North Beach Journal

Pasta and Puccini, Angela’s street party, Marcia’s neighborhood summertime

There’s a sign over the bar at Original Joe’s in North Beach: “It’s better to live rich than to die rich.” I concur with that sentiment, and here are a few examples of living rich in the old neighborhood.


When I was a kid, canned Franco-American spaghetti was pasta. There were times when I downed it cold, right out of the can. Later as an adult, I moved into the big time. And living in North Beach has put a high polish on my pasta education.

I love pasta, and I’m betting that you do, too. And as you may surmise, I hang around North Beach a lot, and if you can’t get good pasta in North Beach, you’re not trying.

When I’m really in the mood for a pasta fix you can find me at Caffe Puccini. That’s because it has the best pasta in North Beach. This isn’t to say that pasta — very fine pasta dishes of all kinds — cannot be found elsewhere in this red-and-white sauced, olive-oil-and-garlic-scented enclave. Good pasta abounds in North Beach.

But let me tell you about Caffe Puccini: My pasta master is Graziano Lucchesi. He’s the proprietor and chef de cuisine at this exemplary, little hole-in-the-wall at 411 Columbus Avenue, where other pasta-centric devotees and I gather. I usually go to Caffe Puccini for the pasta al cinghiale (spaghetti with wild boar sauce, $11.95).

When I’m not in the mood for pasta — which is seldom — I go to Caffe Puccini for the mortadella sandwich on homemade focaccia bread ($6.50). But now when you feel pasta-deprived you’ll know where to go.


I have at times held Angela Alioto’s feet to the fire in my Sketches column over her involvement with fundraising efforts for Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Poets Plaza on Vallejo Street. It has taken an ungodly amount of time to get that short stretch of Vallejo between Grant and Columbus Avenues turned into an Italian piazza, a place of rest and recreation — and no cars.

One might make the valid point that everything takes a long time in San Francisco. But just about everyone with any smarts at all is for Lawrence’s visionary project. City officials have given their blessing and are coming through with about $600,000 in underground infrastructure. And now this North Beach pedestrian oasis needs about $1.8 million. Not a huge amount when we are in the habit of salivating over tech-raised gazillions.


In a flurry of exuberance Angela, founder of the unofficial Catholic order of the Knights of St. Francis of Assisi and the power behind the creation of the Porziuncola chapel that honors the saint, has become an acolyte for Lawrence’s vision. She has promised to raise the necessary $1.8 million. So she held a street party recently and invited a bunch of her deep-pocket friends, charged them real money to attend, where they chowed down and listened to a Phantom of the Opera concert. They came to the party with approximately $500,000 — about $50,000 went for expenses. Angela plans other fundraising efforts and says she is on a roll. Keep on rolling, Angela.


A week before Angela’s party, a huge ficus tree in front of the Shrine of St. Francis on Vallejo between Grant and Columbus — of course — cracked, toppled and demolished a car and a few motorcycles and generally raised hell. I surmised that even St. Francis approves of Lawrence’s Poets Plaza. Why else would he topple that tree?


My longtime friend Marcia Clay — I’ve known her since she was a 9-year-old blonde brat — has an exhibition of her recent work at the Telegraph Hill Gallery, 491 Greenwich Street. It’s well worth a hike up the hill to see her provocative paintings and etchings. I recently wrote a chapter on Marcia for a book I’m working on, so I’m quoting myself here. “Marcia’s work is not photographic. It reveals a distorted realism skewed by her highly selective imagination. Her black-and-white etchings sizzle with what legendary photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson described as his seemingly random but exacting approach to photographic art — the Decisive Moment.”

Marcia draws themes largely from North Beach — street scenes with Chinese and Italian children, their mothers and their grandparents. They interact in Washington Square, at outdoor markets, flower shops, and playgrounds. Many of these have sly humorous and frequently poignant aspects.

Her new work derives inspiration from the pleasures of North Beach street life in the summer. Languid, lightly clad women with cell phones clamped to their ears, strolling families, sightseers, pet owners, old Chinese women populating park benches, and a wine-sipping cafe clientele form the narrative.

The exhibition runs through the middle of this month, so the time is short to check it out. You’ll be richer for it.


The late Howard Gossage was known as the Socrates of North Beach. He was an ad man in the era of ‘Mad Men’ and operated out of a converted firehouse on Pacific Avenue. Gossage was a quotable guy: “If you have a lemon, make lemonade.” That’s what I try to do with this column. Here’s your chance to bone up on Howard Gossage. On Thursday, Nov. 13, 7 p.m. at the Beat Museum on Broadway, author and filmmaker Steve Harrison will show his Gossage video clips and sign his book, Changing the World Is the Only Fit Work for a Grown Man. No charge.

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