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An Interview With Rich Azzolino: San Francisco’s Long Road Back

By Joe Bonadio

Things are beginning to heat up in San Francisco, and as we coast into June the anticipation in the air is palpable. North Beach businesses were the first to move outside en masse, and the neighborhood has been getting steadily busier for months now. People are officially out and about, and getting used to the things they once took for granted–simple things like bars, and inside dining.

And while we’re a long way from normal, things are clearly turning around. Nearly 80% of San Francisco’s eligible residents have already been vaccinated, and we’re just a couple of weeks away from June 15th, the date when California is slated to drop all of its Covid restrictions. That means no more masks, no more capacity limits, and for the most part, no social distancing measures.

This is a heady moment to be sure, and for small business owners it couldn’t come a moment too soon. Our very own Rich Azzolino spoke to me earlier this week about the reopening, the state of the neighborhood, and the challenging road that lies ahead. Lightly edited for clarity, our conversation is below.

Joe Bonadio: A lot of things have changed over the last fourteen months, and it seems we’re getting ready to open all the way back up. How do you feel about it?

Rich Azzolino: Well, over the last 14 months, I’ve gotten older and grayer….and a little more educated.

When this first started last March 15th, we were closed for two and half months. And we were worried about our people, and how the younger guys were going to support their kids. How do we keep them around, and keep them all employed for when we reopen?

We were thinking we’d be closed for a month, two months, and then we’d be past it. Well, we’re still doing this fourteen months later, and still not at 100%. Hopefully, by June 15th we’ll be there. I’m looking very much forward to that––it’ll be the brightest day we’ve had in San Francisco in a very long time.

JB: Meanwhile, we’ve had some really positive things happening in the neighborhood, in terms of new activity. We’ve got places opening–look at Red Window right around the corner, which opened in the middle of all this. And what do you think of Tony [Gemignani’s] new bakery?

RA: First off, I think Tony’s new bakery (Toscano Bros./Dago Bagel) is going to be great for North Beach. At one time, we had five, six bakeries in North Beach, and almost all of them went away.

That was always part of North Beach–people came here for the bakeries. Whether it was for bread, or cakes, or pastries. I congratulate Tony for enhancing the neighborhood with his brilliance, when it comes to pizza and breads of all kinds. JB: Said as a fellow dago, of course…

RA: As a fellow dago, Salute, Cent'Anni! Make sure to put that in there.

And yes, there are a few restaurants and businesses that have opened, and they couldn’t have chosen a better area. Our businesses in North Beach, we’ve lost a few here and there.

But new people that open here are very lucky, because of the history and the center that has been created here. They have the chance to become part of it. And because of the liveliness and traditions of this neighborhood, these new businesses will be successful–so long as they are good at what they do.

JB: Another interesting thing is that while North Beach has historically been a destination for Italian food, it hasn’t really been known as much for Italian seafood. But that seems to be changing. Sotto Mare seems to have started a trend–now North Beach has a lot of seafood. What do you think about that?

RA: I think it’s a wonderful thing, and it’s flattering that people have followed in our footsteps. That’s one of the nicest things that can happen to someone in my business: when you create something that inspires other people to contribute what they have.

And going even further back, North Beach has always been known for the Italian fishermen. This is where the fishermen lived when the Wharf was alive with our fishing fleet: four, five hundred boats that would go out every day. They’d grow up in North Beach, and this is where they raised their families.

So to have seafood in North Beach is not new, it’s just a little different, and another expression of that tradition.

JB: It’s just like Tony's bakery. It’s something we didn’t have here for a while, but it belongs here. And thanks to people like you, now it’s coming back.

RA: It’s a great thing. Can North Beach be what it was 30, 50, 60 years ago? Maybe not. Times have changed. But some traditions seem to never fade away.

And we’re looking past June 15th, and forward to things being what they were. I’m talking about conventions on a weekly basis, cruise ships coming in and out. Ballgames, conventions, business travelers.

It’s going to be a long haul, and the city and our politicians need to do the right things to clean up the city––and to invite these people back. It’s going to be a lot of hard work, but it has to be done.

Sotto Mare is open seven days a week from 11:30 AM to 9:00 PM, and ‘til 10 on Friday and Saturday. Come by and say hello!

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