North Beach Journal

Sketches from a North Beach Journal

Last month in the first North Beach “Sketches” column, I called the old neighborhood “la dolce vita with an attitude.” Yes, Columbus Avenue — resembles Rome’s Via Condotti in that wonderful sixties Fellini movie. I guess that makes me Marcello, the jaded Italian gossip columnist played by Marcello Mastroianni. The resemblance is striking. And we even have Anita Ekberg lookalikes hanging about our coffeehouses to give us some added class.

Speaking of class, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, on our radar, and recently under the weather with pacemaker issues, was awarded a €50,000 poetry prize from the Hungarian branch of the PEN, the international literary club. He turned it down, citing Hungary’s authoritarian rule and violation of civil liberties. At 93, the man is amazing. If you have strong principles you might as well exercise them. Also, New Directions, one of our most adventurous publishing houses, has come out with a book of new Ferlinghetti poetry called Time of Useful Consciousness. The term refers to that brief period of time one has left to function after oxygen has been cut off. Our man Ferlinghetti has a lot of time and a lot more poetry to write.

A while ago “Sketches” checked out a Paris Review party at Jeanette Etheridge’s Tosca. The hot literary magazine founded by George Plimpton was celebrating publication of a short story book it just published and wants us all to buy. The no-host bar was good for the somewhat beleaguered Jeanette but not good for book sales. Peter Orner, professor at San Francisco State, read his Paris Review story, “Foley’s Pond.” Killer story.

In the old days there were a half dozen or more Italian butcher shops in North Beach. Today there’s only one, Little City Market at Stockton and Vallejo. It’s one of the few old-fashioned, independent butcher shops in San Francisco. Skyrocketing rents, labor costs, dwindling profit margins, all took their toll. Add the rise of the ubiquitous supermarkets with self-service, shrink-wrapped meats, poultry and fish — and their shrink-wrapped prices. Many of the old Italian butchers have retired and their offspring have pursued other career paths. But Little City Market just keeps rolling along. That’s because Ron Spinali — a third generation Sicilian “meat cutter” as he calls himself — and his son Michael don’t just sell meat, they sell the North Beach Italian lifestyle. A good idea would be to purchase a few Little City house-made Calabrese sausages. Ron Spinali has a great recipe for Calabrese stew.

Robert Sexton’s American Romantic, which sold prints at the corner of Grant and Greenwich, has closed its doors. Apparently we have enough romance in North Beach.

The Marina Times has a laurel wreath for Brandy Marts, who heads the North Beach Chamber of Commerce, for spiffing up and publicizing the neighborhood. And here’s an idea for Brandy: Sponsor a North Beach sandwich contest. Suggested entrants: Original Joe’s Burger on an Italian roll; Buster’s Hot Dogs (best thing since Casper’s and on a par with Costco with its onion machine); Caffe Puccini’s mortadella sandwich on focaccia; Molinari’s Italian Combo; Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store’s meatball sandwich; and Calzone’s panini. Let’s include my own specialty — the World’s Best Sandwich — thick slices of ripe tomato and raw onion on white bread with lots of mayo.

We dropped into Piccolo Press and Gallery at Columbus and Filbert the other day to chat with proprietor Laura Sample-Mattos. That turned out to be a good idea, because the gallery was featuring some great prints by Laura’s husband, North Beach-based illustrator John Mattos. His signed commemorative posters of both our bridges are a steal at $385 a pop.

After Tony Bennett sang “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” at the Giants’ victory celebration, he went to Gigi’s Sotte Mare for linguine and clams. Other diners left him alone so he could eat in peace — very North Beach.

What do I want for Christmas? The disruptive subway construction stopped on Columbus so North Beach can be la dolce vita with an attitude once more.

Send to a Friend Print
Ernest Beyl doesn’t really resemble Marcello Mastroianni. He just thinks he does. E-mail: [email protected]