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Around Little Italy
San Francisco holds no more interesting district than that lying around the base of Telegraph Hill, and extending over toward North Beach, even as far as Fisherman's Wharf. Here is the part of San Francisco that first felt the restoration impulse, and this was the first part of San Francisco rebuilt after the great fire, and in its rebuilding it recovered all of its former characteristics, which is more than can be said of any other part of the rebuilt city.
Here, extending north from Jackson street to the Bay, are congregated Italians, French, Portuguese and Mexicans, each in a distinct colony, and each maintaining the life, manners and customs, and in some instances the costumes, of the parent countries, as fully as if they were in their native lands. Here are stores, markets, fish and vegetable stalls, bakeries, paste factories, sausage factories, cheese factories, wine presses, tortilla bakeries, hotels, pensions, and restaurants; each distinctive and full of foreign life and animation, and each breathing an atmosphere characteristic of the country from which the parent stock came.
Walk along the streets on the side of Telegraph Hill and one can well imagine himself transported to a sunny hillside in Italy, for here he hears no other language than that which came from the shores of the Mediterranean. Here are Italians of all ages, sexes and conditions of servitude, from the padrone to the bootblack who works for a pittance until he obtains enough to start himself in business. If one investigate closely it will be found that many of the people of this part of San Francisco have been here for years and still understand no other language than that of their native home. Why should they learn anything else, they say. Everybody around them, and with whom they come in contact speaks Italian. Here are the Corsicans, with their peculiar ideas of the vendetta and the cheapness of life in general, and the Sicilians and Genoese and Milanese. Here are some from the slopes of Vesuvius or Aetna, with inborn knowledge of the grape and of wine making. All have brought with them recipes and traditions, some dating back for hundreds of years, or even thousands, to the days before the Christian Era was born. It is just the same to them as it was across the ocean, for they hear the same dialect and have the same customs. Do they desire any special delicacy from their home district, they need but go to the nearest Italian grocery store and get it, for these stores are supplied direct from Genoa or Naples. This is the reason that many of the older men and women still speak the soft dialect of their native communities, and if you are so unfortunate as not to be able to understand them, then it is you who are the loser.
Do you wish to know something about conditions in Mexico? Would you like to learn what the Mexicans themselves really think about affairs down in that disturbed republic? Go along Broadway west of Grant avenue, and then around the corner on Stockton, and you will see strange signs, and perhaps you will not know that "Fonda" means restaurant, or that "Tienda," means a store. But these are the signs you will see, and when you go inside you will hear nothing but the gentle Spanish of the Mexican, so toned down and so changed that some of the Castilians profess to be unable to understand it.
Here you will find all the articles of household use that are to be found in the heart of Mexico, and that have been used for hundreds of years despite the progress of civilization in other countries. You will find all the strange foods and all the inconsequentials that go to make the sum of Mexican happiness, and if you can get sufficiently close in acquaintance you will find that not only will they talk freely to you, but they will tell you things about Mexico that not even the heads of the departments in Washington are aware of.
Perhaps you would like to know something about the bourgeoise French, those who have come from the peasant district of the mother country. Go a little further up Broadway and you will begin to see the signs changing from Spanish to French, and if you can understand them you will know that here you will be given a dinner for twenty-five cents on week days and for thirty-five cents on Sundays. The difference is brought about by the difference between the price of cheap beef or mutton and the dearer chicken.
Up in the second story on a large building you may see a sign that tells you meals will be served and rooms provided. One of these is the rendezvous of Anarchists, who gather each evening and discuss the affairs of the world, and how to regulate them. But they are harmless Anarchists in San Francisco, for here they have no wrongs to redress, so they sit and drink their forbidden absinthe, and dream their dreams of fire and sword, while they talk in whispers of what they are going to do to the crowned heads of Europe. It is their dream and we have no quarrel with it or them.
But for real interest one must get back to the slope of Telegraph Hill; to the streets running up from Columbus avenue, until they are so steep that only goats and babies can play on them with safety. At least we suppose the babies are as active as the goats for the sides of the hill are alive with them.
Let us walk first along Grant avenue and do a little window shopping. Just before you turn off Broadway into Grant avenue, after passing the Fior d'Italia, the Buon Gusto, the Dante and Il Trovatore restaurants, we come to a most interesting window where is displayed such a variety of sausages as to make one wonder at the inventive genius who thought of them all. As you wonder you peep timidly in the door and then walk in from sheer amazement. You now find yourself surrounded with sausages, from floor to ceiling, and from side wall to side wall on both ceiling and floor, and such sausage it is!
From strings so thin as to appear about the size of a lady's little finger, to individual sausages as large as the thigh of a giant, they hang in festoons, crawl over beams, lie along shelves, decorate counters, peep from boxes on the floor, and invite you to taste them in the slices that lay on the butcher's block. One can well imagine being in a cave of flesh, yet if you look closely you will discover that sausage is but a part of the strange edible things to be had here.
Here are cheeses in wonderful variety. Cheeses from Italy that are made from goats' milk, asses' milk, cows' milk and mares' milk, and also cheeses from Spain, Mexico, Germany, Switzerland, and all the other countries where they make cheese, even including the United States. These cheeses are of all sizes and all shapes, from the great, round, flat cheese that we are accustomed to see in country grocery stores, to the queer-shaped caciocavallo, which looks like an Indian club and is eaten with fruit.
There are dried vegetables and dried fruits such as were never dreamed of in your limited experience, and even the grocer himself, the smiling and cosmopolitan Verga, confesses that he does not know the names of all of them.
As you go out into the street you blink at the transformation, for you have been thousands of miles away. You think that surely there can be nothing more. Wait a bit. Turn the corner and walk along Grant avenue toward the Hill. See, here is a window full of bread. Look closely at it and you will notice that it is not like the bread you are accustomed to. Count the different kinds. Fourteen of them in all, from the long sticks of grissini to the great slid loaves weighing many pounds. Light bread, heavy bread, good bread, soft bread, hard bread, delicate bread, each having its especial use, and all satisfying to different appetites.
Now go a little further to the corner, cross the street and enter the store of the Costa Brothers. It is a big grocery store and while you will not find the sausage and mystifying mass of food products in such lavish display and profuseness, as in the previous place, if you look around you will find this even more interesting, for it is on a different plane. Here you find the delicacies and the niceties of Italian living. At first glance it looks as if you were in any one of the American grocery stores of down-town, but a closer examination reveals the fact that these canned goods and these boxes and jars, hold peculiar foods that you are unaccustomed to. Perhaps you will find a clerk who can speak good English, but if you cannot either of the Costa brothers will be glad to show you the courtesy of answering your questions.
Turn around and look at the shelves filled with bottles of wine. Now you feel that you are on safe ground, for you know about wines and can talk about Cresta Blanca, and Mont Rouge, and Asti Colony Tipo Chianti. But wait a minute. Here are labels that you do not understand and wines that you never even heard of. Here are wines whose taste is so delicious that you wonder why it is the whole world is not talking about it and drinking it.
Here are wines from the slopes of Aetna, sparkling and sweet. Here are wines from grapes grown on the warm slopes of Vesuvius, and brought to early perfection by the underground fires. Here are wines from the colder slopes of mountains; wines from Parma and from Sicily and Palermo where the warm Italian sunshine has been the arch-chemist to bring perfection to the fruit of the vine. Here are still wines and those that sparkle. Here the famed Lacrima Christi, both spumanti and fresco, said to be the finest wine made in all Italy, and the spumanti have the unusual quality for an Italian wine of being dry. But to tell you of all the interesting articles to be found in these Italian, and French and Mexican stores, would be impossible, for some of them have not been translated into English, and even the storekeepers would be at a loss for words to explain them.
This is all a part of the Bohemianism of San Francisco, and that is why we are telling you about it in a book that is supposed to be devoted to the Bohemian restaurants. The fact is that San Francisco's Bohemian restaurants would be far less interesting were it not for the fact that they can secure the delicacies imported by these foreign storekeepers to supply the wants of their people.
But do not think you have exhausted the wonders of Little Italy when you have left the stores, for there is still more to see. If you were ever in Palermo and went into the little side streets, you saw the strings of macaroni, spaghetti and other pastes drying in the sun while children and dogs played through and around it, giving you such a distaste for it that you have not eaten any Italian paste since.
But in San Francisco they do things differently. There are a number of paste factories, all good and all clean. Take that of P. Fiorini, for instance, at a point a short distance above Costa Brothers. You cannot miss it for it has a picture of Fiorini himself as a sign, and on it he tells you that if you eat his paste you will get to be as fat as he is. Go inside and you will find that Fiorini can talk just enough English to make himself understood, while his good wife, his sole assistant, can neither speak nor understand any but her native Italian. But that does not bother her in the least, for she can make signs, and you can understand them even better than you understand the English of her husband.
Here you will see the making of raviolis by the hundred at a time. Tagliarini, tortilini, macaroni, spaghetti, capellini, percatelli, tagliatelli, and all the seventy and two other varieties. The number of kinds of paste is most astonishing, and one wonders why there are so many kinds and what is done with them. Fiorini will tell you that each kind has its distinctive use. Some are for soups, some for sauces, and all for special edibility. There are hundreds of recipes for cooking the various pastes and each one is said to be a little better than the others, if you can imagine such a thing.
Turn another corner after leaving Fiorini's and look down into a basement. You do not have to go to the country to see wine making. Here is one of the primitive wine presses of Italy, and if you want to know why some irreverent people call the red wine of the Italians "Chateau la Feet," you have but to watch the process of its making in these Telegraph Hill wine houses. The grapes are poured into a big tub and a burly man takes off his shoes and socks and emulates the oxen of Biblical times when it treaded out the grain. Of course he washes his feet before he gets into the wine tub. But, at that, it is not a pleasant thing to contemplate. Now you look around with wider and more comprehensive eyes, and now you begin to understand something about these strange foreign quarters in San Francisco. As you look around you note another thing. Italian fecundity is apparent everywhere, and the farther up the steep slope of the Hill you go the more children you see. They are everywhere, and of all sizes and ages, in such reckless profusion that you no longer wonder if the world is to be depopulated through the coming of the fad of Eugenics. The Italian mother has but two thoughts - her God and her children, and it is to care for her children that she has brought from her native land the knowledge of cookery, and of those things that help to put life and strength in their bodies.
An Italian girl said to us one day:
"Mama knows nothing but cooking and going to church. She cooks from daylight until dark, and stops cooking only when she is at church."
It was evident that her domestic and religious duties dominated her life, and she knew but two things - to please her God and to care for her family, and without question if occasion demanded the pleasure of her family took precedence.
San Francisco's Latin quarter is appealing, enticing and hypnotizing. Go there and you will learn why San Francisco is a bohemian city. You will find out that so many things you have thought important are really not at all worth while. Go there and you will find the root of Bohemian restaurants. These people have studied gastronomy as a science, and they have imparted their knowledge to San Francisco, with the result that the Bohemian spirit enters into our very lives, and our minds are broadened, and our views of life and our ideas have a wider scope. It is because of this condition, born on the slopes of Telegraph Hill, that we are drawn out of depressing influences, out of the spirit of self-consciousness, and find a world of pleasure, innocent and educational, the inspiration for which has been handed down through generations of Latina since the days of early Roman empire, which inspiration is still a power for good because it takes people out of themselves and places them where they can look with understanding and speak the language of perception. Little Italy's charm has long been recognized by artists and writers, and many of them began their careers which led to fame and fortune in little cheap rooms on Telegraph Hill. Here have lived many whose names are now known to fame, and to name them would be almost like a directory of world renowned artists and writers. Here is still the memory of Bret Harte and Mark Twain. Here is where Keith had his early studio. Cadenasso, Martinez, and many others know these slopes and love them.
To all these and many more the Latin Quarter of San Francisco possessed a charm they could find nowhere else, and if one desire to bring a saddened look to the faces of many now living elsewhere it is but necessary to talk of the good old days when Bohemia was on Telegraph Hill in San Francisco. Here they had their domicile, and here they foregathered in the little restaurants, whose claims to merit lay chiefly in the fact that they were rarely visited by other than the Italians of the quarter and these Bohemians who lived there.
Here was the inspiration of many a good book and many a famous picture whose inception came from thoughts that crystallized amid these surroundings, and here many a needy Bohemian struggled through the lean days with the help of these kind-hearted Latina. Here they, even as we, were taught something of the art of cooking.
Of course, if one desire to learn various methods of preparing food, it is necessary to keep both eyes open and to ask many questions, seeking the information that sometimes comes from unlooked for sources. Even at that it is not always a good idea to take everything for granted or to accept every suggestion, for you may meet with the Italian vegetable dealer who is so eager to please his customers that he pretends a knowledge he does not possess. We discovered him one day when he had on display a vegetable that was strange to us.
"How do you cook it?" was our question.
Then his partner shouted his laughter and derision.
"Oh, he's one fine cook. All the time he say 'fry it.' One day a lady she come into da store an' she see da big bucket of ripe olives. Da lady she from the East and she never see olives like dat before. 'How you cook it?' say da lady. 'Fry it,' say my partner. Everything he say fry it."
In another vegetable stand we found an Italian girl, whose soft lisping accent pronounced her a Genoese, and she, diffidently suggested "a fine Italian dessert."
A Fine Desert
"You take macaroons and strawberries. Put a layer of macaroons in a dish and then a layer of strawberries, cover these with sugar, and then another layer of macaroons and strawberries and sugar until you have all you want. Over these pour some rum and set fire to it. After it is burned out you have a fine dessert."
We bought the macaroons and strawberries on the way home and did not even wait for dinner time to try it. We pronounce it good.
It was made the right way and we advise you to try it, for it is simple and leaves a most delicious memory.