North Beach Journal

Nostalgia all over again

In a recent column, i got all weepy for the good old days in North Beach and quoted a passage from a Stanton Delaplane San Francisco Chronicle column — his final one before he died in 1988. This month I’m still on the nostalgia kick. So here goes: I’m nostalgic for Joe’s Special, Rainier ale, clam chowder, Chuck Berry, and Harry Connick Jr.


The other day I was researching Joe’s Special for a book project. What’s so special about Joe’s Special? My buddy and North Beach historian and raconteur Alessandro Baccari Jr. filled me in. Joe’s Special was created by night-shift workers at the old San Francisco produce market, where the Embarcadero Center is now. Hungry for breakfast when they got off work before dawn, they grabbed some spinach and a handful of ground beef, broke an egg into the pan, and scrambled the works. Later, Joe Ingressia, who opened New Joe’s on Broadway around 1930, put it on the menu. Hence: Joe’s Special. This got me musing about what people eat in the morning to start the day. So here’s the breakfast report:


I checked with several North Beach breakfasters and here’s what I found:

The other morning a young couple and their dog in Washington Square Park were wolfing down focaccia from nearby Liguria Bakery. A grand idea!

Over at Caffe Puccini, my neighbor was having a ham and cheese sandwich and a latte. Sensible!

Down the street at Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store and Cafe, a buddy was warming up to the day with a tumbler of red wine. Sensible too!

And a guy at Gino and Carlo was having a shot and a beer. That was Chronicle columnist Charles McCabe’s breakfast of champions — a shot and a Rainier ale chaser that we used to call Green Death because it came in a green-tinted bottle. They’re not making columnists like that anymore.

But what about your very own Sketches columnist? My breakfast routine is graham crackers and applesauce with coffee on the side. My breakfast pales by comparison to McCabe’s. But then I could never write (or drink) as well as he could.

I checked with my daughter, Laurel. She favors a peanut butter and jelly sandwich augmented by a handful of gumdrop vitamins.

But what about eggs over easy? Fugetaboutit!


At one time, I believed the mother ship for clam chowder to be the hallowed Oyster Bar in New York’s Grand Central Station. Later, I shifted my allegiance to Pike Place Market in Seattle. These days I am savoring the clam chowder in North Beach. With white (Boston clam chowder) the question is: to bacon or not to bacon? Both, with and without bacon, are serviceable, and several North Beach restaurants go the bacon route — Original Joe’s, Sotto Mare, Caffe Puccini, and U.S. Restaurant, for example. All of these chowders are commendable. But the gold standard in white chowder no bacon is Betty Lou’s. Now, if we’re talking red (Manhattan clam chowder) it’s Original Joe’s — but it’s served only on Fridays.


“And tell Tchaikovsky the news.” The news is Chuck Berry, the poet laureate of rhythm and blues, is gone. So I am nostalgic about Chuck Berry. Here’s a belated homage to the man who developed a guitar lick on which he could bend two strings at once creating that funky, going-around-a-musical-curve sound. Berry even had a swimming pool in the shape of a guitar built on his estate.

I’m sorry this homage to Chuck Berry is so late in coming. When writing a monthly column almost everything is belated. Do yourself a favor and go to YouTube and find Chuck Berry, Eric Clapton, and Keith Richards jamming. It will set you up for the day, or the night if you will. Hail, Hail Rock ‘n’ Roll!


Richie Azzolino, proprietor of the fine, properly fishy, fish restaurant Sotto Mare on Green Street, got the call from New York to be on NBC TV’s syndicated Harry show with the jazzy Harry Connick Jr. Richie jumped on an airplane with his own pots and pans and headed for the Big Apple. And he got to strut his North Beach stuff on the show in the Martha Stewart TV kitchen. The show aired late April and I missed it. But Richie will redo it for you if you drop in for lunch.


Photographer Fred Lyon is coming out with a new book called “San Francisco Noir.” It’s a compilation of masterful black-and-white photos taken over many years of the moody, edgy, street life of this city. Fred is a flaneur — but a flaneur with a purpose — if I may create a new definition of the word. Fred has wandered the streets, back alleys, and jazz joints of North Beach with his ever-present third eye, his camera, usually with a standard, mid-range lens. He feels that a telescopic lens takes him too far away from his subjects. The striking new book comes out in October, published by Princeton Architectural Press.

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