Gigi Fiorucci: A North Beach chef comes full circle
By GraceAnn Walden
Gigi Fiorucci has owned, run, sold, or closed about a dozen restaurants in San Francisco.
Solid Italian food has always been his specialty whether at the Double Play in the Potrero District, or the Montclair, or now at Sotto Mare, located where the Montclair (later Dante Benedetti’s New Pisa) once graced Green Street. His restaurant life has come full circle.
But to understand Fiorucci, you need to spend time with him and hear his stories. He was born in the Marche region of Italy, distinguished by its mountains that gracefully lead to the Adriatic Sea. His family lived in the mountainous region and had farmed the same land for generations. “They grew wheat, corn, whatever the hell they could to make a living. Some of the land was so steep, you could only work it with animals, no tractors” he explains.
There were three children. He has two sisters; one lives in Millbrae, the other in Umbria. He was the baby. ”My father came to America to see his father, who he had never known,” says Fiorucci. “I came five years later; I was 11.”
His family settled at Grant Avenue and Union Street, where he still lives today, 53 years later.
So what was life like then in North Beach?
“I went to school at Sts. Peter and Paul, shined shoes, fished off the pier, and stole bicycles,” he says with a chuckle.
Fiorucci and I are sitting at the bar at Caesar’s, swapping jokes with the bartender. It’s a Friday night, and the place is filled with multigenerational Italian families. The owners are Luigi Romani, who oversees the front of the house, and chef Matteo Crivello, who runs the kitchen.
Later, we’re seated in the dining room and it’s rocking. There are Chinese-American families, Italian-Americans – fantastic. While we dined, so many people stopped by to say hi to Gigi, I lost count.
Fiorucci and Caesar’s go way back. His first real job was washing dishes there at the age of 15. “In America, we all had to pull our weight … everyone went to the prom; Gigi had to work,” he says without any trace of resentment.
“A lot of guys came here in the ’50s; Lorenzo Petroni [owner of North Beach Restaurant] was a busboy at the old Montclair,” he says. “I’m glad I came here when I did. I saw the real North Beach. The partners who owned Caesar’s left to open the Montclair. These guys and the owner of Cavalli Italian books were the center of the community – helping immigrants,” he says with admiration.
Our appetizer comes – tender, fried calamari with two sauces – one a traditional tomato-horseradish, the other, tartar. We gobble them up.
Next we split a small order of angel hair pasta with tomato sauce and basil. The pasta was expertly cooked; the sauce simple and tasty.
Fiorucci excuses himself from the table and I decide to try the pickled pigs feet, which I haven’t tasted in years. What can you say about pigs’ feet: tender meat, lots of blubbery skin, and the sharp tang of vinegar.
He returns and confesses he went out for a cigarette. He also relates that he had a run-in with prostate cancer awhile back. I want to hit him in the head with a pig’s trotter for still smoking.
After our meal, we share a cigarette outside.
At Sotto Mare (means under the sea), Fiorucci runs a place very much like the Swan Oyster Depot, including a fish market, which may be why he chooses the beef brochette entree. It’s made at Caesar’s with filet mignon. I try a bite. It’s tender and nicely flavored. I opt for the cioppino. The bowl is chock full of mussels, clams and cracked crab in a marinara sauce. I take half of it home.
Portions are large. I can’t imagine how people finish the seven-course dinners offered (priced $22-$39 depending on the entrée).
Fiorucci suggests we split a cannoli for dessert. We both carp at the fact it doesn’t have candied fruit in the ricotta filling.
We get back to his life in North Beach when he was a kid. The family of five and his grandfather lived together in a two-bedroom flat. “I slept with my grandfather as a kid. After being in the States for 72 years, he went back to Italy, at the age of 90.” Fiorucci says he walked in and said to his wife, “I’m home.”
In 1965, Fiorucci was drafted for the Vietnam War, but remained stateside. “I cooked for 400 WACs at the Presidio – the Army made me a sergeant.”
For his first restaurant, he and two partners bought the Montclair and ran it for six years. Fiorucci was the cook and did just about everything else. “We sold it to a Mafia guy, and eight months later the legendary Dante Benedetti moved his New Pisa there to 550 Green Street,” he says.
I can’t resist; I ask, “Is there a Mafia in North Beach.” I’m not surprised when he says, “Of course, but it is small time.”
If you follow Fiorucci’s restaurant career, and it’s not easy, he opened restaurants, ran each one five or six years, and then sold them. Every time he sold one, he and his wife of 25 years, Phyllis, traveled.
His latest project with builder Giovanni Toracco is a gift to North Beach. They bought the building where New Pisa was and turned the upstairs into a SRO residence, with 22 affordable units renting for $850–$1,100. Both the kitchen and bathrooms are communal.
Fiorucci’s restaurant, Sotto Mare, is on the first floor; next door is a new Italian restaurant.
So, is he going to retire now that he’s 63?
“I don’t think so, I’m having too much fun,” he explains.
Caesar’s Italian Restaurant: 2299 Powell St. (at Bay), 415-989-6000
Sotto Mare: 552 Green St. (at Jasper), 415-398-3181
GraceAnn Walden leads tours of North Beach and always gets the scoop. For more information, visit www.graceannwalden.net. E-mail: email@example.com