Roland Bianchi, author of “Tales from a Tuscan Guitar”, the “Migration of Moro”, “ReCal lections of a Bear” and “Delivery Boy Recollections of Life and Love in San Francisco”, recently shared his short history about “bonding” with his uncle and dad, titled “The Greasy spoon” with me. And, since this June, the month we honor fathers and other father figures, I will now share it with you:
Roland Bianchi recalls, “I was a teenager during WWII and worked as a delivery boy for my uncle’s Mom and Pop grocery store in San Francisco. This was a pure case of “nepotism” and I enjoyed accompanying my uncle on those early Saturday mornings when we drove in his pick-up truck to the Produce Market. It was located on Battery Street in the South East portion of the Financial District. This was before the Produce Market moved to its present location near the Airport.
Vegetables from Daly City and half Moon Bay truck farms arrived daily as did fresh fruits in season from the Imperial Valley. This produce, containerized in barrels, crates, baskets cardboard and sacks, supplied the culinary needs of restaurants and retailers in the city.
The Majority of wholesalers evolved from historic Italian businesses, who in turn hired newly arrived Italian Immigrants to do the grunt work loading and unloading produce. The cacophony of noise, Italian gesticulation and organized chaos, created an atmosphere akin to anarchy. Merchants vied to bid and outbid each other, auction style, by rules known only by the participants. This invariably led to confrontation and disputes about who had purchased a certain crate of carrots and at what price.
Arbitration over disputes was generally settled because everyone in the produce market carried a small eight inch handled hatchet used to open and seal wooden containers. The hatchet had a v slot under the blade to remove nails and a square corrugated hammer head to reseal vegetables crates after inspection. If misunderstandings got dicey, a quick “draw” or “faint” toward one’s hatchet mitigated potential disagreements.
Traffic congestion and parking was so bad, buyers would double park, load and pay cash for product and proceed to the next stall that specialized in the fruit or vegetable they wanted to purchase.
An alternative, was to park wherever you could, walk the stalls and mark your purchases with chalk, hoping to retrieve them later on your back haul. You risked your boxes of string beans being resold at higher price to someone else in your absence. That’s when the hatchets threatened your health.
Produce Market workers wore coveralls, their hatchets slung in a leather ring from their hip as they maneuvered their hand trucks. Their day began at 4 in the morning to unload the incoming produce. 8:00 A.M. was their “Noon” break for lunch or breakfast and by 12:00 or 1:00, their eight hour day was over and the chaos ended to be repeated the next business day.
A smattering of “Holes in the wall” served breakfast, fast food and coffee for workers and truck drivers. My uncle would drop me off instructing the proprietor, “Give this kid some breakfast. I’ll be back for him and pay you in about half an hour”. The counter cook asked, “How many eggs you want?”
“Two”, I would reply, “sunny side up”—-”Ya want bacon with that?—-”Sure”.
The cook would place two oval platters mounded with cooked bacon strips and ham slices in front of me and would say “Help yourself”.
When my uncle returned and asked, “What I owe you?” The short order cook usually said. “Two Bucks”. My uncle left the cash and a dollar tip and we were off to load the truck with his purchases.
On the corner of Columbus and Stockton Sts. was a U.S. Restaurant, an early incarnation of a “Greasy Spoon” frequented by produce workers who would walk there for their final meal of the day before going home to sleep.
The merchants and regulars who frequented the eatery were all men. The use of Italian expletives in loud conversations was not conducive to attracting the opposite sex. The place was rowdy and smoky but thefood was abundant and delicious. Service was provided by waiters and Italian short order cooks who had learned their recipes from their “nonnas” back in Italy.
My Dad worked at the Bank of America across the street and when he didn’t spend his lunch hour at the pool hall, he ate his lunch at the Greasy Spoon, where you had to duck, to avoid flying bread rolls that were tossed through the air when somebody yelled, “pass the bread”.
Dad would sometimes call on school holidays and invite me to join him for lunch. I’d jump on the F Streetcar on Chestnut St. that went past Ghirardelli’s chocolate factory and met my Dad in North beach at the “Greasy Spoon”. The experience remains a vivid highlight of my youth.
There were menus on the tables but the Italian customers couldn’t read English. The Italian cooks improvised the entrees according to what was available on a given day. Other than the standard fare of spaghetti and meat balls and burgers, you had to read a menu chalk board that touted:
“Pollo Al Mattone” (a half chicken in a skillet with olive oil and garlic, compressed under a pie tin with a brick on it).
“Baccala con ceci” (Salted sundried Cod soaked for 24 hours to reconstitute the fish that was then baked with garbanzo beans).
I hated Baccala. The smell was so strong it overwhelmed the second hand smoke from cigarettes and Petri cigars. When they served baccala, I’d opt for a burger which was grilled with Bermuda onions in the meat and the patty shaped like the sour dough bun on which it was served. The buns were sliced and toasted on the grill to soak up the grease and juices of the burger. Mustard or catsup bottles were on the table.
Veggies, Spinach or Chard were boiled and strained in colanders and then squeezed into a ball by hand. The vegetable ball would then be simmered with oil and garlic as a side dish. New red potatoes came in a separate bowl flavored with onions or mushrooms. Other vegetables were served in the form of “frittatas” (omelets). You could have Zucchini and leek omelets or Asparagus omelets but my favorite were omelets made from smallartichoke hearts sliced in half.
A comfort food for the produce workers was hot “Polenta” stirred with a stick in a big kettle. It was spooned out over slices of Monterey Jack cheese. A ladle of spaghetti sauce covered the cornmeal garnished with grated cheese. As you spooned the meal, long strands of melted cheese snapped back and splattered sauce all over the table, you, and your clothes. The produce merchants had their overalls on. But if you wanted to protect your tie and three piece business suit, you needed a dish towel for a bib.
Dessert was a concession by the management to American cuisine. Fresh baked pies of every designation were baked daily in keeping with seasonality of available fruit. If you wanted your pie a la mode, it came with a half inch slab of vanilla ice cream on it.
Red wine, of dubious origin, was served from jugs at $2.00 a glass – but refills were Free! – The piece de resistance was the after dinner “ponce” which was coffee poured in a clear stemware with sugar cubes, to which was added a shot of rum, brandy or bourbon and a twisted lemon peel on top.
The Honor system was used to pay your check because the waiters couldn’t remember what you ordered. “What did you have today?” they would ask my Dad. “The special frittata and a glass of wine. My kid had the pie”, Dad would answer.
The waiter would scrawl a monetary figure on a scratch pad. You paid the figure and that was that.
“Hey, I’ve got to get back to work”, Dad would say after glancing at his vest watch. He’d toss me a nickel for my ride back home on the F streetcar.
When you can remember what you ate for lunch over 60 years ago while bonding with your Dad is testament to the power of ethnic Italian food and the joyful nostalgia, I shall remember about the Greasy Spoon, till the day I die.