Tosca’s Last Act?

North Beach’s Tosca Cafe

Not Puccini’s opera, the North Beach cafe on Columbus with opera on the jukebox. Tosca Cafe, a favorite with the famous and locals alike, is 8 years short of its 100th anniversary. Owner Jeannette Etheridge just got an eviction notice.

It all started earlier this week. The landlord wants his unpaid rent. He’s a major stockholder in Deja Vu Showgirls, a Seattle company that owns strip joints on Broadway. Rumor had it that he wanted the space for another one.

A true North Beach character, Jeannette Etheridge lawyered up with John Keker, one of the best in the country. Her powerful clientele mobilized support to save this North Beach institution.

“Look at the place,” Etheredge told the SF Chronicle’s C.W. Nevius. “It’s out of an Edward Hopper painting. It has always been a hangout for artists, painters and actors.”

“What’s interesting to me is why this girlie club guy is going to try to take away a San Francisco institution,”  Keker said. “This stands for a lot of what’s wrong with North Beach in general.”

Both sides say they’re willing to talk. I hope they work out a settlement so that the North Beach icon is still around to celebrate its centennial.

Nevius broke the story and provides the latest developments.


The Big Dig Begins

Central Subway Construction Begins

When I walked down the hill early this morning I was surprised to see San Francisco police and a dozen workers all in their reflective vests standing in a straight line on the edge of Washington Square Park. Heavy construction equipment lined Columbus Avenue. Their work day was about to begin.

Despite strong opposition from North Beach neighbors and merchants, the dreaded Central Subway tunnel work is underway. I thought that recently filed lawsuits would postpone the project but that didn’t happen.

Columbus Avenue from Stockton to Filbert will be ripped open to relocate utilities in advance of boring the Central Subway tunnel. If the North Beach work is anything like the Central Subway downtown around Union Square, this will not be fun. Vehicular and pedestrian traffic will be a nightmare during the 4-month project especially during the week.

And the worst is yet to come. The last station on the subway line will be on the corner of Clay and Stockton in Chinatown, 5 blocks south of North Beach. But the machine will continue beyond the station, boring under Stockton Street to Columbus and down Columbus to the Park.

There are no plans to build a North Beach station so why tear up North Beach and disrupt our enjoyment of Washington Square Park? City officials decided the Park was the best spot to bring the huge boring machine back up to the surface. Geniuses!

Get ready for years of dirty surface work and foundation rattling from deep beneath the ground. The Central Subway extension isn’t scheduled to open until 2019.

North Beach has enjoyed a renaissance over the last 2 years. Established businesses are flourishing. New restaurants, shops and galleries opened. Some days there are so many visitors that it’s hard to make your way up Columbus. Will it last?

My neighbors are not hopeful. Many think the Central Subway assault will be a slow death for many North Beach businesses. Oh no, not those dreaded “For Rent” signs in all those storefront windows again. The Village vitality we all enjoy may soon be but a short-lived memory.

Italian Festival Saturday

North Beach Festa Italiana

Don’t miss the annual Festa Coloniale Italiana this Saturday, August 11, 2012 on Washington Square in front of the San Francisco Italian Athletic Club (SFIAC).

The Festa is the only Italian festival that celebrates San Francisco’s Italian and Italian-American heritage. It’s our version of Ferragosto, the Italian mid-summer holiday.

Catch Italian music on the stage. Watch an Italian dance performance. Award-winning pizzaiolo Tony Gemignani will enthrall us with his world-famous pizza tossing skill. Stop in the SFIAC’s main ballroom transformed for the day into an Italian piazza complete with a fountain.

Sample delicious Italian-American street foods including calamari, sausage and pepper and meatball sandwiches. Enjoy wine and beer on the street or at the wine-tasting in the SFIAC’s 3rd floor Parkview Room with a terrace overlooking the park.

Here’s the whole Festa Italiana line-up.

I hope I see you there.

Baked Baby Eggplant

Don’t miss the next new video recipe. Please subscribe now to my YouTube channel.

I love the small Italian eggplant now in the market.

Here’s a quick recipe that explodes with flavor. Just cut the eggplants in half and bake them in the oven topped with crushed  San Marzano tomatoes and grated pecorino. The eggplant are soft and sweet and the grated cheese forms a crispy top.

As the eggplant cools many don’t make it off the top of the stove. Pilferers grab one to make sure they turned out well. I always have to make extra so I have enough for an antipasti platter or as a side for meat that I’m serving that day. You can keep leftovers in the fridge for a couple of days.

I like the baby eggplant hot out of the oven but I like them better at room temperature.

This is one of the recipes in my Vegetable e-book. Do you have yours? Just click on the e-book on the homepage to get one.

UPDATE (2/15/14): This blog post was so popular, I decided to show you how to do it. Check out the video above!


Panzanella (Summer Tomato & Bread Salad)

I never throw away bread. I use stale bread for my meatballs, for stuffings and for breadcrumbs. I always have some hanging around.

Day-old bread inspires panzanella, a simple summer tomato and bread salad. Some of you asked for this recipe based on the classic dish from Florence. I love my rustic version. You can get fancy and make crustless croutons in the oven but who wants to turn on a hot oven in the summer. Make it my way!

I’ve been making this salad a lot since prime heirloom tomatoes hit the market. Tomatoes, cucumbers, sliced onion bloomed in red wine vinegar, basil, cubed bread, extra virgin olive oil. That’s it. Make sure you use the best ingredients. This is the time to break out your best fruity Italian olive oil.

I only make panzanella in the summer when I can get big, juicy, ripe tomatoes. When the local heirloom tomatoes are gone from the farmer’s market, the panzanella is gone from my table.

Put all the ingredients in a bowl, mix well and let the salad sit for a half-hour to create the juices that moisten the bread. How easy is that?

Try to get a little bit of everything in each bite. The tomato is sweet, the cucumber crunchy and the marinade-soaked bread ties everything together.

Serve panzanella as part of an antipasti platter or as a side for fried seafood, grilled or roasted sausage or meats. (This is the salad I paired with the fried shrimp in Sunday’s post.) Sometimes panzanella with some cheese and salami or prosciutto on the side is my summertime lunch or dinner.

Buon appetito!


Crispy Succulent Shrimp (Gamberi Fritti)

When I was a kid on a steamy summer Friday night in Jersey, fried fish was one of my favorite dinners. My Mom lightly dredged an array of fish in flour and quickly fried them in olive oil. We ate the fish hot out of the oil with just a squeeze of lemon and a sprinkle of salt.

I liked the crispy sweet shrimp the best. I’d grab one from the stove and shove the whole thing in my mouth. If I tried to get another my Mom always shooed me away. “Save some for the table!”

The fat white Gulf prawns at the fishmonger this morning were just right for today’s lunch. I’m eating at least a half dozen with abandon.

A quick meal with the pristine taste of the sea. Fry the shrimp and serve them hot out of the oil with a squeeze of lemon. The shrimp are paired here with my version of panzanella, a summer tomato and bread salad. Just add a bottle of crisp, chilled pinot grigio to the table and eat.

Fry up your favorite fish as well. I really like a nice piece of fried sole. You can quickly fry up some squid too, as I did in my calamari fritti video.

Buon appettito!


Hello Milwaukee

Porchetta–Herb Filled Pork Roast

A while ago a post, Forget Food Network! 7 Cool Online Cooking Shows, appeared on Milwaukee Radio’s website. Gianni’s North Beach was #5.

After all this time many of my site visitors come from Milwaukee Radio, 88.9 on your FM dial. So here’s a shout out to my friends in the heartland. Thanks for visiting.

Milwaukee Radio’s cool site celebrates Milwaukee music, diversity and culture. I’m tickled that my Porchetta, an herb-filled pork roast, was included in the Top 7 along with NY Times’ Mark Bittman and 5 other passionate cooks.

Some people disagree with the Giada De Laurentiis reference in the Cool Online Cooking Shows piece. What do you think?

Here’s my Porchetta video episode that still plays well in Milwaukee. The video also includes 2 more recipes for sides to serve with the Porchetta–onions in a sweet & sour sauce and truffled roasted potatoes. Buon appetito!

Summer Heirloom Tomatoes Are In

Caprese Salad

I returned from NYC to find the first decent crop of local heirloom tomatoes. A big, fat golden and red orb in the farmer’s market had my name on it. The ripe tomato had a sweet aroma and was just firm to the touch. You don’t mess we these babies in their prime. Keep it real simple.

Tomato and mozzarella salad is a riff on the traditional Caprese, slices of tomato, fresh mozzarella separated by a basil leaf and drizzled with EVOO.

I like the chunky pieces of tomato and smaller bocconcini mozzarella balls cubed and sprinkled with torn basil leaves, EVOO and sea salt.

I let the salad marinate for a half hour before serving to bring out the sweetness of the tomato and infuse the olive oil with the basil. All of the juices create a marinade to coat everything with flavor.

Tomato salad is a refreshing start to any summer meal or as a side for grilled or roasted sausage or other meats. Just make sure you have a good hunk of bread to soak up all the juices.

Enjoy the summer bounty. Buon appetito!


Baked Stuffed Mushrooms (& Friends)

Baked Stuffed Mushrooms & Friends

I made baked stuffed mushroom caps to accompany prosciutto and smoked mozzarella on my antipasti platter. That’s them in the front of the plate.

Stuffed mushrooms are quick and easy to make and pack a lot of flavor. Serve them hot out of the oven or at room temperature. Parmigiano, garlic, parsley and EVOO flavor the breadcrumbs and the grated cheese creates a golden crust on top of the mushroom caps. Every bite is a zesty and crunchy delight. Sometimes I can’t help myself. I stuff the whole cap in my mouth and eat it in just one bite.

You can add the stuffed mushroom caps to almost any antipasti platter you create. The caps are a compact package that you can even pass around as your arriving dinner guests sip on a bubbly prosecco.

So what’s that other stuff in the photo?

I had breadcrumbs left over so I stuffed an artichoke and a couple of baby heirloom tomatoes and sprinkled the remaining flavored breadcrumbs on red bell peppers and baked them too. They each have their own special texture and taste and they are all delicious and I wanted to show you them all.

Use the artichoke as a first course. Add the roasted stuffed tomatoes and red bell peppers sprinkled with the flavored breadcrumbs to an antipasti platter or serve them as a vegetable side dish with lunch or dinner. I tell you how to handle the peppers and tomatoes in the recipe below. If you don’t know how to clean an artichoke, watch me do it. It’s fun.

Be sure to keep this versatile flavored breadcrumb recipe around. You’ll use it often with roasted vegetables or as a light topping for baked fish or roasted chicken.

Buon appetito!


Chinese Bakery Replaces Victoria Pastry

Victoria Pastry’s New Home Taking Shape

Victoria Pastry has been in North Beach since 1914. The Vallejo and Stockton corner bakery closed last month to move to a new space on Filbert and Powell on the other side of Washington Square Park.

As word about Victoria’s closing spread many wondered whether the south side of Vallejo would maintain its North Beach ties or solidify its ties to Chinatown.

I learned that a Chinese bakery will open in the Victoria Pastry space. The windows are covered and the renovation is underway. The only Italian business left on that side of Vallejo is Tony Gemignani’s new Capo’s restaurant and bar opening in a couple months.

While taking a Sacramento group on my North Beach walking tour I was happy to see some signs of progress at Victoria’s new spot. The build-out is well underway and this mural on the side of building was recently completed.

I can’t wait until I can buy Victoria Pastry’s St. Honore cake, a rum-soaked sponge cake filled with vanilla pastry cream and topped with cream puffs. That’s the St. Honore cake in the first panel of the new mural.

2 North Beach Sausage Winners

Little City Sausage and Peppers

I love Italian pork sausage. Luckily I can get the best right here in North Beach.

The Chronicle tasted 48 house-made sausages from all over the Bay Area, everything from traditional Italian pork sausage to Boudin Blanc and Spicy Georgia Peach Bourbon chicken sausage. Even with such a wide spread of sausage styles North Beach had 2 winners!

Calabrese pork sausage from Little City at Stockton and Vallejo came in second for “specialty sausages.” The Calabrese has a kick from the crushed hot pepper. It’s delicious.

My other personal favorite from the Little City guys is the Sicilian sausage, a mild pork sausage with fennel. I’m amazed their Sicilian didn’t make the top 5 in the mild sausage category. It’s a perfect blend of pork shoulder, salt, pepper and fennel seeds.

They sell a lot of sausage at Little City. If you get lucky you might catch fresh sausage being made on the counter at the back of the shop. You’ll want to see how this sausage is made. It’s an art.

The mild pork sausage with fennel from Molinari on Columbus got a favorable mention too.

Here’s my quick sausage and peppers recipe. It’s a zesty one-plate meal bursting with flavor and it makes a mean sandwich.

And here’s the Chronicle sausage post.

Buon appetito!

Subway in North Beach

Central Subway to Chinatown Station

I thought the Central Subway project currently tearing up the streets around Union Square would terminate at the Chinatown station, about 6 blocks south of North Beach at Clay and Stockton. I was pleased that North Beach would be spared from the subway construction nightmare that will last for years. I was wrong.

When I got back from New York City last week the Village was abuzz. Everyone is worried about the Central Subway plan to end the tunnel bore, not at the Chinatown Station, but in the middle of Washington Square Park, even though no North Beach station is planned.,

Washington Square Park? The Village’s outdoor living room? That’s where the monster machine would come out of the ground after boring a tunnel under Stockton from the Chinatown Station to Columbus and then up Columbus to the Park.

Get ready for lots of shaking from the tunnel construction. Columbus will be closed from Vallejo to Union for utility relocation and surface work. Get ready for crazy street congestion. Get ready for a torn-up Washington Square Park. Get ready for the end of North Beach as we know it neighbors say.

I was amazed to hear long-time merchants predict that the Central Subway invasion will be North Beach’s death knell. It’s hard enough to attract customers now. Who will want to endure the construction mess?  Some shopkeepers are already talking about shuttering their businesses for good even though the North Beach extension won’t start for years.

I’m hopeful that previously fractious elements of the community will coalesce to work out a solution to this latest threat to North Beach. Last Thursday’s Central Subway meeting at North Beach Restaurant was packed with neighbors, Telegraph Hill Dweller and North Beach Merchant Association members. That’s a good sign.


North Beach Festival Next Weekend

North Beach Festival Street Painting

The 58th Annual North Beach Festival is next weekend, June 16-17. Don’t miss this opportunity to revel in all that North Beach has to offer. The weather will be superb.

Stroll Grant Avenue, the oldest street in San Francisco. Enjoy music, ranging from The Carol Doda Band to the Happy Strings’ Italian madolin and guitar classics. Picnic in Washington Square Park. Eat and drink to your heart’s content. Absorb all the art on the street and in the local galleries too.

The North Beach Festival fears over 125 arts and crafts booths, 20 gourmet food booths, three stages of live entertainments scattered around the Village, beverage gardens, children’s activities, the blessing of the animals at The National Shrine of Saint Francis of Assisi, and my personal favorite, Italian street painting.

While wandering the Village, discover the unique array of North Beach cafes, art galleries, boutiques, restaurants, pizzerias, delis and bars.

Here are all the Festival details. Can’t wait. See you there.

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.