Gigi Fiorucci and his signature cioppino
Many years ago when I was a young and impressionable reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle
, the paper published an annual tabloid section called the “Gourmet Guide to San Francisco Restaurants.” Most likely because I was wet behind the ears, newly graduated from copyboy to reporter, and therefore expendable, Scott Newhall, Sunday editor, called me to his desk (no one had offices) and named me editor of that year’s big restaurant special.
With a high degree of false modesty I demurred. “I’m a writer. I’m not sure I’m ready to be an editor,” I told him.
“Don’t worry too much about it. Most of the job will be eating in restaurants. You do know how to eat, don’t you?” Newhall asked.
He had the right man (or boy) for the job – I did know how to eat. With my appetite in good order and an almost unlimited expense account to pick up the tabs for my restaurant forays, it was the greatest assignment I ever had.
My best meal during that experience was at Swan Oyster Depot over on Polk Street. It was a crab Louis augmented by really sour sourdough bread and a glass of Fumé Blanc. I wrote glowingly about the meal for the old Chron
. I’ve never forgotten that experience, and I still go to Swan today.
Fade out, fade in: I now can be seen occasionally at Gigi’s Sotto Mare Oysteria and Seafood Restaurant at 552 Green Street in North Beach. I find it Swan-like – if you will.
A paper towel place
It is possible to categorize restaurants by their napkins. There are starched, white tablecloth restaurants whose napkins are fashioned whimsically into swans or whatever. There are paper-napkin places and that’s OK too. Then along comes Gigi’s Sotto Mare (sotto mare is Italian for “under the sea”). Gigi’s is a paper-towel place. A role of the big absorbent squares sits upright at each table and counter space along with sea salt, pepper grinders, hot sauce, olive oil, and wine vinegar. No tablecloths, just a lot of down-home, fishy atmosphere, great seafood, and North Beach Italian style.
It seems odd that until a few years ago there was not one big-time seafood restaurant in North Beach. Sure, there were restaurants that served seafood, and good seafood too, as befitting a neighborhood full of Sicilians. Nevertheless, when Gigi opened his place in 2007, it was the shot heard ’round the world – or at least around North Beach. From the day it opened, Gigi’s looked like it had been there since the ’06 earthquake and fire.
Gigi Fiorucci, il capo executive chef at this eponymous seafood establishment has owned or been involved with more than a dozen other restaurants in San Francisco and elsewhere. He was an owner of the popular Montclair at 550 Green Street from 1967 to 1973. At one time he owned and operated Caesars, Maye’s Oyster House and the Double Play near the old Seal’s Stadium. In 2005 he acquired the three-story building where Gigi’s is located. It was built in 1919, housed the Cosmopolitan Hotel, and served food to roomers and others in the neighborhood.
Gigi runs a tight ship
Gigi and local builder Giovanni Toracco reconstructed the building and restored it as a residential hotel. He called it Pensione Dante Benedetti after the revered baseball coach and restaurateur whose New Pisa was at the same location. Gigi’s Sotto Mare occupies the ground floor, a deep, narrow space that looks a bit like a super-sized Swan Oyster Depot.
Gigi is a native of Marche, a mountainous region of Italy along the Adriatic Sea. His family worked as tenant farmers on a feudal estate. When he was 12, he and his mother and a sister came to the United States. His father had come here earlier. The family settled in North Beach on Grant Avenue near Union Street. His first job was washing dishes. He learned to cook from his family and by the courtesy of the U.S. Army when he was drafted in 1965.
An opinionated and passionate guy – it would be a good idea not to ask him for tartar sauce to accompany your grilled fish – he can be outgoing and friendly to customers. But Gigi runs a tight ship. He watches his line cooks as intently as the captain of a fishing boat watches his nets and lines. Fortunately, those cooks are turning out some of the best seafood dishes in town.
A mountain of Dungeness crab
One day for lunch I sat at the counter so I could see what was going on and had Gigi’s crab Louis ($23). The salad was superb: a mountain of fresh Dungeness crab on top of shredded iceberg lettuce. The dressing that came in a silver serving boat was a classic Louie – creamy with mayonnaise and just enough catsup to give it some authority. I give that lunch high marks.
Benita’s Baccala is a winner
Another time a buddy and I felt in a Gigi’s mood and he required the sand dabs ($19). OK, that’s what I wanted, but I opted for the linguine with seafood ($17). Actually, I wish I had insisted on the dabs and turned him loose on something else. The boned dabs were griddled brown and elegant on their large oval plate and required just a touch of lemon – no tartar sauce. My linguine was fine, but didn’t have the punch I wanted.
The big hit that day though was our appetizer, Benita’s Baccala ($8), which was plenty for two. Benita was Gigi’s mother, and her baccala is lusty, reconstituted dried salt cod cooked in olive oil, tomatoes, garlic, black olives, and capers.
I took my wife for dinner at Gigi’s, and we decided to go all the way and ordered the crab cioppino ($27). It was exceptional, a brilliant rendition of an old San Francisco standby, served in a large silver bowl with a lid. In a pungent, tomatoey broth were Dungeness crab legs and body meat lurking in their gelatinous shells, calamari, shrimp, clams, mussels, and even a few penne pasta. It’s the hottest item on the menu and perhaps the most satisfying.
A vote of confidence for the dabs
When the iconic restaurateur Ed Moose died awhile back, a bunch of us North Beach types held a kind of traveling wake for that Irishman by ambling from Gino & Carlo, where we loosened our vocal chords with Campari and brandy floats, to Gigi’s for several dozen West and East Coast oysters on the half shell ($1.50 per for West Coasters and $2.50 for the Easterners). We also gave a vote of confidence to the aforementioned sand dabs, the Boston clam chowder (a bowl $7.50 or $6.50 with entrées, a cup $5 with entrées), and the prawn cocktails ($11).
You would be right in believing that Gigi is not giving it away. However, the prices are fair. Portions are generous and the seafood is fresh and succulent.
The shellfish shines
The oysters were formidable. Beausoleils from the Acadian Peninsula of Canada were chewy and magnificently briny, requiring only a squeeze of lemon. The Pacific Miyagis were from Marin County. I found them gentler somehow – maybe they led a gentler life.
The chowder is resplendent with clam chunks that somehow aren’t rubbery like so many chowders. It was thickened with potatoes but not to the point of being gummy like cornstarch makes some soups. I didn’t have the prawn cocktail, but it got thumbs up from those who did.
I dropped in for lunch another day and decided on the sea scallops. That proved to be a brilliant idea – eight, large beautiful scallops sautéed but not to the point of being chewy. They were shot through with the flavor of the sea.
Many entrees are served with mixed vegetables sautéed in olive oil – things like broccoli, zucchini and carrots, sometimes summer squash – and are usually al dente, not mushed up, and that’s a blessing to me.
Gigi’s also operates as a retail fish and seafood market. It’s driven by what comes in fresh. Prices are competitive.
Gigi’s Sotto Mare Oysteria and Seafood Restaurant: 552 Green Street (near Jasper Alley), Monday–Saturday 11 a.m.–9:20 p.m., 415-398-3181, www.sottomaresf.com
Casual, old North Beach style, funky and fun with a staff that is unfailingly cheerful and user-friendly.
Not bad even when crowded in the evening. Maybe all the knickknacks, mounted fish and memorabilia on the walls of the long, narrow room baffle the sound.
Well lit so you can see what’s going on with fellow diners and cooks in the open kitchen.
The grilled sand dabs are winners; the crab Louis is big and splendid; Benita’s Baccala is an appetizer to smear on your sourdough bread; and the big mama of Sotto Mare, crab cioppino, is formidable.
WHAT THE DIAMONDS MEAN
Ratings range from zero to four diamonds and reflect food, atmosphere and service, taking price range and type of restaurant into consideration.
OUR REVIEW POLICY
We conduct multiple visits anonymously and pay our own tab.