Ciao Caesar’s

Last Day Crowds at Caesar’s Restaurant

It’s the end of a North Beach era.

After 56 years as a destination for locals, Caesar’s Restaurant near Fisherman’s Wharf, closed yesterday.

The family-owned restaurant is a victim of changing San Francisco and North Beach demographics, changed tastes at the table, and a sour economy.

Eat Where the Italians Eat Caesar’s proclaimed. For more than a half-century, this was the place for wedding receptions and other large family gatherings.

Caesar’s was also famous for the North Beach Italian-American 7-course meal.  Locals lingered over the huge meal at lunch or dinner: salad, antipasti, soup, pasta, entree, dessert and coffee. Who eats this way anymore?

When I moved to North Beach twenty years ago there were a bunch of these family-style restaurants. The Gold Spike, New Pisa, La Felce, San Remo, Fior d’Italia, are all gone. Gone too is the North Beach community that supported these businesses.

Here’s a glimpse of those bygone days from the Caesar’s website.

Caesar’s was established in 1956 by Caesar Fabrini and his three partners, who all came to the United States as youngsters and knew each other from playing soccer at the Italian Athletic club still in existence in North Beach today. At that time the neighborhood consisted of many small factories and there was a big Italian community made up of workers and fisherman and their families. Caesar Fabrini had the inspiration to serve a seven course dinner at a moderate price for this community and so Caesar’s Italian restaurant was started.

That North Beach Italian community is much smaller today. Businesses closed. Families moved to the suburbs. There aren’t enough of the old-timers and their progeny around to support these old-time places.

But, if you’re in the mood for this North Beach Italian-American culinary experience, you can still have a family-style dinner at Capp’s Corner on Green & Powell.

Caesar’s owners’ note announcing the closing is heartfelt, as is the Chron’s Carl Nolte’s Caesar’s farewell story.

Victoria Pastry Moving & Steps of Rome Closed

North Beach's Victoria Pastry Company

North Beach’s Victoria Pastry on the corner of Stockton & Vallejo makes some of my favorite cakes and pastries. They’ve only been doing it since 1914!

Victoria’s St. Honore rum-soaked sponge cake with vanilla pastry cream and their domed chocholate Fedora cake are two of the best.

For the last 6 months rumors that Victoria is closing, Victoria is moving, Victoria is renewing its lease swirled around the neighborhood. Now we know for sure.

I walked by the other day and the shop was festooned with these flyers announcing the move to the Filbert and Powell on the other side of Washington Square Park. The move is scheduled for July but it doesn’t look to me like the new Filbert Street space will be ready in time.

Word is that another bakery will take Victoria’s place. I hope it happens. North Beach needs a good bread bakery and a solid North Beach business to anchor the Vallejo Street corner.

Last night I walked past Steps of Rome on Columbus as I have since it opened 22 years ago. To my horror the door was locked, the bar stripped and the tables and chairs askew. Steps of Rome has closed.

No word yet on what will replace it and its trattoria a few doors down that closed months ago. I loved Steps’ leg of veal with roasted potatoes plate. Luckily we can still get that at L’Osteria del Forno down the street on Columbus between Union and Green.



Starbucks in North Beach?

La Boulange de Columbus

Chain stores are not welcome in North Beach.

Over the last 2 decades Walgreens and other chains that wanted to open here were blocked by neighborhood protest. Since 2005 chain stores with more than 11 outposts have been banned by the San Francisco ordinance designed to maintain North Beach’s unique character by keeping out “formula retail” chains that you can find anywhere in America.

So with that kind of protection how does Starbucks get into North Beach? It’s easy. Starbucks just announced that it will buy the local La Boulange Cafe and Bakery chain for a hundred million dollars. La Boulange has a cafe in North Beach.

La Boulange now has 19 cafes scattered around the Bay Area but when La Boulange de Columbus opened it was only the 5th cafe in a fast-growing chain. Some neighbors weren’t too happy about even a small chain moving in but La Boulange prevailed.

Starbucks could never get a North Beach permit on its own. The La Boulange purchase gives Starbucks a coveted North Beach outlet. Soon all Starbucks locations will only serve La Boulange baked goods and all La Boulange cafes will only serve Starbucks coffee.

I hope old-time North Beach institutions like Caffe Puccini, Caffe Trieste, Caffe Roma, Cavalli Cafe and Caffe Greco continue to flourish with Starbucks in their midst. We’ll see. I’m reminded of the bumper sticker supporting local roasters and coffeehouses from the early days of the Starbucks Bay Area invasion , “Friends Don’t Let Friends Go To Starbucks”. North Beach, take notice.

North Beach First Friday Festivities

Columbus & Coit


Columbus & Coit
Columbus & Coit from the Transamerica building. Click to expand.

Enjoy a beautiful night in North Beach tomorrow. Celebrate the first day of June with your friends and neighbors. Wander the Village Streets and check out what 18 particpating galleries, shops, restaurants and bars have on tap for you. Lots of food, drink, music and art to choose from during North Beach First Friday festivities. Satisfy all you senses! Hope I see you there.

Deep-Dish Pizza on My Mind

Sausage Deep-Dish Pizza Chicago Style

Chicago-style pizza has been on my mind lately and luckily in my mouth too. I had one when I was in Chicago a couple of weeks ago. I love the classic pie with sausage but I lost the vote and we ordered a vegetarian instead. It was a good pie but I was disappointed. I still needed a sausage deep-dish.

San Francisco’s Patxi, Little Star and Zachary’s make deep-dish but they were too far away. North Beach’s Capos will open soon on Vallejo Street with deep-dish on the menu. But I couldn’t wait so I had to make my own.

Deep-dish isn’t that difficult. The dough is very pliant and bakes well in a home oven. It doesn’t need really high oven temperature and takes about a half-hour in the oven to get a golden crust and fully baked interior. It’s worth the wait, trust me.

Sorry about the missing slice in the picture. This was my first deep-dish pizza and we had to see how it turned out. We couldn’t help eating that first piece as soon as the pie was cool enough to cut.

Most eat deep-dish with a knife and fork but I like to pick it up as soon as I can and eat it by hand.  The buttery crust is sturdy but tender with a slight crunch from the polenta mixed into the dough. The bottom layer of mozzarella oozes out of each slice. You get those long melted mozzarella strands (telephone lines) with each forkful. The savory fennel sausage mellows in the sweet oregano-infused tomato sauce. Every mouthful is a texture and flavor treat. A slice of deep-dish can fill you up but I’m a pizza pig and can’t stop with just one.

Serve your deep-dish pizza with a simple green salad and you’ve got a meal worthy of “The Windy City.” Substitute your favorite sauteed vegetables, onion, bell pepper and black olive or mushrooms sauteed with fresh oregano maybe. The filling choices are endless.

This 10-inch pan deep-dish serves 4 and the dough recipe is enough for 2 pies. I’m making another one in the morning with the leftover dough for my office-mates. To satisfy everyone’s diet it’s back to a vegetarian pie. I’ll nestle a filling of crimini and porcini mushrooms sauteed in garlic-infused EVOO with fresh oregano between the mozzarella layer on the bottom and the tomato sauce on top. Should be a good breakfast.

Buon appetito!


Open and Closed in North Beach

Capos on Vallejo

I’m back in the Village after a week out of town and was pleased to see the Capos sign was up. Capos is Tony Gemignani’s new place on Vallejo (between Stockton and Columbus). As Tony promised the vintage National cash register sits proudly on top of the Deco bar. There’s a strange looking machine in the front window. I don’t know what it is but it looks cool. Word on the street is that you’ll be able to get Capos’ Chicago deep dish pizza and Italian dinners soon.

Tuesday the “oldest Italian restaurant in America” Fior d’Italia closed after 126 years in North Beach. It opened in 1886 as a bordello dining spot and fed survivors of the ’06 quake and fire.

Fires forced the restaurant to bounce all around North Beach. It was at the spot that now houses Original Joe’s (Union/Stockton) for 50 years. After a 2005 fire it ended up at the San Remo Hotel down on Mason near Fisherman’s Wharf where the owners threw in the towel.

In 2010 Fior d’Italia celebrated it’s 125th anniversary by bringing back 1886 prices for a day. Linguine and meatball was 10 cents and minestrone soup and dessert were included!

Chef owner Gianni Audieri hopes to re-open in yet another location. I wish him luck. I hope we don’t lose the San Francisco Italian institution for good.

Here’s Grub Street’s story with pictures from the closing night. Inside Scoop’s post includes more pictures of the restaurants beautiful interior.

Making the Same Pizza in North Beach for 77 Years

Pizza Margherita
Gorgonzola, Prosciutto and Pear Pizza
Gorgonzola, Prosciutto and Pear Pizza

North Beach’s Tommaso’s opened in 1935. The Crotti family bought it in 1973 and they’re still serving the original menu from 77 years ago.

Agostino Crotti boasts that Tommaso’s was the first to have a wood-burning oven on the West Coast . “That’s written in the books.”  Augstino says “this place is famous for one reason and one reason only: the brick oven.”

Agostino gave the oven design to Alice Waters who built one at Chez Panisse in 1980 and California-style pizza was born. Alice passed the design on to Wolfgang Puck who built one at Spago opened in 1982. The rest is history. “So everything started here,” Augustino proclaims.

Pizza in San Francisco has come a long way since 1935. The pizzeria choices in most neighborhoods are incredible. Just in North Beach you can get a dazzling array of pizza at a dozen places. Pizza delivery has evolved too. Not just home delivery anymore. We had fantastic pizza truck pies from Casey’s parked downtown on Mission for lunch a few weeks ago.

Agostino isn’t too impressed with all these developments. He only eats pizza out of his 77 year old wood-burning oven. “I’m more simple. Give me a margherita pizza and I’m a happy camper.” That’s my Tommaso favorite too but the half-sausage/half-meatball ain’t bad either.

Make your own pizza at home with my easy recipe. The dough is foolproof. Make Pizza Margherita or the Gorgonzola, Prosciutto and Pear pizza (Agostino might not approve of this one) or use your favorite toppings.

EaterSF’s Pizza Week 2012 posts are a goldmine for everything you need to know about pizza in San Francisco, including Del Popolo, the new monster pizza truck with a wood-burning oven.  Don’t miss A Snob’s Guide, a virtual SF pizza encyclopedia. You can read Chloe Schildhause ‘s full interview with Agostino Crotti and his sister Carmen too.

Spaghetti alla Carbonara from Roma

Spaghetti alla Carbonara

A Roman friend’s son Luca shot a video of Claudio, the chef/owner of Osteria Dar Bruttone making spaghetti alla carbonara, a classic Roman pasta dish. I had to share it with you.

Claudio is passionate about Roma and about its food. His osteria in the San Giovanni neighborhood where he serves simple traditional Roman fare is popular with locals and tourists alike.

Claudio beams as he talks about the virtues of the most beautiful city on earth and Roman culinary tradition, a vital part of Roman life. Walk with Claudio as he shops in the markets near his osteria for the food that he will cook at his restaurant that day.

The spaghetti alla carbonara video is in Italian but even if you don’t speak the language watch it anyway. The shots of Rome, the markets and the kitchen techniques are priceless. Everyone I know who watched the video, fluent in Italian or not, had to make spaghetti alla carbonara right away. Here’s my translation of Claudio’s recipe for you to enjoy in your kitchen.

Spaghetti alla carbonara only has 4 ingredients and is ready to eat in the time it takes to cook the spaghetti. Search out guanciale. It’s integral to the dish. (In a pinch you could use pancetta.) Use a dried durum wheat pasta extruded through bronze dies imported from Italy so the sauce will cling to its rough surface. Don’t be shy with the black pepper. Use pecorino for it’s more robust flavor, not parmigiano.

The spaghetti takes on a golden hue. Creamy, silky sauce coats every strand. Rich pecorino flavor plays off salty, crispy guanciale and black pepper tickles your throat with every bite.

I miss Roma. Buon appetito!


A Peek Inside Capos on Vallejo

Chicago Deep Dish Pizza

Tony Gemignani’s Capos in the former Pucinella Pizzeria space on North Beach’s Vallejo Street is taking shape. The brick facade on the front of the building is in place. Soon a big black awning will hang out over the sidewalk. A beautiful custom-built wood Art Deco bar is in place on the left just inside the front door and red leather banquettes sensually line the opposite wall in the dining area. This is going to be a hot eating spot.

A while ago I noticed a wood-burning beehive pizza oven in the open kitchen. Since Capos will offer Chicago deep dish and stuffed pizza this traditional Neapolitan pizza oven puzzled me. One of the pizza makers told me that pasta dishes will be baked and steaks roasted on a rack in the beehive to impart a smoky flavor. Can’t wait to taste these delights.

I’m off to Chicago soon and my first stop will be at Gino’s East for a deep dish pizza. I know we’ll wait at least 40 minutes for the pie to bake. They won’t take that long once Capos opens. I’m told Tony and his pizza makers have come up with a way to get their pizza out of the oven in about 20 minutes. I hope so. This place is going to be mobbed and I hope the tables turn quickly. I only have Chicago deep dish pizza a couple of times a year when I end up in the Windy City. Now I’ll be able to eat it any time I want right here in NoBe. My guess is that Capos will open by the end of the month.

Thank God for Capos. It’s the last North Beach business on this critical block of Vallejo. The big Piazza Market space near Columbus is still for lease. Victoria Pastry on the Stockton corner soon will move to Filbert near Washington Square. So the Vallejo Street bookend spots are still in play. Will the new tenants maintain this as a North Beach block or complete its attachment to Chinatown? I’ll keep you posted.


North Beach Walking Tour Saturday!

Gianni Guiding a North Beach Tour

Fans who took my tour a few months ago called to see if I would do a tour of North Beach for out-of-town guests this Saturday, April 28 at 11:00 a.m.

Do you want to join us?

Get to know my my favorite restaurants, bakeries, food shops, art galleries and North Beach history as we take a 90-minute stroll through the Village on a delightful spring day. We’ll eat together at one of my favorite caffes.  Enjoy antipasti, focaccia and a sampler of 3 Tuscan pastas with a glass of a special Chianti. Then we’ll head to another nearby caffe for espresso and the best cannoli or tiramisu in North Beach, your choice.

Tour with food–$50 per person. Tour without food–$25 per person. You can pay by cash or check at the start of the tour.

Just send me an email and I’ll save a spot for you or your group and I’ll let you know where to meet up.

Space is limited so sign up soon.

SF Seder From The Roman Ghetto

Carciofi alla Romano. Artichokes with a breadcrumb, minced mint, parsley, garlic, and anchovy stuffing poached in EVOO and water. An authentic treat from la cucina ebraica, straight from the Jewish ghetto in Roma.

I’m jazzed. San Francisco’s own world-famous Italian cook, teacher and author Joyce Goldstein is preparing a Seder at Perbacco on April 10. The roots of this meal are in Square One, Goldstein’s sorely missed Jackson Square restaurant. She first served a Seder meal there in 1989 celebrating the food of the Italian Jewish kitchen.

I had forgotten about this event but an office-mate reminded me this morning. I called Perbacco right away to book an early table for 10 of us.

“Sorry” Perbacco’s Steven said. “Come at 8:45”. “Can’t do it,” I told him. How about three tables for four at 6:00.” “Yes I can do that but they won’t be together.” “That’s OK at least we’re in the door.” I wasn’t missing this meal.

A half-hour later my phone rang. It was Steven. “Just had a cancellation. I can give you a table for 10 at 5:30. It’s in the private room upstairs overlooking the kitchen.” “I’ll take it! Can you see down into the kitchen?” “Yes. I look forward to meeting you at the Seder.”

Score! Turns out the room sits 18 and half of the seats at the table are already claimed. So far we’re half Jewish and half Gentile.

So what am I so excited about? I’m a big fan of cucina Ebraica, the food of the Italian Jewish kitchen. Within a day or 2 each time I arrive in Roma I lunch at Giggetto al Portico d’Ottavia overlooking incredible Roman ruins in the Jewish Ghetto. My typical meal is carciofi alla Giudia, crispy fried artichokes in the Jewish style that look like a giant chrysanthemum on the plate, then spaghetti alla carbonara and last fried baccala (reconstituted dried-cod fillet) all washed down with chilled local Frascati. Here’s my video making the stuffed artichokes that I first had in the Ghetto.

I won’t be in Roma again until later this year so here’s my chance to enjoy some of the fantastic Italian food from the Ghetto right here in San Francisco.

I loved Square One and one of my favorite cookbooks is Joyce Goldstein’s Cucina Ebraica–Flavors of the Italian Jewish KitchenWith Joyce and Perbacco’s maestro Staffan Terje in the kitchen this will be quite a night. Here’s the Seder menu. Give Stephen a call. He’s good. Maybe he can still find you a table on Perbacco’s busiest night of the year. Or, join our private communal table. Let me know if you’re interested and if any seats are available I’ll shoot you an email.

Grandma’s in the Kitchen

Nonna in the Kitchen

Not mine and maybe not yours but if you’re on Staten Island you can savor the cooking of a real nonna (grandmother) born in Italia at local restaurant Enoteca Maria.

No chefs here. Every night one of a stable of 9 grandmothers is in the kitchen making her favorite dishes from her native region. Joe Scaravella opened Enoteca Maria 5 years ago after he lost his mother and sister. He yearned to recreate the Italian family table now gone from his life. The nonnas hail from Naples and other towns in Campania, Agrigento and Palermo in Sicily and the province of Chieti in Abruzzo.

Joe placed an ad recruiting local women who cook authentic Italian food. He interviews each nonna and within 5 minutes he knows in his heart who to invite into the kitchen. Joe picks only those grandmothers he senses can really cook. When asked what food they grew up on he knows that they are not right for him if they respond in English with chicken parmigiana or eggplant.

Wait a minute Joe, what’s wrong with eggplant? I ate a lot of eggplant made by my Campania-born mother and eggplant parmigiana is my favorite dish.

Giovana Gambino is one Enoteca Maria’s nonnas. She was raised in Palermo and was cooking the day NPR’s David Greene visited Enoteca Maria. She boasts that she doesn’t cook arancini the classic Sicilian rice ball in the traditional way. Giovana’s modified simple arancini recipe is shaped by years of living in America but still remains true to its roots in Palermo. If you want to kick arancini up a notch or two try these arancini from da Flora, the Venetian osteria in North Beach.

I’ll take the free ferry from Manhattan over to Staten Island the next time I’m in New York. I’ll let you know what nonna’s cooking that night at Enoteca Maria. Can’t wait!


Battle of the Chefs in North Beach

Viola in the Italian Consul's Kitchen

My friend Viola Buitoni hails from Perugia in the region of Umbria. Viola is a wonderful cook and Italian culinary teacher and she’s hosting Battaglia dei Cuochi, the Battle of the Chefs, this Monday March 19 at the San Francisco Italian Athletic Club on Stockton overlooking Washington Square Park. Three great chefs representing three major regions of Italia vie for the honors and you pick the winner.

Here’s the line-up.

  • Michele Belotti, a classically trained rising-star from Piemonte, now heading the kitchen at Ristobar getting rave reviews in the Marina, will fight for the North.
  • Rutilio Duran, the Livornese chef owner of C’Era Una Volta in Alameda will champion the pride of Central Italy.
  • Calabria-born Massimo Covello, from Calabria, formerly of Piazza d’Angelo in Mill Valley, will take some time from his own restaurant venture to prove that Southern Italian cooking is hard to beat.

While enjoying the delicacies and sipping regional wines, try your luck at a raffle with food baskets and even an overnight stay with dinner for two at the fabulous Cavallo Point Lodge in Sausalito.

A cook-off, 2 dishes from each chef to enjoy with Italian wine pairings and a raffle. What more can you ask for? I’ll be there. Will you? Seats are still available. Buy your tickets online or at the door.


Pizza Championship In Vegas Next Week

Pizza Tossing in North Beach

Do you have what it takes to be a World Pizza Champion? I just may have to fly to Vegas for the World Pizza Championship & Games on March 13 to find out. Everyone in the pizza biz will be there.

There are 5 events in the competition.

  • Show your moves in the Freestyle Acrobatics competition
  • Fastest Dough: How fast can you toss out five 12″ doughs?
  • Largest Dough: How big can you make 18 ounces of dough in just 5 minutes?
  • Fastest Box Folding: How fast can you fold five 12″ pizza boxes?
  • Longest Spin: How long can you keep a dough spinning over your head?
The contests might not have a lot to do with making a fantastic pizza but the games sure are fun to watch. Tony Gemignani of North Beach’s Tony’s Pizza Napoletana is a Founding Champion and has won 10 times! If you’re lucky on a nice day you may see Tony or one of the other guys doing pizza acrobatics outside the pizzeria.


Don’t worry Tony’s isn’t all show. I love their pies. Grab a slice at the Slice House next to the pizzeria. They make a bunch of styles from a big New York cheese slice or white Roman pizza sold by the meter. Eat at a table on the parklet right outside. If you want a whole pie grab a table at the pizzeria on the corner. There’s outside seating on the Union Street side.

A Permanent Pop-Up In North Beach?

Amante Has A Permanent Pop-Up

Permanent Pop-Up. That’s an oxymoron isn’t it? Pop-up food purveyors pop up for a short while and then go away to pop-up somewhere else, right?

Well that’s not the case with Chubby Noodle, the permanent pop-up restaurant at the Green Street bar Amante. This is the first pop-up in North Beach.

If you get hungry while drinking just order an Asian-influenced dish from Chubby Noodle. Pete Mrabe the owner of Don Pisto’s over on Union is running Chubby Noodle. It’s open evenings from Tuesday through Saturday.

Don Pisto’s is open for brunch and dinner. Their smart take on traditional Mexican street food is delicious. I love the tacos and you gotta try the Margaritas.

Kudos to Pete Mrabe for bringing 2 diverse eating spots to the Village. He is attracting a new audience to North Beach. Bravo!

Here’s the Chronicle’s Paolo Lucchesi’s Inside Scoop post.