North Beach, bite by bite, in Italian-American epicurean’s Web show 

Culture keeper: Gianni Mola displays his traditional Italian Pulcinella figurine before a taping of “Gianni’s North Beach,” an online cooking show that promotes the neighborhood’s authentic culture and businesses. - MIKE KOOZMIN/THE SF EXAMINER
  • Mike Koozmin/The SF Examiner
  • Culture keeper: Gianni Mola displays his traditional Italian Pulcinella figurine before a taping of “Gianni’s North Beach,” an online cooking show that promotes the neighborhood’s authentic culture and businesses.

When Gianni Mola first moved to San Francisco 20 years ago, there were five salumieri, or traditional Italian delis, in North Beach.

“There was Panelli Brothers, Florence Ravioli,” Mola recalled. “But over the course of time, Italians moved out of the neighborhood, and there wasn’t enough business to keep them going. Now, there’s just one, Molinari’s, and if that closes I don’t know where I’ll get my comfort food.”

Mola, 64, a first-generation Italian-American with a New Jersey accent, recently embarked on a crusade to preserve the culture of North Beach, which gradually has been losing Italian-owned businesses and ceding territory to Chinatown.

A lawyer by training but an epicurean by nature, Mola stars in “Gianni’s North Beach,” a cooking show that airs online at Gianni.tv. On the program, he demonstrates family recipes made with distinctive ingredients found in local Italian shops, which he plugs by name. Mola also blogs about North Beach, leads walking tours of the neighborhood and hosts dinners at North Beach restaurants.

It’s all part of his effort to keep the Italian-American culture of North Beach alive. “All’s I’m trying to do is really share with people the Italian village style of living,” Mola said recently, as he prepared a menu of sausage frittata, wedding soup and fried calamari in the tiny kitchen of his Russian Hill apartment.

“He’s been living this way for years,” said Mola’s friend Jeff Diehl, the show’s cameraman and producer. “He knows his vendors. He buys what he’s going to cook that night.”

Diehl, who lives in the Mission, used to be skeptical about North Beach, associating the neighborhood with tourists and seedy nightlife. Mola changed his mind.

“It’s not just gentlemen’s clubs on Broadway,” Mola said. “There’s great Italian food as well.”

Graziano Lucchesi said he hopes people recognize that, but the 58-year-old owner of Caffe Puccini, a Mola-endorsed coffee shop on Columbus Avenue, is worried.

“The problems I see are on Broadway especially,” he said, adding that the nearby strip’s reputation for crime and drunken revelry are a turn-off for his patrons.

Lucchesi, a native of Northern Italy who immigrated to San Francisco forty years ago, said The City should devote more resources to North Beach because it remains a draw for tourists.

“People come to San Francisco to come to North Beach,” he said. “The food, the atmosphere, the crazy Italians talking with their hands — it’s scenery. Different cultures don’t do it like we do. We’re colorful.”

Lucchesi said that North Beach does not have the population density or political pull of nearby Chinatown. He noted darkly that New York City’s Little Italy has been almost completely subsumed by that city’s Chinese neighborhood in recent years.

Mola, who said relations between North Beach and Chinatown are actually better than they used to be, believes New York’s rapidly vanishing Little Italy should serve as a warning to San Francisco.

“As I travel around the country, I’m reminded of how lucky we are here in North Beach,” he said. “Really, there’s no other place out there like North Beach. It’s really a very special place.”

acrawford@sfexaminer.com

About The Author

Amy Crawford

Pin It
Favorite

© 2018 The San Francisco Examiner

Website powered by Foundation