant bell and how to crank the pulleys to raise the heavy weights that drove the clock mechanism - exciting stuff for a little kid. Besides school, there were chores to occupy his time. For example, their rabbits ate acacia leaves and he would pick them as he made his way home from school. Not much was overlooked, even pieces of firewood found alongside the road were brought home to store on the woodpile in addition to gathering wild mushrooms. This all ended when Graziano departed Italy for San Francisco at sixteen. He soon learned English while working as a restaurant busboy in addition to learning the butcher business while working at a meat market. One day his world suddenly changed when the former owner of Caffe Puccini approached Graziano with an offer he couldn’t refuse. He must have had, by then, the restaurant itch because he decided, then and there, to scratch it. He bought the business.

Caffé Puccini is today an institution on Columbus Avenue, not far from Gigi's place, and offers more than the name "Caffé" implies. In fact, the moniker "caffe" is disingenuous, it being easy to then limit your expectations of the place to simply a coffee house. We arrived in the increasing dimness of a rainy afternoon appreciative to be once again inside. The moment I entered, Puccini’s felt real to me; moored in an authenticity as real as Deloris and Graziano themselves. Their place has old-world magic that begins out front, street-side. You have to imagine streets clotted with life, a charming fusion of tall eucalyptus trees (I think) and cozy tables fighting for space amidst the bustle of humanity. It was Graziano himself who led the fight to allow outside tables and chairs on Columbus Street. Initially, City Hall was against it even though there were already restaurants around town with licenses for outside tables. North Beach it seems had little clout. The powers that be refused to consider expanding the program. Nevertheless, in an act of civil disobedience, Graziano went ahead and put tables and chairs out front anyway. Some of the other restaurants followed his lead. It took the city three months to catch on, come by and announce they needed to desist and remove their street-side arrangements. To counter their move, Graziano got public opinion in his corner by starting a petition eventually signed by 3000 people who liked the outside tables, so reminiscent of Italy. Then with the aid of a local mural artist, a painted cover added the finishing touch to what had become a book containing the petition. A delegation of owners and patrons delivered it to City Hall and with the help of a sympathetic local politician, it carried the day. Today, for those proprietors who choose to have them, you can enjoy a true café experience in North Beach, thanks to Graziano.

Caffé Puccini's layout is the opposite of the Sotto Mare. Here the interior is wide. Wide enough to have taken up two storefronts, all the while trading its width at the expense of depth. It has very high ceilings. Tiffany type light fixtures dangle from the ceiling above the counter. Like distended marshmallows, white pendent lamps dangle from the ceiling invoking an atmosphere torn from the cafes which line Venice’s St. Mark's Square. Beneath the lamps, all around the dining space, a Praetorian guard of regulars occupied themselves at table reading newspapers and jawboning while others partook of daily specials or with drama to demonstrate how it's done, shot back their heads, downing those stingy yet potent puddles of espresso. The limited counter space was taken up by the requisite hissing espresso machine set beside tilting towers of inverted coffee cups, rivaling Pisa's, and the coffee bean fuel itself, loaded in a transparent cone atop a ferocious looking grinding mill. An Italian tricolor awning added a finishing touch to the ambiance. The Pooch's high walls were bedecked with memories of far off Lucca, many depicting the favorite son Giacomo (Antonio Domenico Michele Secondo Maria) Puccini himself. Talk about a long name! Something of a jukebox affair, adorned with red Christmas bells, was notably absent the pop culture's latest hits. Instead it concentrated on Puccini operas like "La Bohème" and "Madame Butterfly" or the glamorous Maria Callas and gifted La Scala star Renata Tebaldi to set a mood.

But what of its cuisine? Our experience was that it was difficult to go wrong with anything on the menu, no matter what we tried. The menu, though limited, is augmented daily with specials. We’d eaten there on our last visit to San Francisco and recognizing the quality of the food, had returned. Here I can speak with three meals worth of authority! To give only the main instances, I had a sumptuous Tagleatelle al Cinghiale (tagleatelle pasta with wild boar sauce) one evening while Maria Elena enjoyed the Linguine Aglio e Olio. She was enjoying her Il primo (first course) so much that she kept repeating how good it was - the best she had ever had in fact. Her reaction flashed me back to that staple of a TV pasta jingle from years back that even today is hard to shake once it gets inside your head, "Ronzoni Sono Buoni!" (Ronzoni is So Good!). I was surprised to learn that the boar meat for my dish came from feral Russian boars from the nearby Mendasino - Lake Sonoma area. Graziano had hunted and bagged it himself and now I was one of the beneficiaries. No doubt his butchering skills had also proven handy. It got better still - our wine was an elegantly intense Volpaia Chianti Classico. We'd begun with antipasto and concluded with, what else but, homemade Tiramisu complete with liquor-soaked savoiardi (think 'ladyfingers'). You can now appreciate my ongoing battle with those conspiring weight-to-height charts! Mercifully, after such a large meal, the cups of coffee were small. I could have sat there propped back in satiated languor, observing and chatting with other diners for hours, but since we are all in time's grip, it had to end. Now once again returned home, I reminisce as I watch snow fall by recalling our time in Puccini's, a kind of warm and comfortable Italian getaway that just did it for me.

I'd much rather fly into the real past and on into the souk-like passageways of Calitri for a real fix of Italiana. However, way off in the streets of San Francisco, a city of Prius electric cabs and newborns named 'Nancy' (after Nancy Pelosi), residents are indeed fortunate to be able to enjoy the pseudo bona fides of Chinatown, or to biased me, the Italian culture of North Beach. It may be sinful to say, even think this but, non c’e amore piu’ sincero di quello del cibo (there is no love more sincere than the love of food). If such sincerity must yet remain unspoken taboo, thank god for Barbary Coast souls like Gigi and Graziano who think likewise, each in his own inimitable Italian style. I write down these accounts of my personal life because I know time soon steals the exact memory of what we did or what we said, but hopefully, I will always remember how passing souls like Gigi and Graziano made me feel.

That Rogue Tourist, Paolo

For related photos, click here on Eyes Over Italy. Look for and click on a photo album entitled “Italian Streets of San Francisco”.