Loyal readers will note the Marina Times frequently discusses newly opened restaurants in the column New and Notable. I always read these dispatches with considerable interest. Sometimes I patronize the “new and notables,” sometimes not. I am an old-fashioned diner; I’ve been called that repeatedly because my style is to patronize the “old and notables” and then write about them for this publication.
AMERICA’S OLDEST ITALIAN RESTAURANT
Recently I walked from Telegraph Hill to the historic San Remo Hotel (2237 Mason Street) for lunch at Fior d’Italia. One of the city’s oldest dining places, Fior d’Italia bills itself as “America’s Oldest Italian Restaurant.” It dates to 1886 when it opened at 432 Broadway. Enrico Caruso, in town to sing his tenor role in Carmen, dined there the night of April 17, 1906. The following morning the great earthquake struck and Caruso left San Francisco in a hurry, never to return. In the many years since, the long-lived establishment has occupied several sites. Five of these pervious locations were on Broadway, with one move necessitated by the famed earthquake and fire. In 1954, it moved to Union Street where Original Joe’s is now located. Then in 2005 the Union Street location gave way to the present site in the historic San Remo Hotel, which opened in 1906.
Although I am a devotee of old San Francisco restaurants and bars, I have given scant attention to Fior d’Italia (Flower of Italy) in recent years. I vowed to check it out and see what was going on.
THE SAN REMO DINING ROOM
Fior d’Italia’s dining room was a nostalgic trip back to Italy. It brought to mind pleasant stays in a boutique Rome hotel where I walked down a twisting staircase from my room to enter the hotel’s dining room for a fine lunch. Now, here I was in a handsome room — with dark carpet, widely spaced tables set with white tablecloths, crisp napkins, good cutlery and sparkling wineglasses. It was partially occupied by other diners, perhaps guests from the old hotel upstairs. The pressed tin ceiling was offset by beige and tan wooden columns. Large windows let in a soft light from the street. A low murmur of conversation made the experience seem all the more like my Roman hotel.
A SIMPLE, ELEGANT LUNCHEON
My wife and I were seated by a man in a chef’s white jacket and a black baseball cap. After he left us I realized the man was Gianfranco Audieri, longtime Fior d’Italia chef and now owner. There was one waiter on duty, a young, helpful man in a white shirt, black tie and vest and black pants. His service was smooth, without undue social frills. A few minutes later, a basket of dark and crusty sourdough was set down and shortly my glass of Simi Sauvignon Blanc ($10) appeared as well.
Our lunches were simple, elegant, and satisfying. My wife chose a salad — pomodoro con mozzarella ($14). It appeared with a ring of ripe tomato wedges, offsetting the mozzarella decorated with frissee, and drizzled with olive oil. The white plate was ringed with a tracing of balsamic vinegar. Joan proclaimed it excellent. I opted for linguine con vongole ($18). Two dozen or more, tiny Manila clams graced my linguine, moistened by a clam liquor and white wine sauce that was perfumed by a bit of minced garlic and topped by a sprinkling of fresh parsley. It was as fine a luncheon dish as I’ve had in recent months.
Bear in mind this account is not a Marina Times review of Fior d’Italia. It’s simply an account of a pleasant lunch at a classic Italian restaurant.
THE SAGA OF THE OSSO BUCO
We decided to wrap up this totally satisfying midday meal with an espresso ($3). I had noticed that our young waiter served all diners their meals. But when it came to dessert or coffee, Gianfranco popped out of the kitchen to do that himself. I was looking forward to talking to him and sure enough, here he came with our espressos.
“Do you know the first time I ate in Fior d’Italia? I said.
“Tell me,” Gianfranco answered.
“It was in the early fifties when the restaurant was on Broadway. I was with the Chronicle and writing the annual Gourmet Guide. I ordered osso buco. The waiter dropped it on the floor and I wound up ordering spaghetti and meatballs.”.
“Oh, you’re the guy who wrote about that in the Marina Times,” he said.
Indeed, I was the guy.
GIANFRANCO AND THE FLYING SALMON
“Now let me tell you a story,” Gianfranco said. “I’m from Milan but I studied cooking in Switzerland. Later I got a job in a fancy restaurant in Lausanne. One night I prepared a beautiful salmon Bellevue for a party — a cold poached salmon in aspic decorated with potatoes, chopped carrots and peas in mayonnaise,” he said.
“It was on a heavy silver dish. I held it over my head and walked out of the kitchen into the dining room and tripped on a loose carpet. The salmon Bellevue sailed over one table and landed squarely in the middle of another one.” Gianfranco laughed and finished his story: “So what’s a dropped osso buco in comparison to that?”