|Frank behind the bar at Gino & Carlo |
(from Carl Nolte, SF Chronicle) As everybody knows by now, there is more than one San Francisco. There may be a dozen or more, with different people, different scenes, shifting all the time, like a kaleidoscope.
So when I want to take a look at an older San Francisco, I head for North Beach, and the single block of Green Street between Columbus Avenue and upper Grant Avenue.
There's a bank on the corner with a handy ATM; Caffe Sport, the Sicilian restaurant; Amante, another good restaurant; the Columbus Cafe; Sotto Mare, a fish place; and Gino and Carlo, which may be the best old-time bar left in the city.
A tourist who walks in is sure to think it looks like some fictional bar they've seen on television. A San Franciscan is sure to see somebody he or she knows. A big difference.
"We treat everybody like family," said Frank Rossi, one of the owners.
Rossi has spent 42 years behind the bar; though he has two other partners, he's the padrone of the place in the Italian sense, the host. He is old school, a husky man with curly gray hair and the gravelly voice of a man who has spent a lifetime in the bar business. He remembers what you are drinking, never forgets an old customer's name and treats a new customer like an old pal.
In a city where there are no real celebrities or famous chefs, bartenders like Rossi, like Michael McCourt at the old Washington Square, Seamus Coyle at Amante, Paddy Nolan at the Dovre Club in its prime, are the stars.
"Frank's the kind of guy that when you come in the bar you are glad to see him," said John Pesenti, who has been coming in to Gino and Carlo for 35 years on and off. "When he's here, people don't want to leave."
The bad news is that Rossi himself is leaving, retiring at the age of 67. He had a stroke a couple of years ago, and had to learn to walk and talk again. He's been back at work a couple of days a week but has slowed up a bit. His last day will be the 30th.
Rossi's leaving is a blow to the habitues of Gino and Carlo, a place that's like the living room of North Beach, with its own customs and rhythms.
It opens at 6 a.m., and on some days there's a line to get in, even at the crack of dawn.
"Early in the morning is when bakers get off, and people who work at night - off-duty cops, garbage men. Happy hour for them is 6 to 8 in the morning," said Tony Dingman, a regular.
There is a lunch crowd - and food on Thursdays - and an afternoon crowd, ducking in about 3. Sometimes there are billiard players, sometimes card players, dealing a hand or two at a table. Sometimes politicians are huddled in the corner, talking with their cronies.
There is a nighttime crowd, of course. North Beach comes really alive only at night.
If you listen, you can hear the accents of the old city: people talking fast, running their words together. San Francisco talk.
"An institution that has never changed," said Warren Hinckle, the writer.
"How can you not love this place?" said Patricia Sing, who usually comes in on Mondays or Tuesdays.
Rossi has been the center of it, especially since his brother, partner and mentor, Donato Rossi, died five years ago.
"Frank's a very kind guy, too," Pesenti said.
Sometimes, a big city bar and its patrons really are a city person's only family. When a few of these people died, alone and broke, Frank Rossi would close the doors and throw a wake - the old kind with free food and drink, and a toast to the departed.
"We take care of our people," he said.
So now it's time to drink a toast to Frank Rossi himself. He is the father of three girls and two boys - two sets of twins.
His son, Frank Jr., "a good kid," Rossi said, will take over his share of the place.