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A little background on Italian dining in San Francisco

A rather recognizable landmark....
A rather recognizable landmark....

Though San Francisco has only been kept in the national spotlight because Richard Sherman's rant at the end of the Seahawks victory over the Niners, here is a little about the long history of Italian restaurants in San Francisco, the most 'Italian' of this country's cities.

San Francisco is an interesting case. Along with New York and New Orleans, it was regarded as one of the three best restaurant cities in the country for much of the 20th century (even according to Duncan Hines, then a well-known scribe of dining guides for travelers). It also had a large Italian population, and one of that was very involved in both the local and regional food trades. Italian immigrants dominated the busy fishing industry, first Ligurians, later Sicilians. Italians were farmers and distributors. Del Monte Foods was an example of success in this area. They made Italian food products like Molinari, salumi makers founded by an immigrant from Piedmont. They had pasta factories. They opened restaurants. They made wine on a commercial basis north of the city in Sonoma and Napa counties, and most profitably in the Central Valley, roughly a couple hours northeast. They made money. A larger percentage became prosperous there than elsewhere in the country, led by Amedeo Giannini, the founder of the Bank of America. Italians had a big effect on the culinary habits of the area. The expectations of the Italians for good food and wine that accompanied prosperity along with the natural abundance of northern California and San Francisco’s location on the Pacific were significant in creating its reputation as a top restaurant city. Early Italian restaurateurs laid the groundwork for a restaurant industry that contributed to San Francisco's dining repute. The Italians of San Francisco, though, did not add many dishes to the city’s dining repertoire. The famous cioppino, the Dungeness crab-heavy seafood stew was about the only dish to become part of the city’s food culture. Joe’s Special, a version of a frittata might have been a second, much lesser one. Cioppino was introduced at Bazzuro’s restaurant in North Beach. Its name is a corruption of the Genoese term for a similar dish, ciuppin.

San Francisco culinary impact was different in large part because its typical Italian was different. Roughly two-thirds of the Italian immigrants to San Francisco were from northern Italy, primarily from Liguria, western Tuscany, which abutted Liguria, as well as a good number from Piedmont. Later, they were joined by those from Cosenza and its environs in northern Calabria, and greater Palermo in Sicily. The restaurant owners were mostly from the north, nearly all of them prior to the First World War. A guidebook published in 1891 wrote, “If the man…sighs for the plats of the Genoese, he has a dozen Italian restaurants to choose from. Genoese was Italian in San Francisco then. The most popular early San Franciscan Italian restaurant was Coppa’s, founded by a chef from French-influenced Turin, who had worked at San Francisco’s best French restaurant. His successor and son trained in Paris as a saucier – a position unnecessary for Italian cooking – and married a woman from there who later served for years as Coppa’s hostess. Sanguinetti’s was the only one of several very popular restaurants around the turn of the 20th century that was southern Italian in character. Sicilians joined the ranks of restaurateurs over the years. Their eateries – many in touristy Fisherman’s Wharf – reflected the local fishing industry that the Sicilians eventually dominated. These usually served straightforward renditions of the freshly caught fare, along with that signature San Francisco dish, cioppino.

There were not many Neapolitans who gave the sustaining flavor that other cities’ Italian restaurants had. Those featuring southern Italian fare were rare until the inevitable arrival of the pizzeria, which came only in the mid-1930s. Though the popular spaghetti and tomato-sauced dishes were found on the menus of San Francisco’s Italian restaurants, these were typically sidelights, as their focus was elsewhere. Since its early days the city’s dining elites had always preferred food with a French accent. Restaurateurs of all backgrounds were quick to oblige where possible. The red sauce loved by nearly all was much more difficult to find here.

This was excerpted from my ebook, From the Antipasto to the Zabaglione – The Story of Italian Restaurants in America.