Italian restaurants in San Francisco are articles of export. The energies of many immigrants from Italy to the U.S. went into introducing their “old country” culinary expertise to create a viable industry in San Francisco. Such efforts were not officially recognized by the critics until Holiday Magazine made note in the 1950’s. Fior d’Italia is the city’s oldest surviving Italian restaurant established in 1886. Buon Gusto has created the best sausage since the seventies, featuring Genoese pasta with pesto as well as polenta with cioppino. Julius’ Castle is still known for its zucchini Florentine. Lucca Deli has served the Marina District at the same location since 1929. Salami hanging from the ceiling and wheels of cheese in open racks introduce you to employees who still roll their ravioli by hand to achieve a light and tender product. Tommaso’s opened in North Beach in 1935 with the first wood-fire brick pizza oven on the West Coast. (more…)
Two dancers that rivaled Carol Doda on the Broadway nightclub scene were Yvonne D’Angers and Gaye Spiegelman. Born in Tehran, Iran, D’Angers’ nickname was Persian Lamb. Her main haunt was the Off Broadway on Kearny St. whose client list also included Doda and a topless girl-band called The Ladybirds. In a publicity stunt, D’Angers chained herself to the Golden Gate Bridge to protest her deportation to Iran, which was overturned in 1968.
Gaye Spiegelman was a graduate of Santa Rosa High School in Sonoma County and danced at the El Cid where the marquee billed her as “The Topless Mother of Eight”. Her act also included singing. She recorded a not too popular single with Accent Records titled “Momma Wants to be a Go-Go Girl”. In a tragic car accident in 1968, she died along with three of her children. (more…)
Besides the strip clubs, there was family entertainment along Broadway as well during the 1960’s. Basin Street West featured breakfast shows, which started around 2:30 a.m. On one particular morning Tina Turner was the featured star. Janis Joplin, who had drifted in after her performance at Winterland, was in the audience. When introduced, she jumped on stage as Tina gave her the old “stink eye”. A vocal duel ensued for the next two hours where Tina would belt out “Proud Mary” before handing the mic to Janis with a dare. Janis took on the challenge with “Piece of My Heart” and so it went on until the house lights came on, forcing them to stop at 4:30 a.m. to the chagrin of all present. In his next column, Herb Caen lamented he had missed such an iconic moment. (more…)
North Beach used to be part of the Barbary Coast, a district known during the gold rush days for prostitution and crime. During the 1960s, adult entertainment returned to Broadway, San Francisco, as a sort of cheeky celebration of those Wild West days. The Condor Club opened in 1964 as America’s first topless bar. Carol Doda would make her grand entrance dancing seductively atop a piano, which was lowered from on high. She enhanced her bust from size 34 to 44 through silicone injections. Her breasts became known as Doda’s “twin 44s” and the new “Twin Peaks of San Francisco”. Much later in 1983 this same piano would accidentally rise to the ceiling, crushing to death “Jimmy the Beard” Ferrozzo who was lying atop his girlfriend.
Art Norack owned or was a partner in almost every club along the strip. (more…)
During the 1950s, the beatniks in North Beach would gather on the oldest street in San Francisco—Grant Avenue, which terminated with a narrow, four-block corridor crammed with bars, galleries, art shops, bookstores and Italian bakeries. Besides Vesuvio’s, City Lights, The Cellars, and Co-Existence Bagel Shop, other popular venues for these unconventional free-spirits were the Coffee Gallery and The Place. A few older local entrepreneurs, however, often vied with consumers over the “value” of these bohemians. Charges were placed with police that some of these establishments, such as Caffe Trieste, sold bootlegged whiskey. While the majority of the locals did not share this sentiment, a small conservative residential group demanded a crackdown in the summer of 1957. (more…)
The Beatnik Era took hold in the North Beach area of San Francisco for many reasons. The district already owned a reputation for permissiveness by looking the other way when it came to the speakeasies during Prohibition and the sex-entertainment industry of the 1940’s. North Beach’s vibrant bar and café scene, physical isolation and low rents were big selling points as well. In addition, the postwar growth of the California School of Fine Arts on nearby Russian Hill plus the influx of writers propelled a beat movement, which began in 1953. Jack Kerouac’s On the Road drew national attention. When the police tried to suppress Allen Ginsberg’s poem, “Howl”, the resulting media frenzy backfired. Young people flocked to North Beach in an attempt to escape the drab routine of the nine-to-five, gray-flannel syndrome. (more…)
North Beach during W.W.II saw the government classify thousands of Italian immigrants as “enemy aliens” after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Among those were Giuseppe and Rosalia DiMaggio. Each was required to carry photo ID booklets at all times and were not allowed to travel outside a five-mile radius from their home without a permit. Giuseppe’s fishing boat was seized and he was barred from San Francisco Bay.
Nevertheless, their son Joe, like most others, felt obligated to do their part. DiMaggio traded a $43,750 Yankees salary for a payment of $50 each month when he chose to enlist in the army on February 17th, 1943. Other sacrifices were made as well. (more…)
Like many U.S. citizens, the residents of North Beach during W.W.II feared the worst after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941. The enemy had deployed their secret weapons (submarine aircraft carriers) along the West Coast to instill the perception that their Imperial Navy would continue the onslaught. The Western Command on December 8 received reports of enemy ships near the Farallon Islands. General William Ord Ryan of the Fourth Interceptor Command said a large number of unidentified aircraft were turned back at the Golden Gate. On Christmas Eve rumors spread that Japanese submarines were to surface and shell San Francisco with their 5.5-inch deck cannons. Less than twenty-four hours later, the headline of the Chronicle read “The Victim of a Jap Sub”. The American freighter Absaroka had been badly damaged with the lone fatality being a sixty-seven-year-old from North Beach, San Francisco. (more…)
Optimism abounded in the North Beach District of San Francisco like so many other neighborhoods throughout the nation during the 1920s. It was a time of easy credit and installment buying. Until it wasn’t. On Black Tuesday, Oct. 29, 1929, the stock market crashed and sent everything spinning downward. Banks closed, credit dried up. The exuberant hurly-burly that was San Francisco stuttered to a crawl. It seemed everyone was out of work. There was not much meat but fish from nearby Fisherman’s Wharf was cheap. You ate a lot of soup as well— split pea, lentil, vegetable soup. Occasionally you might splurge and eat at Lucca’s restaurant on Powell and Francisco Streets in North Beach. It had a sign: “All you can eat for 50 cents.” Another local bargain was the San Remo Hotel (top photo), where you could order a Genoa-style full course dinner for less than a buck. (more…)
North Beach during Prohibition remained a wide open city. San Francisco officials rejected the idea of enforcing the law against alcohol, allowing its citizen to continue their gin-guzzling ways. The mafia from the East Coast moved in to control the speakeasies and flow of illegal booze. In 1928 a four-year power struggle for control of North Beach resulted in a blood bath that included the deaths of five different Sicilian bosses all of whom had brief reigns in the district. In 1932 at the Del Monte Barber Shop at 720 Columbus Avenue (North Beach Citizens’ headquarters today), Luigi Malvese was gunned down in a hail of bullets with the killer applying the coup de grace behind the ear. The manager of the shop dragged Malvese out to the gutter before returning inside and resuming business. (more…)