One Degree of Separation and a Bicycle
Text and photos © Charles Versaggi
Everybody in North Beach knows Gigi — at least everyone within shouting distance of Caffè Trieste.
“Gigi!” bursts a voice from a passerby that echoes in the narrows of Grant Ave.
“Buon giorno! How are you?!” Gigi replies with a raspy-voiced accent, reminiscent of Jersey Italian, in a conversation that sounds like a shouting match. “Where YOU go’n! You look good, man. You don’t have a baseball team now? Come’on! You need seven more kids!”
“I’m work’n on it! I’m expanding our bedroom!” his friend blurts back.
The early morning sun is burning through a brisk summer fog and the Italian air of espresso at Caffé Trieste. Sharing the Grant and Vallejo corner are two cops on break, a few locals, and a businessman on his way to the financial district. I’m sitting at an outside table across from Gigi Fiorucci, 72, a first-generation Italian from Le Marche (“lay mar kay”), who’s lived most of his life in North Beach since his arrival as a young boy in 1956. “So, I know all these fucking crazy people here,” he tells me, cussing a blue streak that would steam a nun’s habit at SS Peter & Paul Salesian School nearby.
Gigi and I are getting acquainted over double cappuccinos. Behind him is a large photo of young Giovanni “Pappa Gianni” Giotta and his wife Ida when they founded Caffè Trieste in 1956. Gigi knew Pappa Gianni, patriarch of the Giotta Family who died in 2016 at 96.
Restaurateur, raconteur, rapscallion, and irascible. These are a few words that begin to describe Gigi, a hard-working, street-smart businessman who’s owned 14 restaurants, at last counting, including the now shuddered Caesar’s Restaurant at Powell and Bay streets.
Wearing a red-plaid Pendleton shirt, Gigi is sporting a Sicilian coppola that hides his tan, balding pate. He has an oval, weathered face with sleepy eyes, hiding behind dark glasses. A golden earring in his left ear matches his Italian gold chain, gold wedding band, and the gold caps in his toothy smile, framed by a greying Fu Manchu moustache and goatee.
Gigi, whose wife Phyllis died in 1997, lives alone a block away on Green St. in a 22-room SRO building he bought and restored in 2003 that once catered to Italian immigrants. During prohibition, it was a winery and cigar store. It’s also the home of Sotto Mare’s (“under the sea”), a seafood restaurant he once co-owned and operated with his longtime friend, Rich Azzolino, 65, a North Beach original who now owns the popular eatery with his wife, Laura.
As Gigi carefully lights a cigarette, another local walks by. “Hey-y-y-y, che fai?! How are you?” he says in broken Italian. “You look good! How’s Ronnie?”
“Who the hell knows,” his friend replies.
“Yeah, who the fuck knows. Hey, tell’em I’m looking for a motorcycle, OK? A cheap one. Not too expensive.” Gigi walks occasionally with a cane due to a leg injury from a motorcycle accident several years ago.
Gigi and I Share More Than a Surfeit of Vowels in Our Last Name
Although he’s still a bit jet-lagged after returning from a two-month vacation in Italy, Gigi is eager to chat with me about his life in North Beach, and the changes that have occurred over the more than 60 years he’s lived here. As it turns out, we share more than a surfeit of vowels in our last name. Like me, he was born in 1946. Although I was born in the U.S., a few days after my mother’s arrival, we both came from Italian families that were first-generation immigrants to San Francisco.
Fiorucci arrived in the U.S. in 1956 at the age of 10 with his mother and two sisters, leaving another sister behind who now lives in Umbria, Italy. The other lives in Millbrae. “In 1951 my father came here to see his father, who he had never known,” he explains. “Five years later we came by boat to New York, but Ellis Island was closed to immigrants. So, they put us on a train to be processed in Oakland — the trip took 16 days on a boat and seven days on a train.”
Originally, the Fiorucci’s were scheduled to travel aboard the ill-fated Andrea Doria, which sank July 26th 1956 after the MS Stockholm broadsided the Italian luxury liner in a thick fog off the coast of Nantucket, killing 46 people. But his father persuaded them to take an earlier, less expensive Atlantic crossing aboard another ship.
“We came to New York in June, right before the last voyage of the Andrea Doria. We were supposed to come on that fucking boat!” Gigi exclaimed. “My mother cried, realizing we could’ve perished. Thanks to my father, we were so lucky!”
On January 18, 1956 my aunt Nella Passanisi married my uncle Joe Romeo, the youngest of my mother’s two brothers, in their home town of Augusta, Sicily. After a brief honeymoon in Italy, Joe continued his U.S. Army duty in Germany, leaving Nella to travel to America with several of her best friends — aboard the Andrea Doria.
Nella and her friends had tickets for the ship’s July 26th final voyage. Eager to come to the U.S. as soon as possible, they changed their tickets to travel on the 100th voyage of the ship, arriving in New York a month before sinking to the bottom of the Atlantic.
She still has her original ticket.
When the Fiorucci’s arrived in 1956 to reunite with their father and grandfather, North Beach was Little Italy to about 30,000 Italians. SS Peter & Paul Church, the “Italian Cathedral of the West,” was the center of Italianita and the preserver of Italian language and culture. The Sicilian language (not an Italian dialect), as well as Italian dialects from Genoa, Tuscany, Naples, and Calabria could be heard in Washington Square Park (the locals called it Il Giardino, “The Garden”) and the surrounding community of family-owned markets, pharmacies, and eateries — most are no longer there.
North Beach was also the epicenter of the Beat Generation, where Allen Ginsberg (Howl), Jack Kerouac (On the Road), William S. Burroughs (Naked Lunch), and other beat authors celebrated non-conformity and spontaneous creativity, often meeting at the Caffé Trieste. Although he claimed he wasn’t a beat writer, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter Martin launched City Lights bookstore in 1953, and with Pocket Poet started a revolution of paperback poetry.
In 1954, New York Yankees Hall-of-Famer, “Jolt’n Joe” DiMaggio, a Sicilian-American raised in North Beach since the age of one, eloped with Marilyn Monroe at San Francisco City Hall 10 years after his divorce to actress Dorothy Arnold (contrary to urban myth, Monroe and DiMaggio were not married at SS Peter and Paul Church). In 2000 the North Beach Playground, where the three DiMaggio brothers played baseball together, was renamed Joe DiMaggio Playground in his honor.
By the mid-1950s second-generation Italian-Americans were already leaving North Beach to other parts of the Bay Area, establishing families of their own. At the same time, the character of the neighborhood was evolving with the influx of Asians, notably from San Francisco’s Chinatown. Although my family left North Beach to live across town in a newly bought home, we still maintained close ties with a dwindling group of neighborhood Italian friends and family.
After their arrival in 1956, Gigi’s family of five lived in a two-bedroom flat at 100 Varennes St., a small alley off Union St. on Telegraph Hill. Later they moved to Powell St., between Chestnut and Lombard. Gigi slept with his grandfather, who lived in the U.S. for 72 years separated from his wife in Italy.
At the age of 90, Gigi’s grandfather decided he wanted to live his final days in the homeland. “When he arrived at his house in Italy, he walked in and said matter-of-factly to his wife: ‘I’m home.’”
In 1946, a few days after my mother Anna arrived in the U.S., I was born just in time to be a bone fide U.S. citizen. My mother and I lived together with her parents on 116 Varennes St. — a few doors down from where Gigi’s family would live a decade later.
Boy of the Year
A year later, my father Saverio arrived in San Francisco from Sicily, after he was discharged from the Bersaglieri, the elite commando corps of the Royal Italian Army that fought with the Allies in World War II. We lived on Lombard St., then Chestnut St., between Stockton and Powell, from 1947 to 1955.
“Then, you must’ve known Donald Casper,” Gigi said.
Indeed, I did.
Three years younger than me, I remember Don as a sweet, innocent boy who lived next door to me on Chestnut St. Freckle-faced Tom Passanisi* lived on the other side of our flat. The three of us were childhood friends who played Cowboys and Indians, hiding under the canopy of shrubs around Coit Tower. But I lost touch with them after my family moved to the other side of town.
(*If you’re confused by the mention of yet another Passanisi, that’s because it’s a common Sicilian surname, more than likely reflecting distant familial ties. In small towns like Augusta, where my family is from, it’s not uncommon for first and second cousins to marry.)
I recall Don’s mother, Dorothy, and his father, Andy, who would become the Fire Captain of North Beach, and later Chief of the San Francisco Fire Department. After some 60 years, I still have a black-and-white snapshot of the three of us celebrating Tom’s birthday, wearing Indian party hats, standing in front of an outdoor play tent.
I was thrilled to learn that Gigi knew Don, as I was looking forward to reaching out to him. But my hopes of a reunion were dashed. “He was jogging on River Rd. near Forestville,” Gigi said. “About five years ago, a hit-and-run driver in a pickup ran him off the road and he died right there.”
The SF Chronicle obituary shows the portrait of a youthful, middle-aged man. Although showing a barren pate, Don’s face still beams the innocence I recall about him. At 17, a senior at St. Ignatius High School, he was named Salesian Boy’s Club “Boy of the Year.” He was an avid long distance runner who had competed in nine marathons, including the famous Marine Corps Marathon in Washington. He became a prominent San Francisco attorney and vice president of the San Francisco Civil Service Commission, appointed by mayor Willie Brown in 2000.
Casper, who never married, was an owner at the San Francisco law firm Jacobs Spotswood and Casper LLP, as well as a former chair of the city’s Republican Party. The driver of the pickup truck is still at large and a $12,500 reward remains for information about the tragic incident.
I reconnected with Tom Passanisi, who’s now a retired dental technician living in a small town in the Sierra foothills. A Vietnam combat vet, he still serves as a senior vice commander in the U.S. Navy Reserves. He’s the cousin of another Tom Passanisi, who lived a block away from us on Francisco St. His mother, Melina, worked for many years at Freddie’s Sandwich Shop on the corner of Francisco and Stockton — still offering made-to-order sandwiches after 91 years. She was a bridesmaid at my parent’s wedding in Augusta, Sicily — and the godmother of my younger brother, Salvador.
Gigi’s first name is actually Tarcisio (Tar-chee’-zee-o), named after a martyred Roman saint. “Fuck’n-ayy! Nobody could even pronounce it,” he explains. “The name came from my mom — ‘Gigeee! Come ov’a here!’”
When Gigi arrived in North Beach, language and adapting to a new school and culture were the first of many challenges to overcome. “Soon after we arrived, I was just sitting quietly in the back of the first-grade class,” he said. “I couldn’t speak any English. It took me 5–6 months learning how to communicate.”
Fiorucci attended Garfield Elementary School, at the base of Coit Tower on Filbert St., then he went for a few months to Francisco Junior High School, before completing his grammar schooling at SS Peter and Paul Salesian School through an introduction from the local priest. He graduated from Sacred Heart High School in 1964.
If my family hadn’t moved out of North Beach in 1957, Gigi and I would’ve been classmates at Salesian School.
In 1965 Fiorucci was drafted for the Vietnam War, but he was fortunate to receive a compassionate reassignment to the Presidio of San Francisco. Besides getting a cush job, the army enabled him to become a naturalized citizen.
By this time, I had already completed my six months of active duty in the U.S. Army reserves in 1963 (just after graduating from Riordan High School), and I was attending monthly meetings at the Presidio and Ft. Cronkite in the Marin Headlands.
“I cooked for the Sixth Army headquarters for two years — breakfast, lunch and dinner,” Gigi said. “I still have some of those beautiful aluminum pots! I re-upped for another year and the Army made me a sergeant. I went out and bought a Chevelle 396 — more horsepower than cubic inches — a hot rod!”
The Petosa Accordion Still Plays
When I was in the second grade at Salesian School, Sister Florence introduced two new students to the class — Gianfranco and Sonia Giotta, the son and daughter of Giovanni and Ida Giotta, refugees from Rovigno D’Istria in Northeastern Italy that would become part of the newly formed Yugoslavia after WW II. A few years after arriving in 1951, the Giotta family would open the Caffè Trieste, credited as being the oldest espresso bar on the West Coast.
A few weeks after his class introduction, Gianfranco treated our class to an Italian aria he sang with a rich tenor voice, while playing his accordion. For more than 40 years he would sing and play his accordion at the Caffè Trieste’s Saturday Concerts, sharing the corner stage with his family, locals and celebrities who would drop in — including Luciano Pavarotti. Gianfranco sang professionally and pursued a musical career before deciding to settle into the family business.
Although Gianfranco and I didn’t know each other long enough to be childhood chums, I always wanted to share with him our memories of Salesian School and North Beach over an espresso. That reunion was not meant to be: On the morning of September 17, 1999 Gianfranco died unexpectedly at the age of 55. His cherished Petosa accordion is now played by his younger brother Fabio, CEO of Caffè Trieste Inc. and Trieste Music.
Eat Where the Italians Eat
When he wasn’t hopping from one school to another, Gigi shined shoes, fished off the Fisherman’s Wharf pier, and stole bicycles. His first real job was at Caesar’s Italian Restaurant, famous for its crab cioppino and linguine with clams since 1956. Its final meal was served on August 2012. “Eat where the Italians eat” was their motto.
“During the ’50s a lot of Italians came to work here that would eventually become part of the restaurant scene,” Gigi said. “Everyone would help each other. That was the real North Beach.”
“Me and Gianfranco worked as dish washers at Caesar’s in the late 1950s,” Gigi said. “We were about 14 years old — that’s where I learned how to cook and learned my restaurant trade.
“When I came here, I didn’t know how to spell,” Gigi continued. “But I could work like a motherfucker, 16 hours a day, and I knew how to run a successful restaurant.” 25 years later, in one of his “three-dot” columns, San Francisco Chronicle’s Herb Caen would complement Gigi by calling him a “veteran restaurateur.”
Over the years, Caesar’s changed hands several times. Gigi would be an owner twice, once in 1975 with his long-time friend, Rich Azzolino, a second-generation Italian whose family is from a small town in Calabria, southern Italy.
Little Italy had dozens of places like Caesar’s — the Montclair, the San Remo, the New Pisa, the Gold Spike, the U.S. Restaurant, the Fior d’Italia and Capp’s Corner, where tourists would mingle with locals to share a table, a bread basket, and a bottle of house red wine. But Caesar’s was the venerable dining room for local Italians to celebrate holidays, weddings, first Holy Communions, and Sunday dinners with family and friends.
“Gigi’s got a lot of wear on the tires, he hasn’t stopped,” Azzolino said in a recent interview. “About three and half years ago, he called me and said, ‘Come down and bring a check with you. I’m selling you the rest of the [Sotto Mare] restaurant.’ What if I said no?”
Gigi made Azzolino a deal he couldn’t refuse that was closed with a handshake and a glass of red wine.
“Over the years, what happened to the local restaurant scene?” I asked Azzolino, sitting across from me at a small dining table, arms crossed and resting on his expansive waist.
“I think restaurants got too trendy. When the trend wears off, you don’t make the changes,” he explained. “The City makes it pretty tough to run a restaurant…taxes, healthcare, so many permits…and somebody’s going to have to put some big dough in there if you have to retrofit a brick building.
“Gigi was right!” Azzolino added. “If you really want to be in this business — be the second guy in. Let somebody else put all their money in, build the business, then you’ll get it for a song.”
Every Kid Had a Vowel at the End of their Name
Today North Beach is no longer the thriving Italian community, where immigrant families looked after each other’s kids as they played in the City’s streets and alleys. Few first-generation Italians can be found who, like my father, Fiorucci and his father, and the fathers and mothers of many Italians before them, came here to start a new life. Like many immigrants, their offspring have moved elsewhere to become part of the American melting pot.
“When I graduated from high school, there was 50 kids in my class, and every kid had a vowel at the end of their name — even the two, Yee and Lee,” Azzolino said facetiously. “Then when my kids were growing up, it was almost the other way around…almost all Asians.”
Azzolino said the Italian families that owned the properties here split them up amongst their kids, and went to the suburbs and bought their own house. “Then the Asians came in with their bags full of cash and bought everything. God bless ‘em!”
As San Francisco continues to be the central hub of the tech boom, North Beach “immigrants” are now likely to be nouveau riche millennials, bringing gentrification and appreciation for real estate rather than old world culture.
“Now, I see a transition from Asians back to Caucasians,” Azzolino continues. “I’m seeing people from North Carolina, and I say — Where you living? They say up the hill. I say great, you’re a North Beacher!”
Azzolino still sees a few old timers like Mary Alasia, who’s 102 years old. She and her husband, who passed away at 97 after 72 years of marriage, were his customers when he owned Caesar’s.
“Till this day, I’ll go next door to get her. She comes in and orders J&B on the rocks with two olives, and drinks some wine with dinner. ‘Hey Richie, you got any Sambucca?’ she’ll say after dinner. She’s still kicking!”
Gigi Got a Hell’uva Deal
The highlight of my morning with Gigi was discovering our mutual love for cycling and bicycles. For nearly 30 years, I’ve been a road cyclist and mountain biker, competing against myself and an occasional 30-something who needs to be shown how to carve a downhill turn. Although his affinity for Marlboro’s belies his earlier athleticism, Gigi said he was a cyclist for many years and an avid fan of the Giro d’Italia national bicycle race.
“In the ’20s cyclists smoked cigarettes!” he said, with a rakish, toothy grin. “They thought they were good for you!” I recalled a poster I have of a group of scruffy, 1920s Tour de France cyclists riding lock-armed in parallel, each with a bike tire hanging across their chest, proudly sharing a smoke.
“How many miles do you ride at a time?” he asks me, probing my athletic prowess.
“When I’m in training, I ride 80–100 miles a week,” I said without hesitation.
“That’s what I did!” Gigi proudly shouts. “My dad also used to race his bicycle in his Italian home town.”
Gigi explained that on his recent trip to Italy, he spent a lot of time looking for a special small-sized bicycle he’s been wanting to display on the wall of his Mt. Shasta restaurant. After weeks of searching the small towns of northern Italy, he was excited to find it.
“I brought it back on the fucking plane! You have no idea what I went through!” Gigi proclaims. I’m looking for this certain one, ba-da-bing, ba-da-ba. This guy says ‘Na, na. They don’t make those anymore.’ Then I find out now they make ‘em!”
Gigi said he met someone in Italy who told him, “There’s this bike shop that sells ’em. So, I go into this bike store in Puglia. The owner said, ‘My father was a racer when Coppi and Bartali were racing back in the day. He used to hang around those guys!’”
Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali were fierce cycling opponents during the 1930s through the early 1950s, who famously battled on the mountain passes of Italy and France to win the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France.
“I go to this guy’s shop, going back and forth, looking at this bike with the guy. There’s the bike, flat tires, but everything else is in excellent shape! Nice patina, a little scratch here and there. It was beautiful!
“The bike shop owner says to me in Italian, ‘With this bike, when I was 9–10 yrs old, I won the championship of the town.’
“Well, wha’ da ya want for it? I said. The shop owner pauses and says, ‘How about 150 Euros?’ I thought he said 350 Euros. So, I go, sure, no problem! But this guy with me says, ‘No, no. 150 Euros!’ So, I pays him, but asks him for one more thing.
“Do me favor, I need to put it in a box so I can fly it back home. Could you take it apart for me and put it in a box? — He put it in a box just like that!
“But it was over 200 centimeters what the airline allowed. So, I had to pay over $100 dollars extra. I went to the airport — ‘I hope this box thing doesn’t get lost,’ I told them. What do you know — it made the trip in one piece.
“Yesterday, I got up in the morning. I couldn’t sleep from jet lag. I wanted to see it put together. Everything is original! I’m going to hang this on the wall of my Shasta restaurant, right next to one of those old bikes with the huge wheel (a Penny Farthing).”
After finishing our cappuccinos, we walk up Grant Ave. to Gigi’s apartment, above Sotto Mare’s on the corner of Green St. and Jasper Alley, one block from the Caffè Trieste, to see his prized Italian bicycle.
Gigi takes me upstairs to his office. He pulls the bike out of the packing box: The bike frame was made of aluminum, light blue with shiny lugs, and practically brand new. It was manufactured by ALAN, an Italian company founded in 1972 by Falconi Lodovico. The name ALAN comes from the first two letters of his children, Alberto and Annamaria.
Later I learned ALAN was the first bike company to introduce an all-aluminum bicycle frame made from aerospace-grade aluminum. In 1976, ALAN was also first in developing and manufacturing a production carbon-fiber frame that is now the standard with high-end cyclists and professional bike racers.
Gigi got a hell’uva deal.
The Guy Who Made This All Happen
As my morning with Gigi was coming to an end, we walked around the corner of his building to Jasper Alley. Gigi showed me a mural honoring Dante Benedetti, another North Beach original, a boxer who won 89 amateur fights. But most of all, he loved baseball and knew all the famous players. Dante (after the great Italian poet) almost became as big a local legend as his friend and hero, Joe DiMaggio. The two would play stickball in the alley when they were snot-nosed kids.
During the Prohibition Era, Jasper Alley was called “Wine Alley” because you could smell the fermentation of red grapes from the old Italians who made their homemade wine. As a child visiting my grandfather in the early 1950s, I remember being overwhelmed by that musty smell emanating from the vat of grapes fermenting in his cellar.
The son of an Italian immigrant from Lucca, Italy, Dante was born in 1919 in a flat on 27 Jasper Alley, behind Sotto Mare’s. He and his father would be become the owner of the restaurant building when it was the site of the New Pisa restaurant in the late 1920s. Other famous people grew up in the neighborhood and played in this alley — Mayor Joe Alioto; pro basketball player and Bay Area Hall of Famer, Fred Scolari; and middleweight World Boxing Hall of Famer, Fred Apostoli, among others.
Dante went to Galileo and Commerce high schools in San Francisco, but was expelled for fighting. He channeled his pugilistic temperament, graduated from St. Ignatius High School and went to the University of San Francisco on a boxing scholarship. He served in the U.S. Coast Guard and the Marine Corps during World War II, and took over the New Pisa from his father after the war.
After learning that USF was threatening to drop baseball from their athletic program, Dante offered to coach their team for one dollar a year. After 29 years, he made $29. Generous to a fault, he lived out his final years a pauper at the On Lok Chinese senior center on Broadway in North Beach.
After his death in 2005 at the age of 86, the old neighborhood still remembers Dante as the head of S.F. Little League Baseball, and as USF’s winningest baseball coach who touched the lives of thousands of inner city kids.
When Dante retired from coaching in 1980, the USF baseball diamond was dedicated in his name. Joe DiMaggio attended the ceremony and gave him the ultimate compliment: “When I refer to Dante Benedetti, I refer to him as Mr. Baseball.”
Designed by Gigi and his long-time friend, Don Russo, a S.F. firefighter who played baseball for Dante, the Jasper Alley mural depicts a baseball game with rows of players facing a baseball diamond, each with his last name painted on the back of his jersey.
“He was the guy who made this all happen,” Gigi said, tapping the tip of his wooden cane on the mural. The rows of players are team members who played at USF under coach Benedetti. Although he never played baseball on the team, Fiorucci proudly points to his last name painted on the back of one of the players.
As we walk back to the corner of Green and Jasper, Gigi pauses a moment to show me an inscription on the upper left corner of the mural. It was Dante’s favorite Italian proverb:
“If you’re proud of where you come from, you’ll always know where you’re going. And take pride in all you do.”