September 22, 2023 | Rome, Italy

If You’re Going To San Francisco

By |2023-04-04T00:28:41+02:00July 1st, 2006|At Large & Sports, Letters from San Francisco|
Clark Gable in 1936

We get them in here all the time,” says Phil Lacavera, speaking of the many nostalgic expats from Rome making a brief sojourn in the United States. “Maybe they come back to America because they are homesick, then realize they really miss Italy. Life is like that. But here, at least one can have a little bit of both.”

Lacavera spews such wisdom all day long at the little restaurant he presides over in Presidio Heights. The menu is rustica Italiano; the music is Italian pop; the décor is Italian classico. Only the name is something of a betrayal.

“I called this place ‘The Magic Flute’ because it has some of the most adored bel canto arias ever composed for opera,” he explains. “Mozart can’t be blamed for being Viennese. Besides, my guests come because of the Italian hospitality … not the name.”

Expats longing for real Italian opera can get a fix easily enough by attending one of the many superb works being performed at our local house in the fall. The San Francisco Opera company is widely regarded as “world class,” and will be staging several works of interest to fans of Italian composers.

“The Masked Ball” and “Rigoletto” by Verdi; Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville”; and Puccini’s “Manon Lescuat” are among the offering this season. And speaking of seasons, it’s important to note that autumn is San Francisco’s best. September is arguably our favorite month, as it provides abundant sunshine, mild temperatures and myriad cultural diversions.

Traveling light often means leaving evening wardrobe essentials back home. Men of discerning taste can run up to The Fairmont Hotel on Nob Hill for a quick fashion fix at an exclusive boutique carrying high value Italian goods and premium cigars. “Vendetta.” (It’s also home of the FUMO BLU humidor and smoking room).

“Don’t let the store name scare you,” says proprietor Bruce Rothenberg. “It’s not about settling scores or any other such dangerous nonsense. It’s a play on George Herbert’s observation that ‘Living well is the best revenge.’”

While Herbert — a 17th Century metaphysical poet — never made it to San Francisco, the city has attracted its share of other literary legends. Indeed, some of the more contemporary poets started their careers at City Lights Books in the Italian neighborhood of North Beach.

City Lights founder Lawrence Ferlinghetti takes his Italian roots seriously, and keeps his store shelves stocked with the works of Italo Calvino, Oriana Fallaci, and lesser known national treasures. Our own National Book Foundation recently made Ferlinghetti the first recipient of the “literarian” award for outstanding service to the world community.

“A literarian is someone who loves literature so much that he wants to share it with as many people as possible,” said Rafe Grimaldi, assistant director of the Foundation. He’s sitting in the poetry section perusing books by Pier-Paolo Passolini. “So this award is for those who dedicate their lives to love of literature.”

Rafe wanted to step outside for a cigarette, observing that it was odd for such a libertine city like San Francisco to ban such “harmless” behavior in doors. “Kerouac would be mortified,” he joked.

Once outside, Rafe resumed his praise for Ferlinghetti, noting that he’s had an “extraordinary career as a writer and he has had a tremendous impact on American letters.”

Citing the poet’s varied roles as bookstore owner, publisher and victor in the famous censorship suit over publication of Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl,” Rafe had only one objection to the man now. “I wish he had the courage to challenge the government about this ridiculous law. But it is a global trend now. Even the EU is becoming repressive.”

A group of other furtive smokers were huddled out in front of the Tosca Café, located across the street. This is the late night destination for visitors seeking exposure to the local film community. Francis Ford Coppola’s office is nearby, and it is not unusual for Nicholas Cage and Sean Penn to be seen hanging about this proto-noir and profoundly “beat” bar. A vintage jukebox is well stocked with opera Lps, and the coffee drinks are exceptionally strong.

North Beach is home to many other fine saloons, cafes, and jazz joints, but lodging is tough to find. One young visitor from Italy (by way of Albania) was asking for directions in broken English “for the Hotel Rex.”

The stranger she approached thought this was a proposition, however, and quickly brushed past her. I noticed that she was carrying a dog-eared paperback copy of Alberto Moravia’s “Roman Tales,” and introduced myself.

In my own primitive Italian, I directed her toward her destination, advising her to take a cable car rather than a cab. Avoid using “hotel” and “Rex” in the same sentence, I added.

The Rex is one of several medium-priced “boutique” places favored by the young and single. Designed by noted San Francisco interior designers, Candra Scott & Anderson, the place comes close to resembling art and literary salons of the 1920’s and 30’s.

For those traveling on a budget, it’s best to see what is available on the waterfront or south of downtown. Like Rome, this is an expensive city, so don’t expect deep discounts at premium hotels.


Magic Flute Garden Ristorante:

San Francisco Opera:

Vendetta (FUMO BLU)

City Lights Bookstore:

The Hotel Rex:

Tosca Café Tel: +1.415.986.9651

— Patrick Burnson is a San Francisco-based consultant and novelist. Visit his site at

About the Author:

Patrick Burnson worked for The Rome Daily American and the International Herald Tribune early in his career. Using the pen name of Paul Duclos, he is the author of the novel “Flags of Convenience.”