The ‘Old Stoves’ of North Beach

Laurie Smith

I wake up early, when the cable cars start rolling past my house in North Beach, and amble down the hill to the Dolphin Club at Aquatic Park for a wake-up dip. As I pass through the clubhouse, I see Lou "the Glue" Marcelli in the galley, cleaning calamari for his lunch. Lou, the club custodian, lives upstairs, and cooks for himself every day in this boat-style kitchen overlooking the bay. Today, he'll make himself calamari pasta in red sauce, with plenty of parsley and garlic. It's an old family recipe, he says—the kind of dish the fishermen used to whip up on their boats out in the bay. His father, who immigrated to California in 1914, was one of those fishermen. "During World War II," Lou remembers, "my father fished for shark. Shark's liver was prized by the bomber pilots for improving night vision." As he talks, he slides his knife smoothly along one glistening squid after another, scraping off the skin as he forces out the innards. "It should only take you 15 minutes from start to finish to make this dish," he adds, looking up from his work for a moment, "and that includes cleaning the calamari."

Lou the Glue (he says he earned his nickname because he used to stick around a certain local bar as if glued to the spot) is an "old stove." "Old stove" is gentle, complimentary North Beach slang for someone who has put in a lot of time in front of a lot of stoves in his or her day. Old stoves are sometimes restaurant chefs, or retired restaurant chefs—but more often they're simply home cooks, with many years of experience making savory dishes for themselves, their families, and their friends. Old stoves are renowned throughout the community for their culinary skills. They're old souls, legends, well-aged and cured. There is not one chance in a million that you'll have a bad meal at the hands of an old stove.

I've lived in North Beach—a blustery, boozy northeastern San Francisco neighborhood with an undeniably warm and garlicky heart—off and on for more than 20 years. It was here that I learned to cook, to eat, and to drink. I came of age in North Beach. I have also been lucky enough, in the time I've spent here, to get to know a number of old stoves, and to learn from them—and to enjoy their forthright, vivid, delicious cooking. Sometimes they even let me have their recipes.

With the possible exception of New York's Little Italy, North Beach is the most famous Italian quarter in America. It was here, in fact, that the country's first Columbus Day parade was held, back in 1869. The borders of the neighborhood are somewhat blurrily defined, but everyone would agree that it climbs the steep slopes of Telegraph and Russian hills and spreads down Columbus Avenue to the bay. (There really was a beach here once, but it was gradually buried under landfill, beginning in 1849.)

Italian immigrants first started arriving in San Francisco in substantial numbers in the late 19th century, perhaps drawn by the cool but distinctly Mediterranean climate. Many of these pioneers came from the northern regions of Piedmont and Liguria, and especially the port city of Genoa. Later, these were joined by Tuscans, Sicilians, and other Italians. And because many of these immigrants were (or quickly became) fishermen, it was natural that they'd settle in the cheap housing near the wharves at the end of Columbus Avenue.

By the turn of the century, a thriving community had grown up around what is now called Fisherman's Wharf, with amateur cooks setting up tables to sell fresh-caught crab and sourdough bread to the fishermen and their customers—and a line of caffes and simple restaurants extending up Columbus into the heart of North Beach. The neighborhood artisans and craftsmen soon grew famous for their skills, and Italians from North Beach helped rebuild much of San Francisco after the devastating earthquake of 1906.

If they wanted to, Italians could live a lifetime in North Beach without ever speaking a word of English. Here, they could do virtually everything they would have done back home—fish, sell (and eat) familiar produce, cook, bake, paint, sculpt, write poetry, sing opera, play bocce ball, make wine. (When I first came to North Beach as a child, I saw what I thought was blood running in the gutters; then I realized that the "blood" was actually harvesttime spillover from the garage wineries that were then all over North Beach, using grapes shipped down from the Napa Valley in open railway cars.) They could also do more strictly American things, like play baseball—Joe DiMaggio was born in nearby Martinez, but grew up, and probably first picked up a bat, in North Beach—or even become mayor of San Francisco, as did North Beach-born Joseph Alioto.

After World War II, as some of the more prosperous Italians started "moving up" and out of the neighborhood, North Beach began attracting writers and artists and other bohemian types, not necessarily Italian, drawn by the same pleasant climate and inexpensive living quarters that had appealed to their predecessors. In the 1950s, local bars, cafes, and restaurants (almost inevitably Italian, and cheap) became the meeting ground for the loosely knit group of poets and writers who became known as the Beat Generation—among them Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Michael McClure—and the Beats added another layer of culture to the area, still vital today.

Life in North Beach is perfumed by food, driven by food, about food. You can't walk down the street without inhaling the savory aromas of roasting coffee, baking bread, sizzling garlic and onions. Almost very second storefront has something to do with food or drink. Shopping for food in North Beach is like shopping in the Old Country—a leisurely pursuit, liberally fueled with coffee (and maybe, later in the day, with wine), involving stops at a dozen or a score of places, each one specializing in something different.

Today, for instance, I've got to buy some things for a dinner I plan to cook for a few friends. My first stop, though, is North Beach's premier caffe, the Trieste, where Iolanda greets me from behind the counter with her usual "Ciao, bella," and draws me a cappuccino. Then I head over to Danilo Bakery for my first purchase of the day, a bag of the best breadsticks in town. (The bakery also makes exquisite bread crumbs out of day-old bread dried in a hammock-like contraption in the basement oven room. Some old stoves won't use any other kind when they cook.) Next, it's Florence Ravioli Factory for a box of Bobby Silvestri's fresh tortellini. Florence Ravioli, which also stocks salt cod and a host of other essential ingredients of North Beach cuisine, smells just the way it did when I used to come here as a little girl with my mother and our neighbor Eda Beronio to buy pickled pigs' feet, dried mushrooms, mortadella, and parmesan cheese (the kind that didn't come in those metallic-green cardboard cans)—all quite exotic to me at the time.

By 10 a.m., I'm ready for another coffee—a quick shot of espresso this time, at Mario's Bohemian Cigar Store (which hasn't sold cigars for years), overlooking Washington Square. After that, I stop by the Parkview Beauty Salon, where all the feminine old stoves go to get their hair done. I'm here because the salon's owner, Joe Jachetta, has promised me his recipe for Picon Punch, a famous old North Beach drink based on the French (but Italian-style) aperitif, Amer Picon. Joe's grandfather was one of the first cooks at Ristorante Fior d'Italia, San Francisco's oldest Italian restaurant (though not, frankly, one of my favorites). The story is that he sat out the earthquake of 1906 on a barge in the bay, watching the city tremble and burn. Joe reminds me, as he gives me the recipe, that the famous old stove and one-time barkeep Rose Pistola (of whom more below) used to send trays of Picon Punch over to the Parkview from her bar—which was located where the Washington Square Bar & Grill now stands—whenever she knew that a couple of her Italian girlfriends were under the dryer.

Next, I visit Iacopi's butcher shop—where enormous branches of fresh rosemary and assorted prosciuttos and homemade sausages still hang from the ceiling just as they've done for decades—to pick up some Toscano garlic sausage and pancetta from proprietor Leo Rossi. Leo is in a loquacious mood, and we get to talking about his late uncle Bruno Iacopi, who was my first cooking mentor in North Beach.

I used to do catering, and whenever I needed to prepare large quantities of meat, I went straight to Bruno. Vitello tonnato for 200? "A breeze," he'd say, showing me how to wrap perfectly trimmed veal tenderloins in tea towels, with herbs and lemon slices, for simmering. Capretto (baby goat) for 2,000? He'd tell me exactly how to barbecue it, basting it with olive oil, wine vinegar, lemon juice, garlic, and rosemary just before it came off the grill. And I was hardly the only one who benefited from his skills. He'd give simple directions to any one of his customers for cooking sausage and polenta, or roasting a stuffed shoulder of veal. And he taught us all about cheese—especially about Monterey jack. He always had a big, ripe square of teleme, which is soft jack, on the edge of his counter, next to big wheels of dried jack, their rinds crusted with a mixture of powdered chocolate, black pepper, and olive oil. Leo keeps the same cheeses on display.

I told Leo that Mary Etta Moose, the North Beach historian and recipe archivist who formerly ran the Washington Square Bar & Grill, had recently introduced me to a North Beach creation known as the "Goldensandwich"—one word—at her new Moose's restaurant. This, she said, was one of Bruno's inventions. "His favorite time of the year was May," she had explained, "because that was when the flavor of the teleme peaked. This was due, he said, to a certain flower that the cows eat only in late spring." When the season was right, Bruno would split a sheet of hot-from-the-oven focaccia, wedge a softened slab of ripe teleme inside, wrap the whole thing in foil, and press it to his ample chest for a few minutes while the cheese melted. All the while, she recalled, his eyes would shine as if he were concealing a surprise.

When I get home, I check my messages. My two most pressing calls, of course, are about food. The first is from my childhood pal Chris Pray, who has phoned to tell me that 86-year-old Rose Pistola, one of the most revered of the old stoves, has invited us over that night for her famous stuffed calamari and calamari cakes. The other is from Joe Delgado, a slightly younger old stove, who has offered to come over in a few days and make baccala (salt cod) salad for me. In the meantime, he just wants to make sure I understand exactly how to soak it to remove the salt in which it is preserved. The firm, snowy-white sheets of fish, he reminds me in his message, must be softened and desalted in four separate batches of fresh water over a period of at least a day and a half.

When Chris and I get to Rose's house that night, it smells so good it makes you want to cry. Her tomato-based "gravy" has been simmering for four hours by that time. As she stuffs the bodies of the plump little squid she has found at her favorite fish shop, A. Friscia Seafoods, she tells us tales of the old days in North Beach.

Her father was a fisherman, she begins, and her mother was a wonderful cook. Early every morning she'd make brown-bag lunches for the whole family, with sandwiches of breaded eggplant or fresh tomatoes bought off the horse-drawn vegetable wagon that would come around every day. "A young girl could not go out alone in those days," she explains, now frying each stuffed calamari to a crisp golden brown, "so I was always home helping my mother cook. She taught me all I know. When I got a little older, I quit school and went to work for Del Monte at the peach-canning factory that used to be just down the block. I'd get in terrible fights with the other girls there over the best spot to stand." She puts up her fist and adds, "I knocked the hell out of one big blond girl one day, and every day after that the other workers would bet on who'd win between us. I always did."

I ask Rose if Pistola, which means "pistol" in Italian, is her real name. Well, she replies, not exactly. It seems that her second husband, who was known as Smiling Fred the Stone Face, was a waiter at a long-gone restaurant on Broadway. He lived over the restaurant, and one day he got so mad at the cook that he came downstairs and threatened him with a pistol. From then on, he was called Fred Pistola, and she took on the name, too.

Later, when the Pistolas bought their bar on Washington Square—they called it Rose Pistola's—they became hosts to a legendary array of longshoremen, writers, musicians, poets, actors, and even garbagemen. "I danced and sang and drank and sometimes I'd cook," Pistola recalls. "Lou Marcelli and Joe Delgado were always trying to figure out how my husband made his tripe. They never did, but we sure fed them good."

Finally, we sit down at the table and dig into the perfect calamari in its rich red sauce. On the side, as a special treat, we also get to taste the crunchy little fried cakes of ground squid Pistola makes with the leftover tentacles. As we eat, she offers us some culinary advice. "One thing all my grandchildren learned from me," she says, "was to always keep basil around. You never know when you're going to need it. I used to keep some in a jar with garlic and olive oil on the kitchen shelf." She smiles and adds with a twinkle, "And I never went to work without a sprig of basil in my cleavage. Men like a woman who smells like good food."

Another food-filled day in North Beach: In the morning, I go to see Liliano Salvetti at La Felce on via Ferlinghetti (named after the poet), to ask him for his recipe for gnocchi with pesto, something I've been meaning to do for a long time. "Absolutely no problem," says Liliano. As he tells me how to make the dish, he says, "The difficulty with most gnocchi is that people don't know to use baked potato, which gives you a much lighter dough. Furthermore, the reason most pestos taste too sharp and bitter is that they really need a touch of cream as they are being finished off."

Recipe in hand, I set off for Liguria Bakery. Here, I buy some focaccia—the best in town—fresh spongy squares of it, drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with green onions. George and Michael Soracco, the father-and-son team who own the place (with partner August Azzalini), sell nothing but focaccia, and they sell it the old-fashioned way, wrapping the fresh focaccia in white butcher paper with string.

Smelling the warm focaccia has made me hungry, so I decide to stop for lunch. I consider the U.S. Restaurant, because today is Saturday, and that means osso buco is on the menu. But then I settle on a new North Beach restaurant instead, the tiny storefront L'Osteria del Forno. Here, the food is prepared not by old stoves or by American-Italians at all, but by two "new stoves"—Wally Tettamanti and Susanna Borgatti, who moved here from Varese and Bologna, respectively, in the 1980s. Their cooking is lighter and more contemporary than traditional North Beach fare—but they learned to cook from their mothers and grandmothers in Italy, and their food has all the savory goodness that characterizes the North Beach kitchen at its best.

At L'Osteria del Forno, then, I nibble on some of the best house-baked bread in town—a sort of toasted focaccia—as I decide what to order. I end up with tiny, flat, white cipolline flavored with oregano in slightly sweetened vinegar; a taste of insalata rustica, made with tuna, white beans, celery, and oregano; and then slices of a thin-crust pizza with garlic, anchovies, capers, mozzarella, and tomato sauce. For dessert, I sample that absolutely simple and delicious Italian favorite, affogato al caffe, which is nothing more than a scoop of vanilla ice cream floating in espresso.

After lunch, I stop for coffee at Tosca, which might just be the best bar in San Francisco. Tosca's proprietor is Jeannette Etheredge, whose mother is the celebrated Armen Bali. Bali is another famous old North Beach cook, whose now-defunct Bali's restaurant welcomed everyone from Nureyev to Menuhin to Coppola to Saroyan. Tosca opened in 1919, and hasn't changed much since then. The long, polished mahogany bar is dominated on both ends by the oldest espresso machines in the city, dating back to 1927 and 1932. The walls glow with an ocher patina of years of tobacco smoke. Show-business types mingle with impoverished artists and other neighborhood characters at the bar or in the red vinyl booths that run down one side of the room. The 1948 Wurlitzer—the only all-opera jukebox in town—plays background music as I down my espresso and then head home.

I pick up my pace as the chilly fog starts to roll up Columbus Avenue. I tell myself that if Luciano is behind the counter at Graffeo, the oldest coffee roaster in North Beach, I'll stop by for a pound of his dark beans. Sure enough, there he is, checking the computer on his quarter-million-dollar roaster. "The reason you love my coffee so much," he once told me, "is that I always use the same temperature and the same beans from the same source, and this computer eliminates all possibility of human error. I'd be burning thousands of pounds of coffee a week if I didn't have it, because I love talking to my customers so much."

North Beach is my Paris, my Greenwich Village. It is my nourishment, the principal flavor of my life. I never want to leave—not for a great house, a tempting job, even a love affair. I want to stay here so long that maybe one day somebody might remember me as an old stove. I couldn't ask for higher praise.