North Beach Journal

The town hall brawl, the gold Ferrari, and an ode to grappa


Aaron Peskin is one cool dude — the big progressive Lebowski of District 3. He demonstrated his cool dudeness last month when more than 200 people showed up in North Beach for a Department of Public Works “community workshop” on the Lawrence Ferlinghetti project, Piazza St. Francis, Poets’ Plaza, planned for the 600 block of Vallejo Street between Columbus and Grant Avenues. As District 3 supervisor, Peskin quieted the crowd and set the stage for what turned out to be a contentious evening. After reviewing the project history, which Ferlinghetti first proposed almost 20 years ago, Peskin said to the already fractious group, “We want to hear your thoughts and concerns and consider possible alternatives, and we have asked organizers of the project and representatives of the police and fire departments and members of various city departments to address this subject.” It was a good beginning for what became a bruising town hall brawl.


There were genuine concerns expressed by neighbors and others. These included: the future of Cafe Trieste (which anchors the piazza-plaza at one end); the necessary loss of parking spaces; the ability of emergency vehicles to navigate the already crowded area; and responsibility for the project’s maintenance. Among those speaking in favor of the project was Fabio Giotto, CEO and president of Caffe Trieste, Inc. “I would like to see this completed in my 96-year-old father’s lifetime and in the lifetime of the 97-year-old Lawrence Ferlinghetti.” Giotto came across as a strong voice of reason. But in attendance also was a vocal minority that set about to disrupt the proceedings and therefore disrupt the project. As presentations were made by architects, landscape designers, traffic experts, and others, the yea-sayers approved by clapping. When various voices rose to condemn the project, the naysayers yelled, hooted, booed, and stamped their feet.


Amidst this example of democracy in action — presumably learned responses from TV — an articulate and thoughtful Don Raichle, a freelance city planning consultant, whose experience includes work on the tearing down of the Embarcadero Freeway, presented what was termed “The Vallejo Street Alternative to the Piazza.” Partisans cheered. Organizers of the Ferlinghetti plan appeared attentive but doubtful.


Ferlinghetti was unable to attend the meeting due to illness. Nevertheless, he was the elephant in the room. His associate, architect Dennis Q. Sullivan, who designed the concept for Ferlinghetti, read a statement by the absent poet. It included these words:

“San Francisco today is Boom Town USA. It’s a boom bigger than that of the 1860s after the Gold Rush. Building construction, electronics, medical, financial, tourism, all are booming. In 10 or 15 years we may not even recognize our city. The construction boom hasn’t hit North Beach yet, and we now have a window of opportunity. This window is closing fast, and this is probably our last chance to create a pedestrian oasis in the heart and soul of North Beach. The Piazza St., Francis, Poets’ Plaza will do just that!”

But the dance goes on. There will be more meetings and presumably more contention. Nevertheless, Ferlinghetti’s vision is on the right side of history.


Recently, as I was standing in front of Original Joe’s waiting for the 39 Muni to take me up Telegraph Hill, a gold Ferrari pulled up and parked in the white zone. The guy who parks cars for the restaurant went over and offered his help. No! The driver wanted to leave the Ferrari just where it was. Soon his seatmate, wearing a Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance jacket, got out, opened the boot and took out a Segway, painted exactly the same gold color as the car. Then the driver got out, mounted the Segway, rode it to the curb and over to an outdoor table. He sat down for lunch — all the while eyeballing his gold Ferrari.

No, I’m not making this up. I’m an investigative reporter. That’s what the Marina Times is paying me the big bucks for.


For me a life without grappa would indeed be a dreary one. Grappa — usually 80 or 100 proof and distilled from grape skins, pulp, and seeds — is a popular drink in North Beach. So when I get a yen for grappa, which is frequent, I get myself to the North Beach Restaurant, which is grappa headquarters. I find a snifter of grappa makes a perfect wind-up to a fine meal. But at North Beach Restaurant, one just doesn’t order a grappa after dinner. One asks for the grappa menu. For it is here at the bar that one can peruse more than 20 grappas of different styles and flavors. All are served in warm brandy snifters. They range from about $10 an ounce upward. One grappa at North Beach Restaurant goes for $4,500 for a 10-liter bottle. It’s grappa di Refosco dal Peduncola, distilled by the Refosco family of northeast Italy and is said to be a complex and intense elixir fit for the gods. I haven’t had occasion to acquire a taste for it as yet.


And by the way, the new Joe DiMaggio Playground is spectacular — thanks to former District 3 supervisor Julie Christensen, who spearheaded the project. She still needs a few bucks to complete it. Contact the playground, and find out how you can get your name on an on-site tile plaque.


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