A leisurely walk through North Beach is a rare treat. Easily the most pedestrian-friendly of San Francisco’s neighborhoods, North Beach was laid out for two-legged travel, and our winding alleys and one-way streets can seem a rebuke to the very idea of the automobile.

Depending upon the route chosen, one can work up a prodigious appetite perambulating these streets. Thankfully it’s a wealth of riches here in the Beach, and there are plenty of choices when it comes to satisfying your hunger. Everyone has their favorite spot, and I’ve certainly got mine: Sotto Mare on Green Street.

Sotto Mare San Francisco - joecontent.net

Unlike Anyplace Else: the main dining room at Sotto Mare. | Photo: Koh K./Yelp

Italian seafood is the game here, and if you’ve read these pages before, you’ve heard tell of this place. If not, you’ve undoubtedly seen the line snaking out the door and wondered what all the fuss was about. Well, I’ll tell you what it’s about: the freshest seafood anywhere, perfectly cooked in a straightforward Italian style that’s nearly impossible to find outside of Italy.

It may sound simple, but it’s anything but. We recently had the opportunity to speak with owner Rich Azzolino, and he shared the story behind what has become one of San Francisco’s great restaurants. You can read the first part of our interview here; we continue the conversation below.

Joe Content: You came back to the restaurant business after a long absence when you bought Sotto Mare from Gigi [Fiorucci, the founder]. Is that something you expected?

Rich Azzolino: Well, I’d always help Gigi here and there. I’d come up here all the time, my daughter was here. We’d laugh, and Gigi would say “When are you gonna get back in the business? You gotta be doing this.”

He used to tell everybody, “This is the best bartender North Beach has ever seen.” He’ll tell you that to this day. There’s not a bartender alive that could do what I did behind the bar.

Sotto Mare - Joe Content

The sautéed sea scallops, straight out of the Sotto Mare kitchen. | Photo: J. Bonadio

He called me and said “That’s it. You’re done, you’re buying this place. Come up here, and bring a check.” Click to Tweet

And I guess Gigi finally wore you down?

Well, my wife had just retired from the city and county of San Francisco at the end of 2013, and that’s right when I was selling out of my business. So I thought if Laura’s going to be out of it too, we might as well just kick back.

Well, as soon as Gigi heard I was selling my stuff, he called me and said “That’s it. You’re done, you’re buying this place. Come up here, and bring a check.” I said Gigi, what if I say no? He said “Then we’re gonna close the place, ‘cause I’m done. I’ve had it, I can’t do this anymore. I’m older than you, and you’re not retiring before me.”

He told me “Richie, you’re the only guy that can run this place. I can’t sell it to anybody else.” I said well, in that case, let’s figure out the paperwork. And I came up here, we shook hands, and that was it.

Arriving in Style: Rich Azzolino in front of Sotto Mare on Green Street. | Photo: J. Bonadio

Wow! And Laura was just as ready to take the place on?

Well, her dad was in the restaurant business, and she never got to experience it. She wanted to do this. So she’s here with us, my daughter’s here with us, my nieces are here. We’ve got one hell of a happy crew here.

And obviously, business is good (at just after 2:00pm, the place is packed).

Well, we just got lucky enough to be on the Andrew Zimmern show [Bizarre Foods and Delicious Destinations, which airs on the Travel Channel]. You can see me behind the stove doing the cioppino!

They air that show continuously, and people still come from everywhere because of that. If you’re on a plane coming into San Francisco that has TVs, they show it. I have people come in and say “we saw you on the TV when we were flying in, and we had to come!”

That definitely doesn’t hurt.

You bet. The place was doing a nice business when Gigi had it, and we’ve actually picked up by 35 or 40 percent since we took over.

Why do you think that is?

Happy people make customers happy, and we’ve got ‘em. Good food makes people happy.

Amen. And when you bought the place, you didn’t skip a beat.

No, we didn’t. 99 times out of 100, when somebody takes a place over, they close it for a couple of weeks. Get a new staff, revamp things and start all over again.

When we took this over, Gigi killed the lights at midnight, and I turned them on at 7:00 the next morning. We didn’t close for one day. I talked to all the people who worked here, and made it real simple. This is the way we are going to run things, and if you want to stay you’re welcome. If you don’t want to, you don’t have to.

So from the beginning, it was your intention to change nothing?

No. Why should you change something you helped build?

But between you and me, we’ve got a couple of new things coming to the menu. It’ll be ready soon–I’ll tell you about it next time.


Joe Content writes regularly about San Francisco’s curious beehive of West Coast culture, with a special affection for North Beach and the historic Barbary Coast. Come back soon for more.