Santo Esposito - the hardest working man in North Beach
By GraceAnn Walden
Santo Esposito is the quintessential hard-working immigrant. Almost three years ago, he bought the 129-year-old Cavalli Italian Bookstore intending to update it by adding coffee, pastries and light fare, like pasta and sandwiches.
It wasn’t easy. There was the usual opposition every step of the way from a neighborhood group that likes to impact North Beach, but doesn’t patronize it much.
Esposito jumped over hurdles for everything from a welcoming sidewalk table to his light food – all successfully.
Six days a week, he works from 11 a.m. until 2 a.m. On Sunday he closes at 7 p.m. His wife, Yanessa, relieves him for an hour in the afternoon, usually bringing their sleeping son, Santo Jr., with her.
I am not being over the top when I say he makes the best cappuccino in North Beach. I’ve tried his pasta and sandwiches, too, which are also terrific.
So, where did this former chef and waiter get the fortitude to strive for success? The answer to that question lies in his personal history.
Esposito was born in Ascea Marina, in the Salerno Province, 100 miles south of Naples. He and his three brothers and two sisters grew up on a farm. Their family grew potatoes and tomatoes. They also had 10 cows, 60 sheep, rabbits, goats, donkeys, and geese.
His story is one that I have heard before from friends who grew up on farms – the kids were unpaid laborers from an early age.
“One of my brothers still doesn’t speak to my father,” Esposito says.
His grandparents had a pizza oven, so he learned how to make focaccia, bread and pizza. That talent would be prophetic and also problematic.
He left Italy for England when he was 19. He lived in an Italian neighborhood in London and worked first as a dishwasher, and then as a pizza chef.
When he was 24, he briefly came to San Francisco. One legacy of those days is a daughter, Giovanna, now 14, whom he sees and talks to all the time.
The irony for Esposito is that although he is a terrific Neapolitan pizza chef, the thin-crusted pizza we all crave, he discovered during his working years that he was allergic to flour.
“It would make me sneeze, get a headache and a stomachache …” he says.
We will be dining at L’Osteria del Forno, and Esposito is excited to be trying it. Yanessa has arrived with Santo Jr. to watch the store, and we have one hour for our interview and lunch. As we leave, his 25-month-old son grasps his legs and doesn’t want him to go.
For more than 15 years, L’Osteria del Forno has been one of my favorite holes-in-the-wall. I’ve recommended it to everyone who has ever taken a tour with me of North Beach, so I am very pleased by his choice.
The next time Esposito came to San Francisco, he asked to be taken to North Beach, but when he saw a place downtown named Café D’Amico, he said, “Stop here.”
Amico means friend in Italian. And in that cafe he found a friend in the owner, Miguela D’Amico. D’Amico really didn’t need any help, but he let Esposito work there for food and to sleep on the floor.
For years he worked around North Beach as a waiter, until he bought Cavalli almost three years ago.
We decide on some dishes while we talk. Because of his allergy, he cannot eat pizza, but I get a slice of the Margherita. The dough is crisp at the edges and the pie is not overloaded with tomato sauce and cheese. It’s perfect.
Esposito orders a terrific dish of roasted russet potatoes, yams and carrots with rosemary. I take a couple of bites and it’s very good. I also order the grilled radicchio wrapped in Parma prosciutto. I hadn’t had this dish before. One bite of the caramelized, slightly bitter radicchio, wrapped in the velvety and salty prosciutto, and I felt the heavens had opened and the goddess herself was sending rays of deliciousness my way.
He’s learned a lot from running his own business. Just recently, he cut back on his morning hours, and is staying open late (the cafe is now open from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.) to concentrate on offering a fuller menu, but with all dishes priced under $10.
“The other day, three teenagers came in and they were so happy with my food and the price,” he says smiling. “I know I can bring this place up … I have a lot of regulars already, and I have a lot of energy.”
Cavalli Italian Bookstore & Café: 1441 Stockton Street (at Columbus), 415-421-4219
L’Osteria del Forno: 519 Columbus Avenue (near Stockton), 415-982-1124, www.losteriadelforno.com
GraceAnn Walden leads tours of North Beach and always gets the scoop. For more information, visit www.graceannwalden.net. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org