Like most areas of San Francisco, North Beach, the city’s Little Italy, has a colorful past. It’s bordered by Russian Hill, the Financial District, Fisherman’s Wharf and Telegraph Hill. After the 1906 earthquake, the wharves and docks were rebuilt by Italian immigrants. The workers and their families settled there and built a vibrant community.
In the 50s the Beats arrived: Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti opened City Lights Bookstore. Cafes, bars and restaurants sprung up along with strip clubs. At Broadway and Columbus Ave, the Condor boasted Carol Doda, one of the first dancers to go topless. Her 44” bust line, aided by silicone implants, became a tourist attraction. During the 60s, the acerbic comedian Lenny Bruce challenged the establishment at the Purple Onion nightclub as well as the venue launched the careers of Richard Pryor, Woody Allen, and Phyllis Diller. Punks descended in the late 70s and early 80s. Dead Kennedys, Husker Du and Ramones played at the Mabuhay Gardens, “Fab Mab,” on Broadway.
For this photo tour, I took a walk along Columbus Ave around 11 a.m. on a Sunday. The only people on the streets were tourists. They crowded Molinari’s, the Italian deli on Columbus Ave. They were so happy to be there as they ate copa and mozzarella sandwiches and checked another foodie destination off their list.
Through the earthquakes, economic ups and down, and dotcom busts and booms, North Beach has managed to retain its Italian community and flavor. However, the adjacent Chinatown has been encroaching for some time. Little Italy is becoming littler.
The morning crunch over, Jessica and Penny headed into North Beach. Jessica absorbed the delectable smells of frying garlic and onions, simmering tomato-basil sauce, and freshly baked focaccia from the Italian restaurants and bakeries lining Columbus Avenue. She was famished, and hoped Penny had chosen the restaurant for their lunch wisely. As they turned up Grant Avenue and arrived at Café Fraîche, her heart sank. A raw food restaurant in North Beach? Sacrilege! Instead of gooey cannelloni or puffy ravioli with arrabbiata sauce, a pile of garden mulch accompanied by bone-dry, gray crackers graced her plate.