In 2007, Gigi Fiorucci opened North Beach’s acclaimed Sotto Mare, to little fanfare. Though Gigi had been in the restaurant business his whole life, he had no way of knowing what kind of spectacular success the place would eventually become.

Ten years on, the place shows no sign of slowing down. Considered one of the best places to eat in San Francisco, the casual, no-frills restaurant is regularly pitted against upscale eateries more than twice the price. There is no pretense at Sotto Mare, and there are no airs: just the best Italian seafood you can get anywhere in California.

The Epic Setting Of North Beach's Sotto Mare

The Epic Setting Of North Beach’s Beloved Sotto Mare

When Fiorucci was getting ready to sell the place back in 2014, he decided he was going to sell it to Rich and Laura Azzolino, two of his oldest friends (also the parents of Ria, who has worked at Sotto Mare since their very first year). Now, he just had to explain this to Rich.

We recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Azzolino, and he shared the story.

Joe Content: How did you get started in the business?

Rich Azzolino: My dad opened his first restaurant in 1960, at 78 Second Street–he called it “Two Street,” the way they used to say back then. It was called Rich’s Espresso Café. When I was nine, ten years old, I used to go down there, and I started out by tearing up boxes in the basement. Then little by little, working upstairs behind the counter, serving the coffee. Buttering all the rolls–he used to make me butter 350 rolls every day.

All the way through high school. I graduated Sacred Heart in 1970, Gigi graduated in 1964. So he’s actually 6 years ahead of me.

After the Espresso Café, my father had an opportunity to get a place right in the middle of the Financial District, on Lick Alley, where the Crocker Gallery is now. My dad had a nice long lease and when they wanted to build that, they had to buy him out, so he got pretty lucky there.

JC: When did you and Gigi meet?

RA: I first met Gigi in 1968. At that time, I was 16, and Gigi was here at the same spot, when it was called the Montclair Restaurant. He was at that time 22, him and Joe took it over. And we would bus tables, wash dishes, park cars to make a buck with Gigi.

On Sunday nights he would close a little early because he was going to teach all the young guys about life. So we’d go down in the basement, there was still dirt down there. Drink wine, Jack Daniels. Camel cigarettes, Salems and something else, he’d teach us to smoke.

So that’s how I met Gigi, and we became friends over the years.

Rich and Laura Azzolino In Front Of Their Sotto Mare On A Sunny Day

Rich and Laura Azzolino In Front Of Sotto Mare On A Sunny Day

JC: So how has the neighborhood changed since then?

RA: Well, on top of Molinari’s Delicatessen, we had Panelli Brothers, we had Florence [Ravioli], we had Gloria, we had Celli’s, we had Freddy’s, which was actually a deli at one time. We had the Spaghetti Factory, we had Panama Raviolis on Grant Avenue, Washington Street Meat Market, Iacopi Meat Market. We didn’t have to go anywhere.

JC: What do you think of the neighborhood today?

RA: Well, North Beach has changed. I think it’s kind of done a little circle, and it’s coming around. There was a while there that I thought everything was lost in North Beach. Everything was closing, they were selling everything. Now, there are different little restaurants opening, and it would be nice to have some other stores open.

But I think North Beach is still one of the best neighborhoods, not only in San Francisco, not only in California, but in the world.

JC: And it’s not just eye candy. Historically it’s an important place.

RA: Oh yeah. Listen, we lived through the Beatnik era, the Summer of Love. I was at Sacred Heart then.

JC: And you kept working for your Dad?

RA: Yeah, when I was in college he sold his businesses downtown, and went to work for the Hyatt corporation. Opening up Italian restaurants. One of the first ones they opened up was in Marin County, Corte Madera. The Edgewater Hotel. Big place, just the piano bar itself probably held 150 people.

That’s where I learned to bartend and wait tables. By that time I was working in the kitchen. I had graduated from being a dishwasher to a prep cook, then a line cook. One night my dad said “Hey Richie, you know how to make everything in here? OK, you’re in charge tomorrow.” Uhhh….OK! (laughs)

Then when I turned 21, I said dad, I want to make some extra money, I want to be a waiter. I remember the first day, my first order was veal parmigiana with raviolis on the plate. I come out of the kitchen and make a left turn into the dining room. It went from terra cotta floor to carpet, and I was really moving. With my rubber shoes, I came to a halt–and the raviolis just kept going. I was holding nothing but an empty plate. My dad’s standing right there, which was even worse. He just looked at me, and said “I think you better go order another one.”

JC: Good thinking. (laughs)

RA: So then I wanted to bartend. You know how when you’re 21 years old you think you know everything about a bar, because now you can go into one?

So it’s Friday night, packed bar, two cocktail waitresses, dining room’s full. Bartender doesn’t show up, so I went behind the bar. Within about two minutes, if you didn’t want a bourbon and water, a screwdriver, a beer or a bottle of wine that I could open, you didn’t get anything. Because I didn’t know how to make anything, I thought I did.

So I had customers telling me how to make their drinks, how to make this and that. And my dad must have talked to everybody in the place, he had to. Because they were patient. I was behind the bar for exactly one hour. That one hour was just as long as the next year that would come our way. My dad came back in an hour and leaned over bar, said “Richie. Do you want to keep doing what you’re doing, or do you want to learn the right way?” I said Dad, I think I want to learn the right way.

He took off his sport coat, got behind the bar and taught me how to bartend. This is is how you set up your bar, this how you do this, this is how you ring things up, the whole thing. If I got behind the bar today, I’d do it exactly the way he taught me.

Sotto Mare's Incomparable Scallop Sauté

Sotto Mare’s Incomparable Scallop Sauté

JC: So how did you end up at Caesar’s?

RA: Well after my dad retired, we got a phone call from Johnny at Caesar’s. One of their partners got hurt, and they said where’s your son, we need help down there. I thought I was going to be there six weeks, I was there for six years.

JC: Why did you leave?

RA: I left there when I got married, because I wanted to be home, and this business was night and day. So I actually went to work at the produce market with my uncle. After about three months of that, I said “Oh, I’m done with this. I’m going back to the restaurant business.”

JC: What did you miss about it?

RA: I missed all the people. I missed the money. I missed everything. Mostly the people, and that’s what I like today, talking to people. You know, early in the morning everybody was too grumpy!

JC: Tell me about it… (laughs)

RA: So I went back to work for Caesar’s, and Gigi was already there. I became a waiter down there. At that time, it was ’79 or ’80, a friend of mine’s dad used to drive for Golden Gate Transit. He got an old car and was giving tours down in the Wharf. It got a little bigger than he could handle, and people started asking him about weddings.

At the time my dad and I were car collectors, to this day I am. So he said “Rich, why don’t we use your old cars for some weddings?” So we were doing that. It was pretty good, getting paid to have fun driving my own car!

One thing led to another, and we ended up starting Gateway Limousines, which grew into quite a large company, one of the biggest. I did it for 30 years, and it’s still going.

JC: Are you still involved?

RA: I’m completely sold out of it, about three and a half, four years ago. The only thing I miss about it is the friends I made.

Meanwhile, I stayed in the restaurant business down at Caesar’s. And after that I was lucky enough to get a job at Jovanello’s. A friend of my dad, Joe Piccanini. Noah Piccanini ran the place, down on Sansome and Broadway.

My dad thought Noah was a great guy to learn from, and to this day I consider Jovanello’s to be one of the best Italian restaurants the city has ever seen. I learned a lot there, I did a lot of things. I worked in the kitchen, I helped them with the wine, waited tables most of the time. And the food was just fantastic! I learned recipes from there. There are a couple of seafood recipes that I could put in here that I haven’t implemented yet.

After that I was asked to run the three restaurants at the California Culinary Academy. I ran the three restaurants, I ran a class for table service, and I took care of all their wines. I had 240 wines under my guide. We could talk about wine all day long–I’ve happily forgotten more than I ever want to remember again.

JC: And from there?

RA: Well, the limousine business started to take off, and I spent a lot of time in that, on national boards, doing everything. We did business all over the world.

During that time, I always kept my hands in the restaurant business. When Caesar’s needed help, they were close to my heart. I used to spend Saturday nights and Sundays down there behind the bar or in the dining room, when Luigi or Matteo needed a day off. I would go and do it for him, and people remembered me for years down there. We used to help Gigi out whenever we could, catering or whatever needed done.

JC: So you were around when Gigi opened Sotto Mare?

RA: Well, when he told me he was going to do it, I said I think you’ve got a good idea. And he opened up the upstairs here, and then we were downstairs one day and I asked Gigi what he was going to do down there. He said I don’t know, it’s a good place for storage. I said no it’s not, it’s a good place for tables! We’re going to make a dining room down here.

JC: That was your idea?

RA: Yeah, I told Gigi it would be like when you go to certain places back east, and people would say “you can’t go to San Francisco without going to Sotto Mare belowground.” He said, you think we could do that? I said you bet we can. Aboveground, belowground, what difference does it make? It’s still San Francisco.

So, right about that time my daughter came out of college, and she started working here a couple nights a week. And as you know she still works here, and she could run this place better than I could, probably.

A Platter Of Sotto Mare's Freshly Shucked Oysters

A Platter Of Sotto Mare’s Freshly Shucked Oysters

JC: Did you help Gigi with the menu?

RA: Yeah, I said “do it like they do it in Italy,” and that’s what he did. Gigi and my wife come from basically the same area there, in the Marche region. Of course, there it goes from the shore, to the pan, to the plate. This is as close as we could get to that, within the laws of the city and county of San Francisco.

If this was Italy, it would be a barbecue with wood in the back, and that’s where the fish would be coming from. We can’t do that here! (laughter)

So that’s why there’s no deep fryer, because they don’t use one there. We use a steel griddle and the sauté pans, so the food is as close to Italy as we can make it. Most of the recipes are from where my wife and Gigi are from, and it’s very simple food. As fresh as you can get it, and cooked right.

JC: And the cioppino?

RA: The cioppino is actually from my grandmother’s recipe. While we were perfecting all this I used to do cioppino feeds at Sacred Heart High School. Five, six hundred people. Ended up doing feeds up down at the Boy’s Club, five, six hundred.

“How do you make this thing?” Gigi says. I said, you gotta be kidding, you’ve made it all your life. So we did it together.

A Visitor Expresses Her Joy And Wonder At The Famous Cioppino

A Happy Visitor Surrenders To Sotto Mare’s Famous Cioppino

JC: But it was your grandmother’s recipe?

RA: Yep. It was 45+ years ago, I wanted to learn the recipe. My grandmother had become blind. In today’s medical world, she wouldn’t have been, but that’s the way it was. But she knew her way around the house. My grandmother cooked everything you could possibly cook for my grandfather every day, kept the house. She would make sausages, bread, anything she wanted. Did it all from scratch.

So when it came to the cioppino, she didn’t have anything written down, and I didn’t know what a handful was or what a pinch was. So I helped her make it, and tried to figure it out. I made sort of a matrix and wrote things down. And it looked OK to me. (laughter)

Sotto Mare's Famous Cioppino As It Is Served Today

Sotto Mare’s Cioppino As It Is Served Today

So, after the third time we make it together, I’m checking things off and making good notes. I’ve got it down now, I’ve got this recipe down.

So my birthday is in February, and my mother calls me up and says “Mom wants you to do it one more time.” I figured at this point, she just wanted me to lift the pots!

So we did it, and at this point I’m checked off, I’m good as I can be. At the end of it all, my grandmother says to my mother, “Rosie, could I have a piece of bread?” She dipped it in the gravy and said “it needs this, and this.” I looked at all my notes, and said “Nonna, you never said that before. When did you use that before? This is the fourth time we’re doing this, and now you’re talking about these two ingredients.”

And she says “Richie, we always snuck it in there on you. I wanted you to learn this the right way. So, now you know the real trick.”

.

This interview will be continued, so check back soon. Today’s article is the latest in a series exploring the fascinating people and places of North Beach, and the historic Barbary Coast.