Provincial Italian Cuisines: San Francisco Conserves Italian Heritage

Historical Essay

by Deanna Paoli Gumina

originally published in The Argonaut, Volume 1, No. 1, Spring 1990

Original Coppas mural and waiters.jpg

Coppa's restaurant in the old Montgomery Block, c. 1910

Photo: San Francisco Historical Society

The original Italian-American restaurants of late 1800s San Francisco have had an enormous impact on the flourishing culinary scene we see in the city today. Such restaurants attracted not only wealthy diners, but middle class workers, immigrants, and bohemians alike. Many of these local establishments, such as Coppa's and Campi's, had a family-like ambiance that created a community of regular customers. These restaurants' popularity eventually turned them into iconic eateries, and through this popularity came a flourishing of San Francisco's economy as well as a public interest in food that is still alive in present-day San Francisco.

Savoring the delicate blend of quattro formaggi atop a dish of fettucine which lingers upon one's palate long after the olfactory nerve has been tantalized by the full-bodied garlic aroma of a provincial cacciucco, connoisseurs have long known that at the epicenter of the Italian heritage is a reverence for food akin to religious piety. Steeped in centuries of traditions, the provincial cuisines, i cucine, of Italy have combined the ambience of family ties with an aesthetic simplicity that in 1990 has enlivened the culinary arts.

For many years, Americans regarded the Italian diet as an amalgam of ethnic dishes, primarily pizza, macaroni, and plates of spaghetti seasoned with a heavy red sauce. In actuality these are the regional dishes of Naples. Unless one was well traveled or a gourmet, there was little appreciation for provincial distinctions such as the egg-enriched, flat, limp pastas such as ravioli, lasagne, and tagliattelle characteristic of the northern provinces; and the tubular pastas, stiff and brittle, usually made without eggs as macaroni and spaghetti of the south. Pizza is Napolitano; ossobocco (veal shanks) are Milanese; grissini (breadsticks) are Turinese; and the marsala-laced egg custard zabaglione is Siciliano. In America, however, these cibi were categorized as "Italian food."(2)

Beginning in the 1890's, the decade which marked the great immigration of southeastern Europeans to the United States, the descendants of Italian provincials kept sacred their ancestors' recipes. In recent years, the growing awareness of provincial Italian cuisines due to travel, the ease in importation of authentic Italian ingredients, and heightened interest in high carbohydrate/low fat foods that are nutritionally sound and economically affordable have attracted the non-Italian public to provincial Italian cuisine.

Outside the home, la cucina casalingua, the homestyle cooking of the provincial kitchens, was seasoned in osterie, inns which were nothing more than modest boarding houses, and trattorie, restaurants that opened in the numerous Little Italys that marked the immigration trail of Italian provincials across the United States.

In San Francisco, a city born in the excitement of the Gold Rush of 1849, and a city noted for its gourmet restaurants, the Italian provincial restaurants served their clientele provincial dishes in a congenial atmosphere that reflected the tenet universal among all Italians that food and the pleasure of eating meals shared with relatives or friends remain essential to maintaining kinship ties. For Italians, the quality and quantity of food eaten by a family has always symbolized the economic earning power of the menfolk and the family's social position guarded by the women. Equating food with family life was the formula recreated in San Francisco's osterie and trattorie(4), where patrons felt the reverence Italians demonstrated towards their cuisines.

Pioneers themselves, San Francisco's first Italian restauranteurs introduced the city to the cucine of northern Italy. Although the city's Italian community was small from the 1850's through the 1880's, it was the largest in the United States, and characteristic of the pattern in Italian immigration, it was dominated by provincials from northern Italy until the 1890s.

San Francisco's Italian colony was comprised basically of four provincial groups from Genoa in Liguria, Lucca in Tuscany, Cosenza in Calabria, and Palermo in Sicily,(6) as well as a significant number of provincials from Piedmonte, an area of Italy well known for producing discriminating cooks.(7) Catering to the specific appetites of this varied patronage, there was a blend of hearty foods which aimed to satisfy all the provincial palates. Ravioli and cioppino' 'for the Genoese; beans, fagioli—the love of the Florentine—along with rigatoni and grilled meats or a veal rag'u, for the Tuscan palate; saltimbocca for the Romans; rise e bisi, rice and peas, served with scampi for the Venetians; bollito misto for the Piedmontese; and zabaglione(8) from Sicily—these delicacies not only pleased the various provincial tastes, but in a far corner of the American West, Italian proprietors laid the groundwork for a restaurant industry which contributed to San Francisco's recognition as a gourmet city.

At the same time, these restauranteurs set the stage for social interaction with a society represented by the cosmopolitan tastes of a transient frontier community that hailed from around the world. It was a clientele that possessed what San Francisco writer Helen Throop Purdy described as "gold and silver in plenty and [who] were prodigal in spending it . . ." (9) Notable among these pioneers were seven provincial Italian restauranteurs: Frank Bazzurro, Giuseppe Campi, Stefano Sanguinetti, Frank Luchetti, Guiseppe Coppa, and Angelo Del Monte. Each paved the way for successive generations of Italian restauranteurs who continued promulgating the Italian heritage through the medium of food.

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Original Coppa's exterior with passing Model T-Ford, c. 1908.

Photo: Shaping San Francisco via Facebook

Genoese Frank Bazzurro came to San Francisco in 1852, where he purchased for fifty dollars the schooner "Tam O'Shanter," one of hundreds of ships abandoned in San Francisco Bay, and opened his restaurant. Utilizing crabs, which were plentiful and then one of the cheapest foods in the city, Bazzurro introduced San Franciscans to the Genoese delicacy, cioppina - the Italian version of bouillabaise.(10)

Bazzurro moved his restaurant from this waterfront location twice, once because the area was reclaimed by the city and the land filled in, and the second time because of the destruction caused by the 1906 earthquake and fire.(11) Bazzurro relied upon bountiful resources from the bay and the city's outlying truck farms to prepare his provincial specialties.

San Francisco Bay then provided as much fish and shellfish — most of which was caught by Genoese and Sicilian fishermen — as was found in the Mediterranean Sea. Dungeness crabs, oysters, clams, squid — which became calamari in the saute pans of Italian cooks — were in abundance, in addition to cod for baccala, salmon, and striped bass perfect for fish meatballs. From the fertile soil of the city's truck farms and the ranches along the Peninsula where the Tuscan and Genoese farmers settled grew the vegetables essential to the provincial Italian diet such as artichokes, broccoli, asparagus, zucchini, lava beans, Swiss chard, cardone, and the aromatic herbs garlic, anise, sage, fennel, oregano, and sweet basil.(12)

In Italy, meals were limited to two meals a day and the menus were simple. A middle-class dinner might begin or end with fruit, or open with a salad and close with cheese. The main dish, if it were not pasta, might be a fegatelli (a thin pancake stuffed with chopped liver), or pigeon, or perhaps nothing except bean or squash soup poured over slices of bread — not a cheap dish, since bread was expensive to make. The wealthy would eat more expensive dishes as trout, thrushes, pheasant, or a stew.(13) In San Francisco, however, where appetites were hearty and markets plentifully stocked with fish, fowl, game, fruits, and vegetables, five- and seven-course meals became standard fare. This abundance, coupled with an economic tide of prosperity brought on by heavy speculation in silver mining, was reflected in the city's newest culinary craze — free hot lunches, served from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m. for the price of one drink per customer. Frenzied stockbrokers and their covetous investors downed a cornucopia of food along with their favorite libations. This bon vivant fad spread throughout the city's social classes from the five cent beer saloons, where modest dishes such as bologna chips, dried beef, sausages, and assorted cheeses accompanied beverages, to the swanky "two bit" saloons patronized by stockbrokers which offered such delicacies as turtle soup, Dungeness crabs, oysters on the half shell, salmon, crackling suckling pigs, or roasted meats.(14)

The city's Italian restaurants followed suit in catering to the gargantuan appetites of their own clientele. An average lunch cost twenty-five cents — "two bits" -- and followed the classic Italian menu, beginning with either soup, spaghetti, ravioli or macaroni; followed by a choice of entrees — tripe with sausage and beans, meatballs, stuffed zucchini, kidney stew, and veal saute or scallopini accompanied by vegetables. Dinner, a seven-course affair, cost fifty cents and included a green salad — served at the beginning of the meal to please the American palate instead of the end of the meal in the Italian style — and a platter of antipasto — salami, olives, celery stalks, raw carrots, and green peppers. Ribsteak and chicken were two specialties on the regular menu that raised the dinner tab. Meals ended with fruit, dessert of either pastries, zabaglione or fried cream, and a demitasse.(15) Of course, wine — red or white — was included in the price of the meal.

As the city spread out from the waterfront towards Montgomery Street, which became the financial and commercial district, and along Broadway bordering Little Italy, Italian restaurants opened their doors. Offering menus that were inexpensive, in a word cheap, their informal home cooking, la cucina casalingua, captured the gastronomical hearts of San Franciscans.

Liberally patronized by both working people and gourmets was Campi's Italian and Swiss restaurant, first on Merchant and Sansome Streets and then on Clay Street. The restaurant, which first opened in about 1859, bordered the city's pungent fish and fowl markets.(16) Managed by Natale Giamboni after Giuseppe Campi's death, Giamboni was noted as the "King of Hosts," charming the ladies and remembering the likes and dislikes of his clientele. Italian-born financier Andrea Sbarboro recalled in his 1911 memoirs the early restaurant days of the 1870's when all the Italian businessmen of Washington and Sansome Streets lunched at Campi's. "At the time, I had for ten years been a steady patron and, for thirty years more, I have continued to eat at this restaurant."(17)

Joining Sbarboro were San Francisco writers Helen Throop Purdy, Benjamin Lloyd, and Daniel O'Connell. Writing in 1891, O'Connell described Campi's as "essentially a family restaurant" reserving Sundays as family day. With an established "list of regular customers for twenty years.... Campi's [was] a favorite rendezvous for clubs and societies."(18)

Gastronomically, Campi's was a worthy rival of the city's posh French restaurant, the Maison Dore. But while the Maison Dore catered to the elite, Campi's served breakfast, lunch, and dinner to a clientele that was a blend of hard-working office and trades people who spoke the "languages of Italy, France, Spain . . ."(19) Campi's rival was Sanguinetti's restaurant, which was in full operation by 1888.(20) Once located on Vallejo Street and then on Davis Street, Sanguinetti's chief clientele were the fishermen from the nearby Union Street wharf plus "some Bohemians, some make believe, and some who go to look on."(21) One could get a bowl of thick minestrone, an entree and a bottle of wine for twenty-five cents. For a nickel's worth of beer, however, one also got a generous free lunch of spaghetti, Italian bread, and fried fish. Two bartenders patrolled a line of ten beer barrels, drawing the brew slowly first from one, then another, and finally a third to fill a single glass from very small spigots. If drawn too quickly, the barrels' pressure would turn Frisco's unique steam beer into froth.(22)

Sanguinetti's, owned by Stefano Sanguinetti, who later Americanized his name to "Steve," was an attractive eatery with a low-beamed ceiling and dark walls. To give the restaurant an air of unconventionality, sawdust was spread on the floor. Writing for the Overland Monthly, Roland Whittle found the spontaneity of Sanguinetti's to his liking and typical of Italian restaurants noted for their familial ambience. "One can drop into the little place almost any evening and hear the Italian folk song sung in the sweet, languorous music and tongue of South Italy," he wrote .(23)

For an Italian from any province, good food and wine when accompanied by music is an epicurean's delight. Sanguinetti's banked on this concept. Fifty-cent Italian dinners offered an infinite variety of provincial pastas and risottos, ending several courses later with a warm, custardy zabaglione. It was the strolling musicians who enlivened the meals, encouraging participation by diners, many of whom were the city's young Bohemians. Gelett Burgess, one of these Bohemians, immortalized Sanguinetti's in his romance, The Heart Line, calling it "Carminetti's."(24)

Attracted to an exotic, ethnic atmosphere of a restaurant that served heaping platefuls of inexpensive food and wine, the city's artists and intellectuals introduced the Italian provincial restaurants to the middle and upper classes. Penetrating society's upper crust through their art works, Bohemians Gelett Burgess and Kathleen and Charles Norris, whose early courtship was conducted over "many a little table ... in the ... Italian Quarter where we used four dollars' worth of light on each fifty cent meal,"(25) transmitted to San Francisco's American-born population their discovery of immigrant provincial Italian cuisines.

Next door to Sanguinetti's on Sansome Street was Lucchetti's, a foremost competitor which was opened by 1874(26) and later critiqued by writer Roland Whittle as a "different place." Biased, he preferred the Italian clientele that Sanguinetti's catered to over the American trade Lucchetti's attracted. He enjoyed listening to Sanguinetti's diners sing, and mingled with the local Italian fishermen who sallied about in their "bright-colored jerseys, with their gum boots high up on their thighs. [These] gallant, reckless fellows" he wrote, fascinated him as they sailed "their swift, beautiful crafts [fellucas] making one of the most charming sights on the Bay of San Francisco."(27)

Whittle put down the equally popular Lucchetti's as "a large, straggling barn, uncomfortable in its fittings and devoid of artistic setting. The walls are devoid of ornament, except for gaudy advertisements of cigarettes and liquor."(28) The claret was a heady "dago red," he wrote, and on Sunday nights Lucchetti's was in its glory since that was when the Italian local fishermen who frequented the restaurant left the place to young American bucks eager for a night on the town. Their rowdy behavior indicated to Whittle that they were not interested in the fifty-cent meals of soup, fish, chicken, ravioli, spaghetti, fried cream, wine, and coffee but in a "mad, wild frolic" and "rough flirtations" with the ladies.(29)

Coppa's, located in the Montgomery Block Building, was the most famous of all the Bohemian rendezvous spots and the city's favorite Italian eatery before the 1906 earthquake and fire. Located close to the stock exchange, Coppa's attracted brokers and financiers during the day, but once the sun set, it was the mecca for Bohemians.(30) Gelett Burgess had also immortalized Coppa's in his romance, The Heart Line, as "Fulda's." The food was rated above average, thanks to the culinary expertise of Giuseppe Coppa, the Turinese chef who had trained in some of the city's top restaurants, notably the swank Poodle Dog Restaurant, after closing his trattoria in a North Beach alley.(31)

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Original Coppa's famous interior mural.

Photo: Shaping San Francisco via Facebook

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Dining at Coppa's in its heyday, early 1900s.

Photo: Shaping San Francisco via Facebook

Coppa's was quickly adopted by San Francisco's Bohemians -- Jules Tavernier, Joe Strong, long-haired Xavier Martinez, Porter Garnett, George Sterling, Jack London, Gelett Burgess, Maynard Dixon, Will and Wallace Irwin, and the rest of the publishing staff of the avant-garde literary magazine, The Lark. There was a mutually satisfying relationship between the Bohemians and Coppa. They liked Coppa because of his fine cooking, good humor, jovial smile, his chicken en casserole and fried cream, and especially his soft heart in forgiving unpaid bills. Coppa, who had aspired to become a singer in his youth, welcomed the contingent of artists who frequented his restaurant. Coppa's father, a chef, would not hear of his son's aspirations and sent him to Paris to learn to be a saucier. There Coppa met and married the diminutive and soft-spoken Elizabeth, who became maitresse d' and "Mamma" Coppa to the Bohemians, lending to the restaurant a familial ambience. It was a feeling, wrote Helen Purdy, that "for an hour [one] thought that [one was] on Italian soil, and the waiter[s] so solicitous to please you, so anxious that [one should] enjoy their food [added] to the illusion.(32) The Coppas, including a son, arrived in San Francisco in 1890.(33)

The original Coppa's Restaurant was a long, narrow room on the ground floor of the Montgomery Block. It had a high ceiling with chandeliers and an inviting expanse of bare wall. Three rows of seven tables filled the dining room. Felix, Coppa's partner, tended the ornate bar while Coppa, the chef de cuisine, ran the kitchen. A four-bit table d'hotel consisted of salad, pasta, entree, crusty sourdough bread, black coffee, and a bottle of wine.

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Original Coppa's interior.

Photo: Shaping San Francisco via Facebook

After a hired worker botched a repair job, a group of Coppa's Bohemian clientele repainted the restaurant gratis, producing a fresco that completely covered three walls. Every Sunday for three months a different artist worked on the mural. The first was Porter Garnett, who drew in chalk a fierce, five foot high lobster which he set atop an island named Bohemia along with two friendly nudes done by the sculptor Robert Aiken. A decorative border, bearing the names of all the Bohemian cronies, appeared next to names of the world's great thinkers, and the names of writers such as Aristotle and Dante circled the top of the wall, while below was a parade of black cats and a cartouche called the "Temple of Fame."(34)

Coppa's became too popular with the Bohemians, and this ultimately undermined its success among the local Italian clientele. While the Bohemians had created a haven for themselves, persuading Coppa to return to his looted restaurant after the 1906 earthquake and fire to cook a "last supper," the Italians took their patronage to the less crowded and inexpensive restaurants that opened along Columbus Avenue, the main thoroughfare of the Italian colony.(35) Although Coppa's survived the earthquake and fire, the landlord raised the rent, forcing Coppa to relocate, and thereafter open a series of mediocre restaurants.

The fanciest Italian meals came from the Fior d'Italia, which opened at 504 Broadway on May 1, 1886, under the proprietorship of Angelo Del Monte. Specialties of the house that first year included risotto with clams (ten cents); tortellini (five cents); veal saute (five cents); and squab casserole (forty cents). Double porterhouse steak-an American dish-was sixty cents."

Del Monte took in a partner in 1896, a young immigrant known to his customers as Papa Marianetti, from Maggiano, a town between Lucca and Pisa. Like other Italian restaurants, the Fior d'Italia was a family operation with Marianetti's two sons, George and Frank, who shelled peas, bused tables, and washed dishes after school. The "Fior," as the restaurant was known among San Francisco's Italians, became the Italian community's "in" spot, where important family events--weddings, baptisms, anniversaries, birthdays, and first communions--were celebrated.

The Fior d'Italia, presently across from Washington Square in front of St. Peter and Paul Church, is the city's oldest surviving pioneer Italian restaurant. Certainly Bazzurro's, Campi's, Sanguinetti's, Lucchetti's, and the Fior d'Italia were not the only prominent Italian restaurants in San Francisco before the turn of the century. But they were the most popular among discriminating local Italians and Amcrican bon vivants.

These six restaurants laid the groundwork for a gastronomical industry that has profitably contributed to the economic structure of San Francisco. By 1900, when the influx of Italians increased, North Beach had become an eating paradise--at workers' prices. Italian restaurants stretched along Columbus Avenue from Montgomery Street to Francisco Street, along upper Grant Avenue, and along almost every side street between Chinatown and Fisherman's Wharf.

There was Buon Gusto, featuring Genoese pasta with pesto, and polenta with cioppino; the expensive Julius' Castle atop Telegraph Hill, which served zucchini Florentine; the popular Lucca's at the corner of Powell and Francisco Streets that advertised at the height of the Great Depression "All You Can Eat for Fifty Cents," and Lupo's, offering the provincial southern cuisine, including "calzone" pizzas cooked in charcoal-burning ovens.(37) From the Gold Spike Restaurant came the heavy aroma of minestrone, while from its competitor's kitchen, the New Pisa, came the appetizing smell of a meat sauce. The New Tivoli on Grant Avenue let diners take home their uneaten petit fours in a box, and Il Trovatore on Montgomery Street, which served a hearty man's lunch with wine or beer, became the award-winning Ernie's Restaurant in 1947. (38)

The Prohibition, which prompted the avocation of basement wine-making among a majority of Italians, the Great Depression, and World War II saw a transformation in San Francisco's restaurant industry. By the 1950's, almost one hundred years after the first Italian restaurant had opened in the city, San Francisco's restaurants were recognized by Holiday Magazine, then noted as the guidebook of gourmets, for their understated excellence in the culinary arts.(39) Building upon the traditions established by the provincial Italian restauranteurs of serving an abundance of food in a congenial atmosphere that made diners feel they were dining and not just eating, these newcomers, among which was my father's restaurant, Paoli's, vigorously competed for Holiday's coveted four-star awards.

Immigrating from an agrarian-based country, where the energies of its people went into the production of food, to the United States, a country whose consciousness of food was yet to be awakened, these provincial Italian entrepreneurs used their culinary expertise to create a restaurant industry that contributed significantly to San Francisco's economy.

Through the medium of food, the pioneer restauranteurs visibly interacted with the American world, affirming food historian Waverly Root's statement that the "Italian restaurant is an article of export.(40)


1. National Restaurant Association Research and Information Service Department, "Consumer Attitude and Behavior Study. Consumer Preferences of ethnic Foods In Restaurants" (March, 1984), p. 25.

2. Waverly Root, The Food of Italy (New York, 1971), p. 12. See also "Introduction," pp. v-xii.

3. Ibid., p. 13. Marcella Hazan, Marcella's Italian Kitcben (New York, 1988), p. 3.

4. Ibid., pp. 90-91.

5. Luigi Vfflan', GliStati Uniti d'America e le migrazione italiana (Milano, 1912) p.226

6. Dino Cinel, From Italy to San Francisco (Stanford, 1982), pp. 21-22.

7. Deanna Paoli Gumina, The Italians of San Francisco: Gii Italiani di San Francisco 1850-1930 (New York, 1978), P. 19.

8. Root, pp. 7, 35, 44, 84, 115, 325, 405,407.

9. Helen Throop Purdy, San Francisco As It Was, As It ls, and How to See It (San Francisco, 1912), p. 151.

10. Doris Muscatine, A Cook's Tour of San Francisco (New York, 1963), p. 247.

11. The earliest listing of Bazzarro's 105 Pacific Avenue restaurant in any San Francisco directory was 1879.

Langley's San Francisco Directory 1879-1880 (San Francisco, 1879), pp. 116, 1062. Also, Muscatine, p. 247.

12. "A Short Autobiography of Frank 29. Ibid. Marini Written on August 27, 1947. In deposit at the Italian Welfare Society, San Francisco, California.

13. Root, pp. 33-34.

14. Richard Dillon, North Beacb: the Italian Heart of San Francisco (San Francisco, 1985), p. 134.

15. Purdy, p. 151. Hazan, 25. Also, Jerry Flamm, Good Life in Hard Times (San Francisco, 1978), p. 51.

16. San Francisco Directory, 1859 (San Francisco, 1859), p. 326.

17. Dillon, p. 134.

18. Purdy, p. 151. Also, Daniel O'Connell, The Inner Man (San Francisco, 1891), pp. 73-74.

19. B. E. Lloyd, Lights and Sbades in San Francisco (San Francisco, 1876), p. 64.

20. Langley's San Francisco Directory 1888 (San Francisco, 1888), p. 1406.

21. Purdy, p. 151.

22. Dillon, p. 134.

23. Roland Whittle, "The Humbler Restaurants of San Francisco," Overland Monthly, No. 41 (May, 1903), p. 365.

24. Purdy, p. 151.

25. Kathleen Norris, Noon: An Auto-biograpbical Sketch (New York, 1925), p. 30.

26. Langley's San Francisco Directory 1874 (San Francisco, 1874), p. 819.

27. Whittle, pp. 366-367.

28. Whittle, p. 366.

29. Ibid

30. Jack L. Dodd and Hazel Blair Dodd, Coppas Restaurant, Bohemian Eats (San Francisco, 1925). In deposit California Historical Society, San Francisco, No. 4719.

31. Oscar Lewis, Bay City Bohemia (New York, 1956), p. 100.

32. Purdy, p. 151.

33. Dillon, pp. 135-136.

34. Muscatine, pp. 228-229. Dillon, p.136. Also see Lewis, pp. 100- 106.

35. Gumina, p. 27. Columbus Avenue was formerly called Montgomery Avenue.

36. Muscatine, p. 259.

37. Muscatine, pp. 264-266. Flamm, pp. 54-56.

38. Flamm, p. 51.

39. The reader is encouraged to read Holiday magazine's special edition on San Francisco. "San Francisco," Holiday, Vol. 26, No. 4 (April, 1961), p. 220.

40. Root, p. 11.

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