Of San Francisco’s many charms, perhaps the most potent is its strong sense of history. In San Francisco, history surrounds you, our ornate architecture a constant reminder of the city’s storied past. Not least in the rarefied confines of North Beach: with its cafés and galleries, its shaded alleyways, its bars and its bookstores, this neighborhood remains the heart of the Old City.

When I first began visiting North Beach in the late Nineties, I would sit at Caffé Trieste, a steaming Africano on the table in front of me, and stare at the old photographs that festoon its walls. There are dozens, hundreds, and they go all the way back to Trieste’s opening in 1956, and further. The history was so strong there, it was as if you could feel the presence of all those people in the room.

Fifteen years later, it’s still one of my favorite places–and I still stare at those photos once in a while, and it brings me back to those early days, before I decided to make North Beach my home.

I recently visited another of my favorite spots just around the corner, Sotto Mare. Sitting at the long counter sipping a glass of wine, I found myself doing the same thing: looking at the myriad photographs on the walls. And thinking about history.

Later that week, I stopped in to talk with Rich Azzolino, Sotto Mare’s garrulous owner and front-of-house. I asked him about a few of those photos, and their origins–and this article is the result.

Ten-year-old Rich Azzolino enjoys his first cocktail, sometime in the early Sixties.

We meet at the restaurant on a Thursday, right after the lunch rush. Wily as ever, Rich starts out with one condition: “If I don’t want to talk about one, I’m not going to talk about it.” Ground rules established, we begin in front by the entranceway. “This photo is me when I was nine or ten years old, that was my first drink,” Rich tells me. “And this one next to it was when my kids put me up to do Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding, over at the Italian Athletic Club back in 2007. I played the hitman.”

Rich inhabits his role as the hitman in Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding, flanked by his daughter Ria and son Vito

As I snap a photo, I swivel to clear a path for a server, her arms loaded with platters. Lunch may be over, but it still feels like I’m completely in the way. I fight the sudden, irrational urge to grab a table and order the halibut.

“That’s myself and my kids back in 2007. And the one above it there, that’s a good one,” Rich says, pointing to a slightly blurry pic. “That’s Ana (Handelman) from Sodini’s, and Giovanni Tarocca and Frank Spinale from the neighborhood.”

One night just a few years back: Frank Spinale, Ana Handelman and Giovanni Tarocca

Rich points out a shot of him standing with Gigi Fiorucci, the restaurant’s original owner and one of Rich’s oldest friends. “This is a great picture of Gigi and myself taken at Mayes Oyster House,” Rich continues, smiling. “No grey hair, so that’s probably back in the late Eighties.”

Rich Azzolino with Gigi Fiorucci at Maye’s Oyster House.

Rich saunters up the aisle, starting to get into it. “This is an old shot, of the ‘Dana T.’ Domenico Spingale, my best friend growing up, this was his father’s fishing boat,” Rich tells me. “He was part of the fishing fleet down at Fisherman’s Wharf for many years.

“We learned to fish on that boat.”

All great things have humble beginnings: the “Dana T.”

Not surprisingly, Sotto Mare has its share of celebrity admirers, and there’s one in particular they always look forward to seeing: Tony Bennett. It’s said to be the legendary singer’s favorite restaurant–he’s celebrated his birthday there on more than occasion. “Up here is Rags to Riches, signed by one of our favorites, Tony Bennett,” Rich says. “He actually drew a picture of me, which I cherish. I have it on the wall at home.”

Of course, Mr. Bennett has a longstanding association with San Francisco–and if I daresay, he seems to be a pretty nostalgic soul. So at that moment, I couldn’t but wonder if he also gazes at these photos, and wonders about the stories behind them.

Dante Benedetti, celebrated baseball coach and owner of the New Pisa, just one of the restaurants that used to occupy the space where Sotto Mare operates today.

Rich shook me from my reverie, determined to complete the task at hand. “This guy right here is Dante Benedetti, who the hotel upstairs is named after,” Tony points. “He had the New Pisa right here from 1978 until 2000, maybe 2001.

“He was also head baseball coach at the University of San Francisco, where he worked for 16 years without pay,” Rich notes. “He pretty much ran Little League baseball in the city, and made sure that every kid who wanted to could play.”

A candid portrait of former Supervisor Aaron Peskin with his late father Harvey taken at Caffe Trieste.

Next, we come upon a face recognizable to just about anyone in the neighborhood: “That’s our Supervisor, Aaron Peskin, with his dad,” Rich says. “That was taken at Caffe Trieste, oh, not too long ago.”

A classic selfie of Tom Wedewer and his son Nick, taken in Sicily.

I dodge another hustling server as we head into the rear of the restaurant, where the aroma of the kitchen is becoming nearly intoxicating. As I watch the chefs work, my stomach emits an ominous rumble, and I understand that I’m going to need to eat something soon.

“Down this way, we have on of our customers that you know, Tom and his son Nick, in Sicily,” Rich tells me. “And over here we have sort of the history of the restaurant.”

“Here’s a shot of Gigi and I a little later on,” Rich pointed out to me, squinting. “We still had a little black hair left there.”

Starting from the beginning, Rich lays out the story of the space. “In about 1935, it was the Isle of Capri Italian Family Style Restaurant. Then in 1956 it became the Montclair, and in 1968, Gigi bought the Montclair with a buddy of his.

“In 1978, he sold it to Dante Benedetti, and it became the New Pisa. After that closed, the place was dormant for a little while. And in 2007 the building was restored, and in came Gigi with Sotto Mare.

“And here we are today.”

Indeed, here we are; eleven years on, Sotto Mare feels like it’s just hitting its stride. Do yourself a favor, and claim a spot at the counter, where you can watch the chefs work their inimitable magic. Or you can look at the old photographs, like me and Tony Bennett, and imagine all of the stories that might lie behind them.

Either way, I recommend the salmon.