Restoration Begins on the Mural

Sean & Lapo Donning Gloves to Lift the Mural None for Me!

Saturday was a day of truth. Could North Beach handyman Sean O’Donnell put the mural pieces back together again? I really wasn’t sure.

The muralist Vranas and I joined Della and Lapo at their Emerald Tablet art workshop and gallery to help Sean lift the heavy mural onto his operating table.

North Beach Artist Howard Munson--Upside Down Mural Now What?








We placed the mural side down so Sean could work on the backside. He had to remove the drywall from the studs. Then he had to align the two pieces so that the image on the other side lined up perfectly. “If the seam doesn’t match perfectly I may not be able to repaint it,” Vranas warned.

Sean has to work blind. Fine measurements were checked, Sean reached underneath to feel the seam. “How is he going to be able to do this?” I thought. “He can’t see the face of the mural.”

I ran across the street to the gift shop at the National Shrine of St. Francis. Pulcinella was with us but we needed more firepower. I bought a statue of Assisi of St. Francis in an  “illumination” pose and put him facing the mural on the table where the mural fragments were laid. Maybe he will help enhance Sean’s perception.

The Reinforcements Have Arrived!

When we all gathered on Sunday I was taken aback as I entered the back gallery. Sean’s expert repair looked beautiful to me. “Your a genius,” I told him. “You put it all back together again!” We agreed on a plan to flip the mural. The moment of truth had arrived. Will all the pieces be properly aligned?

Della & Sean Inspecting the Seam






Oh my God it worked! The mural is back in one piece. Della and Sean meticulously checked the seam where the circular saw ripped the mural in two. This was a critical area. If the two pieces weren’t perfectly joined the restoration might be doomed.

Vranas walked the mural, stopping here, running a finger over the surface there. “It’s a miracle, everything fits perfectly,” he exclaimed. “Thank you St. Francis,” I mumbled to myself. I still don’t believe that Sean was able to accomplish this feat. “Bravo,” we all yelled in unison. Now the restoration of the mural could start. Sean packed up his tools and turned the project over to Vranas and Della.

Vranas & Della Aligning Fragments

“You like puzzles?” Vranas asked as I stood over him. He and Della were gluing the small fragments into place. Once the adhesive cured they would carefully join them to the mural.

The Corner is Back!

There was a void in the upper corner that Della filled with plaster. The large corner fragment and a hang-nail piece flapping freely on loose webbing could both be attached. This is the last marriage for today. We’ll let everything cure for 24-hours. When we come back on Tuesday Vranas and Della will attach the rest of the fragments and fill the remaining voids.

Vranas will bring his paints and if possible he’ll start repainting the parts that we glued in place today. I can’t wait.

Gotta be done in just 5 more days.


Weekend Recipe: Cavatelli with Arugula

Cavatelli with Arugula & Holy Oil in the Spoon

My mother made fresh cavatelli often, “gavadeal” in the argot of my southern Italian Jersey neighborhood. I’m making it with dried cavatelli from a small producer in Naples. Just 2 ingredients, durum wheat semolina flour and water. The pasta is extruded through a bronze die and dried in the slow, traditional way. The bronze die gives it “la lingua di gatto”, the rough feel of a cat’s tongue that helps the sauce adhere to the pasta. The pasta is the star of this dish so use the best from Italia.

When I lived in Rhode Island the same pasta was called cavatieddi or as my RI Italian-American friends say “cavati”. I made the pasta in anticipation of friends coming to San Francisco this weekend. Carol is bringing a “machine” from Rhode Island to make fresh cavati. Can’t wait to see this contraption.

Anyway, here’s the recipe for this really tasty, healthy and simple pasta from the southern Italia region of Apuglia. They love pasta with wild, bitter greens. I didn’t have time to forage so I used baby arugula. No garlic here! The full flavor of the al dente cavatelli  balances the peppery arugula and the grated pecorino ties it all together. A simple, pristine and full-flavored pasta ready to eat in the time it takes to boil water and cook the pasta! Olio sante (holy oil) makes this dish even better. Add a drop or two to your plate of pasta and a tear or two will follow. No hot oil no tears. I like the tears but you decide. Buon appetito!


Note–If you can’t find hot peppers packed in olive oil you can make your own. Put a couple of small red hot peppers in a jar and cover with a cup of EVOO. Let steep for about a week. Add a few drops of the golden red oil to any dish to bring a tear or two to your eye as you eat.

Pulcinella Mural Restoration Plan Hatched

Song of Pulcinella in Pieces

I checked in with Della and Lapo at Emerald Tablet Sunday morning. They’ve been instrumental in crafting our Song of Pulcinella mural restoration plan. We started to get our heads around the project. We need a carpenter. We need to talk to Vranas, the artist who created the mural. We need to get the restoration done quickly on a near zero budget.

I’ve met Vranas in North Beach caffes over the years, but I didn’t really know him. He’s lived in the Village, on and off, for decades. North Beach is home to four Vranas murals – the incredibly detailed Roman Forum at Viva, the Greek farm scene above Nature Stop’s produce case, the life-size portraits of great Irish writers at O’Reilly’s and the newest one, the one we almost lost – The Song of Pulcinella.

Sunday night we met at the gallery. Vranas saw his wrecked mural for the first time. He cried when he told me he was surprised anyone would try to save it. We’ve lost a lot of North Beach over the years. I didn’t want to add Vranas’ mural celebrating Napoli to the list of things that once were.

Lapo, Vranas, Gianni & Pulcinella (shot by Della)

Vranas said the mural could be made whole again. When I left hours later I was energized. Out of respect for one of North Beach’s great artists, Song of Pulcinella has to be put back together and hung in a place of honor for all to enjoy.

Next, I called North Beach handyman, Sean O’Donnell. I told him my story and asked if he could help. “I know Vranas. I’ll meet you at the gallery tonight. We’ll see.”

Vranas and Sean inspected the mural and explored options for putting it all back together. Vranas talked about imagining the work and how he created it. (Google Earth inspired the city part of the mural.) “Be careful with this raised edge” he warned Sean, “or we lose the trompe l’oeil.”

Restoration ideas filled the gallery. A plan was emerging. No power tools, so the studs may stay. Plywood backing to stabilize the drywall. The two big pieces reunited from behind and the fragments re-attached. Plaster to fill the gaps. We all agreed. Easy, huh? We’ve got two weeks to get the restoration done. I think this North Beach gang just might have a shot at it. Pulcinella is watching, you know.

Sean will start work on the mural Saturday. We’ll all be there. Stop by and say hello.


Saving Vranas’ Song of Pulcinella Mural

Pulcinella by Neapolitan Maestro Ugo Esposito

“Mean, vicious, and crafty, his main mode of defense is to pretend to be too stupid to know what’s going on, and his secondary mode is to physically beat people.” – Wikipedia entry for Pulcinella

A new mural was going up last year at the North Beach pizzeria and ristorante, Pulcinella. I stopped by once in a while to check on the muralist, Vranas’, emerging homage to Napoli,  “Song of Pulcinella.” Pulcinella is the 17th century commedia d’arte character adopted by Neapolitans as their own.

I remember the night we sat under the just completed mural featuring the ancient city and a smoking Vesuvio on the Bay of Naples, eating a great dinner. Neapolitan songs were in the air, mandolin strains drifted from the trio right in front of us. I glanced up and there he was – Pulcinella in all his glory beaming down at me.

When I learned the pizzeria was closing I emailed Mauro Caputo who was overseeing the close-out of the space to find a way to save the mural. It was too late.

I got Mauro’s response the next morning: “Ciao Gianni, unfortunately I just read your email, the mural is already on the floor, we took it off this morning early. Buona Giornata.” Oh no! I rushed up to Pulcinella right after work.

Here’s what I found when I arrived. The whole back wall which the mural had been painted on had been cut out with a circular saw. The mural was in two large sections and there were pieces missing. Mauro and I scoured the floor to find more chunks of the mural. We matched a corner here a border there like making a jigsaw puzzle.

The landlord wouldn’t let us leave the mural there. We had to get it out in 24 hours. What can I do with a 15×6 foot piece of wall, studs and all, weighing a few hundred pounds? The clock was ticking and I didn’t have a clue. I wasn’t even sure we could put all the pieces back together.

I hit the sidewalk. I was on a mission. I saw Howard, a North Beach artist, on the corner. I told him my story and asked him to come with me to view the mural. He said the mural could be saved and it should be saved for all to enjoy. I said I had a place in the Mission where I could temporarily store the mural.

Waiting for the light at Columbus Street with the small piece of the mural.

“No, keep the mural in North Beach. It will be easier to restore here,” he said. Now I needed a plan.

Howard suggested some places where I might move the pieces while we figure out how to restore it. I stopped at a dozen places. It was an Open Studios weekend and there was no room anywhere. People were talking about the fate of the mural as I walked the Village looking for temporary shelter. One more place to try on the edge of the Village. I introduced myself to Della and Lapo at the busy Emerald Tablet, a new North Beach art workshop/gallery and explained my plight. My new allies told me I could bring the pieces there for a few days as I worked out a restoration plan.

Yipee! But how do we get the mural pieces to the gallery? It was only a few blocks away. We can roll it there I thought. I searched the Village for a furniture dolly. John at Focus Gallery on upper Grant had one that I could use.

One of the hottest days of the year and I have to push a wall 3 blocks with hills and balance it on this tiny dolly so it doesn’t tip and smash on the sidewalk. We slowly made our way. Traffic had to stop for us it took so long to make it across Columbus Avenue. Sweaty, dirty, thirsty we finally set the mural pieces in the back of the gallery space.

“Song of Pulcinella” is not smashed in a dumpster. The mural is safe for now. We saved it with 18 hours to spare thanks to my North Beach friends and neighbors. Sometimes it does take a village. And thank you for your help too, Pulcinella!

I’ll keep you posted on the restoration. Hopefully the mural will be installed somewhere in North Beach for all to enjoy. Any thoughts on where it should live?


Friday Recipe: Roasted Pork Tenderloin & Toy Box Tomato Salad

Roasted Pork Loin & Toy Box Tomato Salad

The toughest part of this meal is cutting the toy box tomatoes in half. You can be eating dinner in about an hour.

The crusty, tender slices of pork tenderloin are bathed in a pan sauce scented with garlic, sage and rosemary. The marinated toy box tomato and cucumber salad served over a bed of baby arugula is the perfect simple side.

Just marinate the tenderloin as you make the tomato salad. Brown the pork on top of the stove and roast in a hot oven. Slice and serve with the tomato salad on the side. Add a crusty loaf of bread and a bottle of sangiovese, aglianico or other zesty red and you’re all set. Buon appetito!



St. Francis Piazza Coming Soon?

View Down Columbus from Near the Proposed St. Francis Piazza Site

I ran into former Supervisor Angela Alioto at last Sunday’s Italian Heritage Parade. I asked her about the long-anticipated project to build a piazza in North Beach. She said something definitive would be announced very soon. I think she was referring to Carl Nolte’s Native Son column in today’s Chronicle.

Here’s the piazza story.

San Franciso’s first Poet Laureate, City Lights Bookstore owner and North Beach resident Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Angela Alioto, a devoted follower of Saint Francis of Assisi, teamed up to bring religion and art together in the Dennis Sullivan-designed St. Francis Piazza. The piazza will celebrate the long and proud marriage of the sacred and the profane in our Village – represented by Saint Francis and poets.

After more than 5 years of debate, fund-raising, and City approvals the vision will soon be realized. Private funding should be fully in place by early 2012 and construction of the much anticipated piazza in front of St. Francis of Assisi National Shrine (Vallejo between Columbus/Grant) may start sooner than that.

I’ll keep you posted. But first here’s Lawrence talking about his Piazza vision.

I can’t wait to be sitting with you on a Saturday afternoon under the olive trees sipping a Caffe Trieste espresso and listening to live Italian music.

A North Beach Treasure Lost

Pulcinella Wares For Sale

I heard it on the street Thursday when I returned to the Village from a few days on the Sonoma Coast – Pulcinella is closing. I’m in mourning. We’re losing another North Beach treasure. Our Neapolitan hosts were passionate about the food of Naples. Pulcinella cooked up great street food, fried antipasti treats, true Neapolitan pizza and pastas. The passing of Pulcinella reminds me to be passionate about supporting what’s left of North Beach before it’s all gone. It happened in New York City, Chicago, Newark. Once vibrant Italian neighborhoods all over America have disappeared.

I cringed when I saw the Chronicle’s Inside Scoop post. Its harsh cynicism brought a tear to my eye.

Mauro, Dario and Fabio did a great job and we will miss them dearly. I caught up with Mauro today to wish him buona fortuna and to say good-bye. The pizzeria’s owner in Naples is ill and decided to close this San Francisco outpost. Pulcinella had a good run. I’m happy the boys from Napoli were with us for the last couple of years.

Here’s how I’ll remember Pulcinella:

Weekend Recipe: Sonoma Sole

Petrale Sole in a Caper White Wine Butter Sauce

We drove up to Sea Ranch on the Sonoma/Mendocino coast. I was exhausted from driving the switchbacks in the rain and fog and wanted something fast to cook for our dinner. The fishmonger in Gualala had some really fresh petrale sole.

I quickly sauteed the sole in olive oil and butter and poured a caper white wine pan sauce all over.

A little steamed broccoli with EVOO, sea salt and lemon was a great side.

The sole filets take on a golden crust and are flakey and moist. The edges are crisp and nutty. The caper butter sauce gently enhances each bite. The mellow broccoli spears round out the plate. A really quick and healthy lunch or dinner.

The sole recipe is below and here’s the broccoli recipe from my Vegetable eBook.

Sautéed Sole with a Butter/Caper Pan Sauce


  • 1 lb. sole, flounder or other flat fish
  • 1/4 cup flour
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2 tablespoons capers, rinsed
  • 1/4 cup dry white wine
  • sea salt & freshly ground pepper to taste
  • 1 tablespoon chopped Italian fresh parsley
  • lemon slices, as garnish


  1. Put a saute pan over medium-high heat and add the olive oil and butter.
  2. Sprinkle salt and pepper the fish.
  3. Lightly dredge the fish in flour. Shake off any excess.
  4. When the butter is melted saute the fish until a golden crust begins to form, a minute or two on each side, depending on the thickness of the fillet.
  5. Remove the sautéed fillets to a serving platter.
  6. Turn the heat to high.
  7. Add the white wine to the pan, scrape the fond on the bottom of the pan and stir to dissolve the brown bits.
  8. Add the capers to the pan and stir until the sauce thickens, about a minute.
  9. Pour the sauce over the fillets, sprinkle with parsley, scatter the lemon slices about.
    Serve immediately.

Village News/Sunday Recipe: Great Parade & Roasted Rosemary Chicken

Foam Painting at Caffe Puccini

What a day–the fog finally burned off as we headed down the hill to North Beach’s Caffe Puccini to watch the 143rd Italian Heritage Parade–the oldest in the country. Hundreds were lining the parade route already. The tables set up in the street all over the Village were starting to fill up.

We were early. We needed espresso before the party started. Here’s what they gave us. Wasn’t that long ago at Caffe Puccini when a customer asked the barista Antonello for a decaf cappuccino with skim milk he’d scoff “Whaddaya think this is–a pharmacy?” They only had regular coffee and whole milk back then. Not any more–they make it all.

Gianni's Italian Heritage Parade Table

Parade Sunday I always have this table right inside the windows at Caffe Puccini. San Francisco and New York City friends and fans joined my table–a great group drawn together by the biggest Village event of the year.


My Annual Parade Lunch

Graziano didn’t disappoint–antipasti with roasted peppers, fried eggplant, prosciutto, mozzarella fresca with sundried tomato to start. Everyone ordered whatever they wanted after that.


For me it’s always the same meal–an annual tradition. Here’s Graziano’s lasagna alla bolognese–rich and cheesy with that long-cooked brick red meat sauce. The chicken is simply roasted with potatoes and rosemary and is today’s Sunday Recipe. The Volpaia Chianti Classico is one of my favorites. It sold out fast but we got Graziano’s last bottles stashed behind the bar. An absolutely delicious lunch.

North Beach Italian Heritage Parade


By the time we finished the parade appeared before us. Here’s Queen Isabella’s float accompanied by her Court.

Hope to see you at the Parade next year. Enjoy my adaptation of Graziano’s Tuscan chicken roasted with potatoes and rosemary. Buon appetito!


Village News: Italian Heritage Parade Sunday!

Big Yellow Cab--Italian Heritage Parade

North Beach’s biggest event of the year is this Sunday–the 143rd Annual Italian Heritage Parade–the oldest in America. You gotta be here–it’s a great day in the Village.

Floats, politicians, bands, Queen Isabella and her Court, Cristoforo Columbo himself–the Parade has it all and it only takes about an hour to pass by. And we’re celebrating the 150th anniversary of the unification of Italia too!

All of the Village restaurants and caffes along Columbus and Stockton set up tables in the street. Everyone has their favorite restaurant. I’ve been going to the same place to watch the Parade and eat a leisurely lunch with friends for over 20 years.

It’s hard to get a prized table on the street—there are only 11 ten-tops where I go and the same families have ruled over them for decades. Each table always seems to have a capo the boss who tells everyone where to sit, what to eat, when to order. It ain’t an easy job. You can see one above surveying his domain.

I sat at a street table only once—and that was 10 years ago when some people couldn’t make it and we grabbed the 4 seats. Can’t prove it but I think the Parade curbside tables were the inspiration for the curbside parklets sprouting up all around the Village.

Anyway, I have the best table—right inside the open sliding windows on Columbus. We’re about a foot above the street—a great spot to watch the Parade and the passing sidewalk crowd.

No special orders. Antipasti platter, lasagna al forno, chicken and vegetables roasted with rosemary to a golden brown, focaccia and a fantastic Chianti–a simple meal from Lucca and every year it’s my Parade Sunday lunch.

A 33 Balilla Fiat in Washington Square

Don’t miss the antique car and Ferrari show in Washington Square. Wander down after the Parade. It’s a great spot to watch the Blue Angels soaring overhead–part of the Fleet Week celebration down on Fisherman’s Wharf.


North Beach Street Painting



I like to go down early Sunday morning to grab a cappuccino and catch a glimpse of the artists finishing up their street painting. Gotta look around for where they’ll be–one year on Stockton near the Square–the next on Green/Columbus. It’s worth the search–there’s always some great work to discover.

North Beach Street Painting






Don’t miss all the fun–hope to see you in the Village Sunday! I’m sure you’ll find a good spot to watch the Parade and eat some great food too.

A presto.

Sunday Recipe: Fish Cakes (Torte di Pesce) with Pickled Carrots and Grilled Blue Trumpet Mushrooms

Cod Cakes--Pickled Carrots--Marinated Grilled Trumpet Mushrooms

I kicked myself when talking to my sister the other day. I’d roasted halibut and there was some left over the next day. Who wants to eat leftover fish? I put it in the compost bin.

“Oh no!” she exclaimed, “you could have made fish cakes.” Damn, she’s right. It’s been on my mind for days. I had to satisfy the “woolie” (craving) so I made fish cakes today.

My mother made these fish cakes with baccala (dried salt cod) but you have to soak the baccala overnight and it stinks up the apartment. Here’s a variation using fresh cod instead. It’s simple and delicious.

These cod cakes have a crunchy exterior and a creamy interior. The potato mellows the flavor of the cod and a squeeze of fresh lemon brings it all together.

I finished off the plate with meaty marinated grilled blue trumpet mushrooms and pickled carrot sticks. The mushrooms are smokey and their flavor is accentuated by the garlic-infused olive oil. The sweet and acidic pickled carrots are a good counter-balance to the rich fish cakes. A lovely weekend lunch indeed.

The pickled carrots are great to have around as an addition to an antipasti platter or as a side with a panino or even fish or meat. They’ll keep a couple of weeks at least in the refrigerator. Just remove the garlic and hot pepper before refrigerating. The flavor gets better over time.  The mushrooms can be kept in the refrigerator for a couple of days too and used in the same ways as the pickled carrots.

You got lucky – here are all 3 recipes.