One of the neighborhood's oldest Italian-family-run businesses, Molinari's is a landmark in North Beach. (Coral Sisk)

North Beach's authentic Italian food purveyors struggle to keep their culture—and businesses—alive

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Once a hallmark of San Francisco and a bustling neighborhood for the local Italian community, North Beach is struggling to hang onto its legacy. The last decades haven't been kind to this quarter as rising rents have forced most of its family-run Italian businesses to bail, leaving commercial real estate vacancies somewhere around 50 percent. Now thanks to the COVID-19 crisis, North Beach is in greater peril.

Independent businesses in the 'hood, whether time-honored or more modern, are feeling the weight of economic impact that threatens to further diminish North Beach's cultural heritage. Here three of the neighborhood's Italian business owners share their love of Italy's vibrant artisanal food culture; you can support them during the pandemic by ordering takeout and delivery.


Francesco Covucci's Il Casaro Becomes a North Beach Mini-Empire

Il Casaro owner Francesco Covucci, at far right. (Courtesy of Il Casaro)

Francesco Covucci is a classic American dream success story, with a twist of Italian heritage.

Raised in the small town of Marcellina (population 2,000) in the region of Calabria with a culture of mindful cooking and eating, Covucci's childhood "morning routine was picking produce with my family under the hot summer sun, then canning tomatoes so they'd last us through the winter. Once fall came, we'd pick olives for oil; whatever we had left over, we'd sell to our neighbors. The seasons naturally gave us a work schedule and products to rely on—consider this for Italians is the foundation of how we developed a culture of eating locally, according to the seasons. I believe there isn't a better place in the U.S. than San Francisco for this type of approach," says Covucci, who worked in his father's pizzeria (the only one in their small village) before moving to SF in 2003.

Since 2008, Covucci has been a player in the North Beach restaurant scene, building a small food empire even as the neighborhood's culinary mainstays, including Figaro Restaurant and Steps of Rome, have floundered and closed, in part due to increased crime and a decline of local patronage. In 2013, he opened his first Il Casaro (meaning "cheesemaker") in the old Steps of Rome address (there's now a second location in the Castro).

"It was a beginning of a new era, where people were less fussed with a white table cloth experience—it was the end of fine dining in North Beach," he says. Knowing how much diners appreciated the simple, convivial experience of sharing a freshly blistered pizza over a bottle of wine, Covucci set out to authentically serve it to them from his Neapolitan-style pizzeria and mozzarella bar.

"Albeit with great financial sacrifice, I was determined to maintain traditions, from installing a wood-fired oven to utilizing high-quality raw ingredients imported from Italy such as olive oil, mozzarella, tomatoes, salumi, and flour which are crucial to the integrity of genuine Italian cuisine."

The neighborhood has responded, bolstering Covucci enough to open the Roman-style Barbara Pinseria & Cocktail Bar a couple years back; he also owns Pasta Pop-Up. In all these restaurants, the emphasis follows the same philosophy: respecting Italian culinary favorites with scrutiny over quality ingredients. The entrepreneur believes that if the rest of the neighborhood would follow suit, then North Beach might "boomerang as a destination hangout for San Franciscans."

But he warns that responsibility to support North Beach relies heavily on the neighborhood's residents. "We need more agency from those who live here and not just tourists, since it's common to Uber to other trendier, more developed districts like the Mission for dining and nightlife. We need to create a community...in order to encourage locals back to Columbus Avenue."

All of Covucci's restaurants remain open for takeout and/or delivery during shelter in place. Il Casaro is also donating pizzas to local hospitals via Food Runners SF.

// Il Casaro, 348 Columbus Ave. and 235 Church St. (Castro), ilcasaropizzeria.com. Barbara Pinseria, 431 Columbus Ave., sfbarbara.com. Pasta Pop-Up, 550 Green St., pastapopupsf.com

Lorenzo Scarpone's Sotta Casa: The Slow Food Lover's Specialty Italian Grocer

(Courtesy of Lorenzo Scarpone)

Born in Abruzzo, Italy to a pork butcher father and an ace cook mother who also made beloved wines from local grapes, Lorenzo Scarpone grew up with personal experience of Italy's artisanal food culture. In 1987, Scarpone, a sommelier and Italian wine and specialty foods importer, moved to San Francisco where, in 1990, he became the founder of our city's Slow Food chapter.

"San Francisco is the capital of the slow food movement in the U.S. and is a unique success story on the West Coast, which has influenced the rest of the country in how to eat," he says. "Since this movement originated in Italy, we need to invest more than ever in a historic Italian quarter, like North Beach, to make a comeback."

In 2019, Scarpone put his money where his mouth is and opened Sotto Casa ("under your house"), an Italian specialty grocer in SF's Italian district, where he and his friends used to go out in the 1980s ad '90s, and lately have lamented the neighborhood's stagnation.

"We need to not only preserve North Beach but rebuild it," he says. "I keep telling Italian entrepreneurs who want to open food-related businesses to come to North Beach, but rent costs are too prohibitory." Now, with the COVID-19 crisis, the quarter has turned especially quiet; Scarpone and his fellow local business owners are getting hammered economically, and many fear they'll have to shut their doors.

But Sotto Casa is an ideal spot to shop these days, an essential grocer dealing in dried pastas from ancient grains; imported cheeses like Pecorino Sardo from Sardinia (the region has been regarded for centuries for mastering sheep milk cheeses); aged balsamic vinegar from Modena; canned and jarred goods such as tomato sauce, marinated Roman artichokes, and Calabrian chili paste; Italian roasted coffee; and, perhaps most interestingly, estate-grown extra virgin olive oil from mono-varietals, including bottles from Scarpone's family's production in Abruzzo (you won't find this elsewhere in SF).

"My dream is for North Beach to be a true corner of Italian food culture, where you have several micro-business bottegas dedicated to fresh fish (pescheria), cheese mongers, salumeria delis, and Italian-run bakeries purveying traditional baked goods both sweet and savory," he says. But for the dream to become reality, Scarpone says action is needed to curb rent costs in the neighborhood.

"It's impossible for a business selling low-ticket items, like foods, to survive and pay fair wages to employees when rents are as high as $10,000 per month," he explains.

For now, Sotto Casa, like many other small food businesses in the city, is doing its best to adapt its business practices for the shelter-in-place age, taking orders through its Facebook page and offering gift cards online.

// 1351 Grant Ave. (North Beach), sotto-casa.com

Nicholas Mastrelli, Fourth-Generation Owner of Molinari Delicatessen

Molinari Delicatessen's fourth-generation family business owner, Nicholas Mastrelli. (Isabel Picard, via @inickmastrelli)

Treasured for its hunky paninis, ready-to-make fresh pastas, and dizzying array of deli meats, cheeses, Sicilian arancini, and marinated delicacies, Molinari Delicatessen, a classic alimentari run by an Italian family, is a North Beach institution.

Opened in 1896 as a salumi production facility—which eventually moved its factory operations to South San Francisco, where salumi is still made in the traditional, artisanal fashion today—Molinari's Columbus Avenue retail space continues to lure both locals and visitors with its wafts of pungent cheeses, savory meats, and Frank Sinatra providing the soundtrack for the time-capsule business run by Nicholas Mastrelli, Molinari's fourth generation family business owner. His great-grandfather, Alfred, an immigrant from Vercelli, a city in the Northern Italian province of Piedmont, worked at the Molinari Salami Factory in 1896 before taking ownership of the retail storefront; the deli has been passed from father to son in his family ever since.

"I went to ministry schools after college, but in a strange way my faith lead me to ultimately taking ownership of the deli," he recalls. "My whole life, I have always loved the art of food, charcuterie, viticulture. No better feeling than working alongside your father, in something that his father and his worked in. I love it when customers who are 80 years old and on come in and say, 'I remember your grandpa serving me.'"

Mastrelli grew up in North Beach working in the shop on Saturdays, sweeping the floor, stocking shelves, and fetching bread from the bakery. "I remember having four dozen full bags crossing the street and sometimes dropping bread in the middle of the street, cars honking. It was fun being the deli kid."

He also remembers there being more Italian-owned businesses in the neighborhood back in the day, and has unfortunately seen many bakeries, shops, and restaurants disappear over the years, along with much of the local Italian community.

"All my life, the old timers would bask and rave of the glory days of North Beach," he says. "They say, 'You see how Chinatown is still a thriving, cohesive community? Bustling streets with everyone stopping to talk to one another. North Beach used to be just like that, but with Italians.'"

Mastrelli strives in earnest to keep the quarter's Italian identity alive by continually deepening his knowledge of the country's culture, language, history, and products, then by sharing all that with his patrons to build a loyal and genuine client base.

"COVID-19 is scary for North Beach—it's going to be very difficult for some of businesses in the neighborhood to return," he fears.

San Franciscans can support Molinari's by stocking up on salumi, imported Italian wine, and ready-to-make pastas during shelter in place.

// Molinari Delicatessen, 373 Columbus Ave. (North Beach); order online for pickup at molinaridelisf.com or for delivery via GrubHub.

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