Tommaso's Restaurant – A Brief History
The history of Tommaso's began 70 years ago in a tiny Italian restaurant on Kearny Street, a few doors below the hubbub of Broadway in San Francisco's North Beach.
The restaurant opened in 1935 with the first wood-fired brick pizza oven on the West Coast. Called Lupo's in those days, the owners were the Cantolupo family, immigrants from Naples, who served pizza and Neapolitan dishes based on closely guarded family recipes.
For many San Franciscans, their first taste of pizza came while serving in the armed forces during WW II, and many came to the restaurant searching for this Italian specialty. GI's and their families crowded into the restaurant, filling wooden booths where newspapers served as tablecloths. A small pizza cost .75¢ and Veal Scaloppini $1.50.
Lupo's grew to be a favorite, too, of the artists who painted the murals inside nearby Coit Tower. Today, you can still find the mural of one struggling artist who painted the family's beloved Bay of Naples on the walls of the restaurant in trade for a few plates of pasta. Later the restaurant became a favorite of jazz musicians from the Jazz Workshop and the hungry looking for a place to eat after a late night gig.
In 1971 the family retired and gave the restaurant to their long-time chef, Tommy Chin, who had come on board in 1936. When Tommy Chin took over he decided to change the name to an Italianate version of his own name and Lupo's became Tommaso's. Having worked for the Cantolupo family for 25 years, Chin had mastered the Neopolitan style of cooking and continued serving the same popular menu.
Meanwhile, the Crotti family arrived in America to build a life in San Francisco. They settled in North Beach, home to many Italian families. Agostino, the eldest son, soon found work at Cafe Trieste. There he befriended the regulars, including Francis Ford Coppola, to whom he served espresso while Coppola worked on the script for The Godfather. Agostino helped out at Tommaso's one evening, and Tommy approached him, asking if he wanted to buy the restaurant.
The Crottis bought the restaurant in 1973, with Tommy Chin staying on to teach them how to make the original recipes. Soon the whole Crotti family took part in their new venture, where Mama Maria supervised the pizza oven, Agostino waited tables and the other siblings mixed dough, peeled onions and did whatever else needed doing.
Word began to spread that the pizza was great and that the new additions to the menu were fabulous. USA Today named the pizza one of the ten best in the United States and lines stretched out the door. The back of the menu listed accolades from Bob Hope, The Atlantic magazine and a long list of gourmet guides. Coppola became a regular, bringing friends like Robert Duvall, Andy Garcia and George Lucas. He often commandeered the pizza oven, making his own pizzas for family birthdays and the staff of his new magazine, The City. Herb Caen, the legendary San Francisco Chronicle columnist, wrote regularly about the food and the dining scene, now crowded with local politicians and socialites.
Later, local "foodies" discovered the place. Two famous restaurateurs, Alice Waters and Wolfgang Puck, modeled their own restaurant brick pizza ovens on Tommaso's.
Untold numbers of Bay Area families grew up with the Crotti family, where Sunday night was family night, a time to celebrate birthdays, straight A's and anniversaries. Generations of those same families still come to Tommaso's for special occasions or just for a great Italian meal. Regular customers often have a favorite table, favorite night to dine, and favorite dish, ordered on every visit.
Tommaso's today remains a North Beach favorite and a true family-run restaurant. Agostino makes the pizza dough and scours the markets for fresh seafood and vegetables. At night he waits tables and recommends wines. Sister Lidia serves as executive chef while sister Carmen places and receives orders and waits on customers. Agostino's wife, Anna, makes the desserts and waits on tables. Even the busboy, Peter, is considered family, having worked at Tommaso's for over 25 years.
Together, the Crotti family carries on the tradition of serving their great wood-fired brick oven pizza and sumptuous Italian food. And somewhere along the line a beloved North Beach Italian restaurant became a San Francisco institution
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