The images above on the Italian Heritage Mural are part of the life work of Italian immigrant Gino Sbrana, who started his American life in San Francisco as a vegetable peddler. By 1911, he had launched a large photographic studio, Pisa Foto, at Columbus and Broadway in San Francisco. Later Gino founded a studio in Oakland and, in 1919, settled in San Jose. Not content to confine his artistry to the formally posed studio portrait, he traveled over the Bay Area countryside with his large wooden field camera, using soft light on the shady side of barns or under large oaks to capture his fellow countrymen. Gino posed them in the coastal mist with machetes poised to harvest cauliflower, perched atop their brand new motorcycles, assembled by trucks loaded with produce from the fields, sleeves rolled up and holding their “vino”.

Children in Columbus Day Parade, 1925

The first Italian wave, to arrive in California (1850 –1924) came from five parts of Italy: Genoa in Liguria, Lucca in Tuscany and a few provinces of Piedmont, Sicily and Calabria. Driven mostly by poverty in their homeland, many had no formal education and spoke little English. What they did bring were the skills gained as peasants and fishermen in Italy and, then, used those skills creatively in America. An advantage they had over their countrymen who had settled on the eastern seaboard was that California was not as developed as the eastern states and needed people with their work ethic and vision to help it grow. The first wave found California a diverse economy. When they proved unsuccessful in their search for gold many became wine growers, vegetable farmers, boarding house operators, merchants, loggers or fishermen. One well-known “failed” goldminer, Domenico Ghirardelli set up a tent in Stockton selling supplies and confections to miners. His sweets were so popular that in 1852 he opened the Ghirardelli Chocolate Company in San Francisco. By 1880 the fishermen from Genoa and later from Sicily could be found throughout the state and by 1910 Italians were said to control 80% of the fishing industry in California. 

Buon Gusto Sausage Factory, Columbus Avenue, 1926

Many chose to settle in small towns, gravitating to work in agriculture, initially as market gardeners, fruit growers and nurserymen. They raised crops that were sold in nearby cities and mining camps. It was during this time the wine industry started to develop. It was California’s suitability for grape growing that drew many of the Italians to this area. The Italian Swiss Agricultural society was a cooperative formed by Andrea Sbarboro in 1881 to aid Italian and Swiss immigrants with settling into their new land. Hiring peasants who had worked in the vineyards in Italy, the society gave them a fair wage, free wine and stock shares. Although the wine industry has changed over the years, Italian Americans still play a very significant role, owning or managing 15 percent of California wineries, including three of the largest and ten of the oldest. 

After the Civil war in the 1860’s, more Italian immigrants began to settle in North Beach and parts of Telegraph Hill in San Francisco. Many put down roots, established businesses and raised families. The Genoese came to dominate banking, truck gardening and grocery wholesaling.The Lucchesi from Lucca in Tuscany were merchants, produce vendors and peddlers, who opened small retail outlets, restaurants and produce stores at the base of Telegraph Hill. In the 1880’s the Sicilians followed and took over the fishing industry, settling around Fisherman’s Wharf at the northern end of North Beach.

San Francisco, a city born in the excitement of the Gold Rush of 1849 and a city noted for its gourmet restaurants, was also the city of Italian provincial restaurants that served their clientele dishes in a congenial atmosphere reflecting the universal belief among all Italians that food and the pleasure of eating meals shared with relatives or friends remains essential to maintaining kinship ties. For Italians, the quality and quantity of food eaten by a family has always symbolized the economic earning power of the menfolk and the family’s social position guarded by the women. Equating food with family life was the formula recreated in San Francisco’s osterias and trattorias, where patrons felt the reverence Italians demonstrated towards their food. San Francisco’s first Italian restaurateurs introduced the city to the cuisine of northern Italy. Although the city’s Italian community was small from the 1850’s through the 1880’s, it was the largest in the United States and characteristic of the pattern in Italian immigration.

Catering to the specific appetites of this varied patronage, there was a blend of hearty foods which aimed to satisfy all the provincial palates. Ravioli and cioppino for the Genoese; beans for the Florentines along with rigatoni and grilled meats; veal ragu, for the Tuscan palate; saltimbocca for the Romans; risi e bisi (rice and peas) and scampi for the Venetians; bollito misto for the Piedmontese and zabaglione for the Sicilians–these delicacies not only pleased the various provincial tastes, but, in a far corner of the American West, Italian proprietors laid the groundwork for a restaurant industry which would contribute to San Francisco’s recognition as a gourmet city. At the same time, these restaurateurs set the stage for social interaction within a society represented by the cosmopolitan tastes of a transient frontier community. Notable among these pioneers were six provincial Italian restaurateurs: Frank Bazzurro, Giuseppe Campi, Stefano Sanguinetti, Frank Luchetti, Giuseppe Coppa and Angelo Del Monte. Each paved the way for successive generations of Italian restaurateurs who would continue to promote respect for the Italians through the medium of food.

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Local Italians led the founding of the Farmers’ Market at Market and Duboce

Genoese Frank Bazzurro came to San Francisco in 1852, where he purchased for fifty dollars, the schooner “Tam O’Shanter,” one of hundreds of ships abandoned in San Francisco Bay and opened his restaurant. Utilizing crabs, which were plentiful and one of the cheapest foods in the city, Bazzurro introduced San Franciscans to the Genoese delicacy, Cioppino – the Italian version of bouillabaisse. Bazzurro moved his restaurant from this waterfront location twice, once because the area was reclaimed by the city and the land filled in and the second time because of the destruction caused by the 1906 earthquake and fire. Bazzurro relied upon bountiful resources from the bay and the city’s outlying truck farms to prepare his provincial specialties.

San Francisco Bay provided as much fish and shellfish (most of which was caught by Genoese and Sicilian fishermen) as was found in the Mediterranean Sea. Dungeness crabs, oysters, clams, squid–which became calamari in the saute pans of Italian cooks–were in abundance, as was cod for baccala and salmon and striped bass were perfect for fish meatballs. From the fertile soil of the city’s truck farms and the ranches along the Peninsula where the Tuscan and Genoese farmers settled, grew the vegetables essential to the provincial Italian diet, such as artichokes, broccoli, asparagus, zucchini, fava beans, Swiss chard, cardone and the aromatic herbs: garlic, anise, sage, fennel, oregano and sweet basil. As the city spread out from the waterfront towards Montgomery Street and along Broadway bordering “Little Italy,” Italian restaurants opened their doors. Offering menus of inexpensive and informal home cooked food, they captured the gastronomical hearts of San Franciscans.

Equally patronized by working people and gourmets was Campi’s Italian and Swiss/French Restaurant located on Merchant and Sansome Streets. The restaurant, opened in 1859, bordered the city’s pungent fish and fowl markets. Managed by Natale Giamboni after Giuseppe Campi’s death, Giamboni was known as the “King of Hosts,” charming the ladies and remembering the likes and dislikes of his clientele. Italian-born financier, Andrea Sbarboro recalled in his 1911 memoirs, the early restaurant days of the 1870’s when all the Italian businessmen of Washington and Sansome Streets lunched at Campi’s. “At the time, I had for ten years been a steady patron and, for thirty years more, I have continued to eat at this restaurant.”

Campi’s rival was Sanguinetti’s Restaurant, which was in full operation by 1888. Once located on Vallejo Street and then on Davis Street, Sanguinetti’s chief clientele were the fishermen from the nearby Union Street wharf. One could get a bowl of thick minestrone, an entrée and a bottle of wine for twenty-five cents. For a nickel’s worth of beer, however, one also got a generous free lunch of spaghetti, Italian bread and fried fish. Two bartenders patrolled a line of ten beer barrels, drawing the brew slowly, first from one, then another and finally a third to fill a single glass from very small spigots. If drawn too quickly, the barrels’ pressure would turn the unique steam beer into froth.

Sanguinetti’s, owned by Stefano Sanguinetti, who later Americanized his name to “Steve,” was an attractive eatery with a low-beamed ceiling and dark walls. To give the restaurant an air of unconventionality, sawdust was spread on the floor. Writing for the Overland Monthly, Roland Whittle found the spontaneity of Sanguinetti’s to his liking and typical of Italian restaurants, he also liked their familial ambience. “One can drop into the little place almost any evening and hear the Italian folk song sung in the sweet, languorous music and tongue of South Italy,” he wrote.

Next door to Sanguinetti’s on Sansome Street was Lucchetti’s which opened in 1874 was a major competitor. Whittle put down the equally popular Lucchetti’s as “a large, straggling barn, uncomfortable in its fittings and devoid of artistic setting. The walls are devoid of ornament, except for gaudy advertisements of cigarettes and liquor,” he wrote. On Sunday nights, Lucchetti’s was in its glory, since that was when the Italian local fishermen who frequented the restaurant left the place to younger Americans eager for a night on the town. Their rowdy behavior indicated to Whittle that they were not interested in the fifty-cent meals of soup, fish, chicken, ravioli and spaghetti, but in a “mad, wild frolic” and “rough flirtations” with the ladies.

Coppa’s restaurant in the old Montgomery Block, 1910

Coppa’s, located in the Montgomery Block Building, was the most famous of all the city’s favorite Italian eateries before the 1906 earthquake and fire. Located close to the stock exchange, Coppa’s attracted brokers and financiers during the day, but once the sun set, it was the mecca for “Bohemians”. The food was rated above average, thanks to the culinary expertise of Giuseppe Coppa, the Turinese chef, who had trained in some of the city’s top restaurants. Although Coppa’s survived the earthquake and fire, the landlord raised the rent, forcing Coppa to relocate and, thereafter, open a series of mediocre restaurants.

The fanciest of Italian meals came from the Fior d’Italia, which opened at 504 Broadway on May 1, 1886, under the proprietorship of Angelo Del Monte. Specialties of the house that first year included risotto with clams (ten cents); tortellini (five cents); veal saute (five cents) and a squab casserole (forty cents). Double porterhouse steak-an American dish-was sixty cents.”

Del Monte took in a partner in 1896, a young immigrant known to his customers as Papa Marianetti, from Maggiano, a town between Lucca and Pisa. Like other Italian restaurants, the Fior d’Italia was a family operation that included Marianetti’s, two sons, George and Frank, who shelled peas, bused tables and washed dishes after school. The “Fior,” as the restaurant was known among San Francisco’s Italians, became the Italian community’s “in” spot, where important family events–weddings, baptisms, anniversaries, birthdays and first communions–were celebrated. The Fior d’Italia, presently located near Washington Square in front of St. Peter and Paul Church, was the city’s oldest surviving pioneer Italian restaurant. In 2012, after 126 years of business, Fior D’Italia served its last meal in San Francisco. Citing financial strain, the restaurant closed.

Certainly Bazzurro’s, Campi’s, Coppa’s, Sanguinetti’s, Lucchetti’s and the Fior d’Italia were not the only prominent Italian restaurants in San Francisco before the turn of the century, but they were the most popular among discriminating Italians and locals.These six restaurants laid the groundwork for a gastronomical industry that has profitably contributed to the economic structure of San Francisco. By 1900, when the influx of Italians increased, North Beach had become an eating paradise–at workers’ prices. Italian restaurants stretched along Columbus Avenue from Montgomery Street to Francisco Street, along upper Grant Avenue and along almost every side street between Chinatown and Fisherman’s Wharf.

Source: The Argonaut, Volume 1, No. 1, Spring 1990

San Francisco’s Italian neighborhood, North Beach, is where you will find Italian cafes, restaurants, and shops. You’ll still hear lots of Italian spoken in North Beach and find:

  • Museo Italo Americano at Fort Mason: The museum has a small permanent Italian art collection that includes a beautiful Sicilian cart, changing exhibits, special events and lectures, books, DVDs, a gift shop, Italian language classes and children’s classes. The museum is open to the public daily, noon to 4:00, except Mondays, free.
  • Italian Cultural Institute of San Francisco: 425 Washington Street – The cultural institute holds special events, weekly films on Tuesday evenings and lectures. They have exhibits and a large library and video library, Italian language classes. The Cultural Institute is open Monday-Friday, 9-5. They have a Saturday radio program at 8:00 am, Italian Culture around the Bay, on KUSF 90.3
  • A. Cavalli Italian Bookstore: 1441 Stockton Street off Columbus in North Beach – The store has been in business since 1880. They sell Italian books, magazines, greeting cards, videos and gifts. They now have a cafe, too. The store is closed on Sundays.
  • Molinari’s Deli: 373 Columbus Avenue in North Beach – Molinari’s has been in San Francisco for more than 100 years. It has lots of Italian imports including wines, meats, cheeses, pasta and dry goods. You’ll still see many Italians shopping there, ordering in Italian. It’s a good place for a sandwich. The deli is closed on Sundays.
  • Liguria Bakery: 1700 Stockton Street, in North Beach,

Italian Specialties From San Francisco

Cioppino

Serves 4–6

Ingredients:

  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon crushed red chili flakes
  • 8 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 3 cups fish stock
  • 1 ½ cups whole peeled tomatoes in juice, crushed
  • 10 leaves basil
  • 1 lb. cod, cut into 2″ chunks
  • 1 lb. cleaned calamari, bodies cut into ½″-wide rings
  • 12 oz. medium shrimp, deveined
  • 12 oz. bay scallops
  • 16 clams, cleaned
  • 16 mussels, cleaned
  • 2 2-lb. Dungeness crabs or snow crab legs, halved
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Directions:

Heat oil in an 8-qt. Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add chile flakes and garlic; cook until soft, about 3 minutes. Add stock, tomatoes and basil; boil. Reduce heat to medium-low; cook until slightly thickened, about 10 minutes. Add cod, calamari, shrimp, scallops, clams, mussels and crabs, cover with lid and cook until seafood is cooked through, about 8 minutes; season with salt and pepper. Serve with crusty Italian bread.

Pizza with Wild Nettles

Pizzas with wild nettles are very popular in the Bay area. Nettles grow wild all year in northern California, and chefs use them in as many ways as possible. Because raw nettles can make you itch, it’s best to handle them with gloves or tongs. Once cooked, the nettles lose their sting and have a deep, earthy flavor.

Ingredients:

  • 1 head of garlic
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 4 cups wild nettle leaves, baby spinach or kale
  • Semolina flour

Pizza Dough

  • 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 tablespoon grated Pecorino Romano cheese
  • 1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
  • 1/2 cup (2 ounces) shredded mozzarella cheese
  • 1/2 cup (2 ounces) shredded provolone cheese
  • 1/2 cup (2 ounces) shredded fontina cheese
  • Extra-virgin olive oil

Directions:

Peel outer skins from garlic bulb, leaving cloves attached. Cut off top quarter of the bulb. Place bulb, cut-side up, on a piece of aluminum foil. Drizzle with 1 tablespoon oil and seal foil tightly over garlic.

Bake at 425 degrees F for 45 minutes or until soft. Remove from oven; cool. Scoop out garlic pulp, mash and stir until smooth.

Preheat oven to 450 degrees F with a pizza stone on the bottom rack.

Blanch nettle leaves in salted boiling water 1 minute, drain and plunge into ice water. Remove nettle leaves from water, wringing out excess, and set aside. If using spinach, place in a microwave-safe bowl and heat at high 3 minutes. Set aside.

Sprinkle surface with semolina flour and roll pizza dough into a 12-inch circle.

Spread dough with mashed garlic (garlic won’t cover entire surface); sprinkle with crushed red pepper flakes and black pepper. Sprinkle with Pecorino Romano and thyme.

Roughly chop nettles and spread over thyme. Sprinkle mozzarella, provolone and fontina evenly on pizza. Carefully slide pizza onto the preheated stone; bake 6 to 8 minutes or until edges are lightly browned and crispy. Slice, drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil to taste.

Yield: makes 4 servings

Note: Place pizza on parchment paper—helps slide onto pizza stone.

 

Named after a historical term for “garlic”, The Stinking Rose offers contemporary California-Italian cuisine prepared and adorned with garlic – and strives to accommodate every palate. There is hearty fare for the truly adventurous, mild for the novice, and “sans “garlic for those finding the herb’s folklore and aroma more appealing than its taste.

This recipe is from their cookbook, The Stinking Rose Restaurant in San Francisco.  As the name implies, garlic is their featured ingredient.

Roasted Rabbit With Garlic and Olives

Servings: 4

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
  • 2 rabbits, cleaned, cut into pieces
  • 5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 cup of peeled garlic cloves
  • 1/2 cup pitted assorted olives
  • 3 sprigs thyme leaves, chopped

Directions

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

In a shallow bowl, stir flour, salt and pepper together. Dredge rabbit pieces in flour mixture, completely coating meat on all sides.

In a large cast-iron skillet, heat 3 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat. Put rabbit in the skillet and cook for 4-5 minutes on each side, until nicely browned.

In a small bowl, toss the garlic with 1 tablespoon olive oil to coat completely.

Transfer rabbit to a baking dish and sprinkle with garlic, olives and thyme. Bake, uncovered, for about an hour or until the garlic cloves are golden brown and the rabbit is browned on the outside and opaque throughout.

Drizzle the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil in an abstract pattern on a serving platter and arrange rabbit on top. Scoop the garlic cloves and olives from the baking dish and sprinkle over the rabbit. Serve immediately.

 

SPQR is an acronym for Senatus Populusque Romanus and translates to “The People and Senate of Rome” and was the emblem of the Roman Empire. 

Executive Chef Matthew Accarrino at SPQR in San Francisco was born in the Midwest and raised in New Jersey, Accarrino began his culinary journey in high school working his way up from dishwasher to cook in small local restaurants. With the desire to receive formal training, Accarrino enrolled in The Culinary Institute of America, where in 1998, he received his Associate Degree in Culinary Arts.

He has trained abroad in Italy and worked for some of America’s best chefs including Todd English, Rick Moonen, Tom Colicchio and Thomas Keller. In late 2009 he moved to Northern California and joined the intimate restaurant SPQR as Executive Chef. Since his arrival, Accarrino has been named Star Chefs’ 2010 Rising Star for his “innovative vision, finesse and deeply satisfying cuisine,” and in 2011 he took top honors at San Francisco’s Cochon 555 competition. Accarrino was nominated by the James Beard Foundation as a semifinalist for “Best Chef: Pacific” in 2012 and the restaurant received its first Michelin star under his direction in the 2013 guide. He is also co-author of the book SPQR: Modern Italian Food and Wine, which was released in fall 2012.

Here is one of Chef Accarrino’s recipes:

Tagliatelle with Poppy Seeds and Prosciutto

Serves 4–6

Ingredients:

  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 large shallots, thinly sliced
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 2 tablespoons poppy seeds
  • 1/2 cup white wine
  • 1/2 cup buttermilk
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 1 lb. tagliatelle or fettuccine
  • 2 oz. prosciutto, thinly sliced
  • 1/2 cup finely grated Parmesan, plus more to garnish
  • 4 scallions, cut into ½″ slices
  • Juice of ½ lemon

Directions:

Heat butter and oil in a 12″ skillet over medium-high heat. Add shallots. Season with salt and pepper and cook, stirring, until soft, about 2 minutes.

Add poppy seeds; cook, stirring, until fragrant and shallots just begin to brown, about 3 minutes. Add wine; cook until almost all liquid evaporates, about 5 minutes.

Add buttermilk and cream; cook, stirring, until reduced slightly, about 3 minutes.

Meanwhile, bring a pot of salted water to a boil; add pasta and cook until al dente, about 7 minutes. Drain pasta, reserving some cooking water, and add to the sauce in the skillet.

Add prosciutto, Parmesan, half the scallions and lemon juice; toss to combine, adding pasta cooking water if necessary to make a smooth sauce.

Season with salt and pepper and transfer to a serving dish; sprinkle with remaining scallions and more Parmesan.

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