Lorenzo Petroni, whose North Beach Restaurant is one of the finest in this city known for its excellent dining spots, died May 27 after a long and debilitating illness. It was just after deadline for our June issue. That gave me a few weeks to reflect on the loss of this remarkable man. The Chronicle’s Carl Nolte did an admirable job with Lorenzo’s obituary, and he was eulogized by what we might term “friends in high places” — Clint Reilly and Willie Brown Jr. — in a mass at Saints Peter and Paul. It seems as if everyone in this city knew Lorenzo. “Lorenzo had thousands of friends,” said former Mayor Brown. I counted myself one of those thousands.
Lorenzo Petroni loved San Francisco and loved his North Beach neighborhood, where he was looked upon as the beloved capo that donned a toga and wore a garland of laurel leaves for the Italian Heritage Day celebration in October each year. He arrived here in 1957 from Lucca, Italy when he was 18 and without knowledge of English got a job in a restaurant as a dishwasher. He wound up opening his North Beach Restaurant in 1970. Today it garners honors as San Francisco’s leading Tuscan establishment. He told me once: “When we opened I was everything — bartender, waiter, clean-up man, and sometimes I cooked.”
Lorenzo had a warm, almost puckish quality that endeared him to his fellow San Franciscans. He was friendly and generous and at the same time he could be a salty curmudgeon — enthusiastic, aggressive, and in your face. We enjoyed both sides of his personality. You always knew what Lorenzo’s position was. He was not shy or reticent about speaking his mind, and frequently his mind went against the grain and ruffled feathers, but he was the heartbeat of the neighborhood.
He had a vision for North Beach and he insistently buttonholed politicians, business leaders, social figures, journalists, and ordinary oddball folks like you and me, and let them have an earful of pure Petroni.
Interviewing him a few years ago for a magazine piece, he told me, “North Beach is one of the jewel neighborhoods of our country. It would be criminal for us to let it slip into obscurity. We need to maintain a climate of excitement here. We need more outdoor living, sidewalk living.” He bubbled on: “There are a lot of creative people here. We need to just get out of their way and let them do their own thing. We can’t hobble them with an unfavorable business environment. We can’t force them to delay and delay and delay their well-thought plans until they go broke.” He told me this back in June 2007. His remarks resonate today.
North Beach was very dear to Lorenzo Petroni, and he was very dear to all of us.