A multimedia-enhanced photoblog about San Francisco's North Beach neighborhood

Archive for February, 2011

A visit to North Beach’s famous Green Street Mortuary

Green Street Mortuary appears, from the outside, like you would imagine a mortuary to look. It’s painted a light shade of beige, a peaceful color, with a friendly green font for the name, which is written on either side of black awning that extends from above the wide doors, across the sidewalk to the street, and there’s a picture of some trees inside an oval logo for Dignity Memorial.

The mortuary has been around since 1917- and is one of the most famous mortuaries in the Bay Area, (if such a thing is possible among the living). Although now owned by Dignity Memorial, a nationwide mortuary corporation, it still retains some unique touches that belie the monolithic corporate power behind it.

Inside, the building is rife with style, and architectural details that you just don’t find anymore. Maxine, the friendly Chinese woman who staffs the front desk most days, (unless she’s on lunch and JoJo is answering phones), says that the hand-painted details on the ceilings and moulding would cost so much these days that only the super-rich could afford to have such work done. Back at the turn of the century labor was much cheaper. Maxine sounds nostalgic, but, of course, it would be decades after the building was built before she would be born. I know better than to ask her age.

The ceilings in Green Street are high, about ten feet if I had to guess, and hallways in the building have a series of domes, like I imagine buildings in Italy have, or the Vatican, but on a significantly smaller scale.

The chapels, (the mortuary has four) are fairly standard. Wide, long pews, a front, center podium, and light, calming colors. One of them even has stained glass- a fact that Maxine proudly points out to me.

The mortuary is also famous for their band- the aptly named Green Street Mortuary Band, which, according to Javier Lopez, one of the morticians there, is possibly the only remaning mortuary band in the country. What I find odd is when Javier mentions that although it is almost exclusively Chinese families who hire the band, the band only plays Christian hymns. Javier says that the families don’t really care WHAT is being played, just that it sounds nice, and makes noise- to scare the evil spirits away. He tells me that Chinese families are very superstitious, and ceremony and ritual and tradition play a large part in their funeral services.

It feels odd suggesting that you visit a mortuary, but that’s just what I’m going to do. The next time you’re in the neighborhood, stop in and take a look around. And remember to say hi to Maxine for me at the front desk.

Until next time friends, leave the flying to me!


The multiple-gold-medal-winning, world-champion dough-acrobats you’ve never heard of, who work right down the street

Eric Corbin is a world champion, but not only have you never heard of him, you’ve probably never even heard of the sport he’s a champion in. Pizza dough acrobatics is an internationally-recognized sport (the US even has its own team).

Since 1991 Italy has hosted the World Pizza Championship, in which 20 different countries compete in various categories associated with making pizza, like speed, taste, acrobatics and others. Tony Gemignani, owner of Tony’s Pizza Napoletana, is a 9 time World Pizza Champion, and 2 time Guinness World Record holder. Besides being a full-time cook, Tony owns and runs a pizza-making school.

Tony also manages an international team of dough acrobats, of which Eric is a member.

Here’s Tony giving a primer on how to toss pizza dough:

And here’s Eric performing at the World Pizza Games last year in Las Vegas:

Until next time, leave the flying to me!

The owner of North Beach’s famous sweets store Z Cioccolato talks photojournalism

Last week I interviewed Mark Warmus. While locals and curious tourists might know him as the owner of the famous candy and homemade-fudge store Z Cioccolato, Mark has a history in an industry near and dear to my heart- photojournalism. In the short interview below, (and please pardon my rudimentary editing skills), he talks about how he began, what the industry looks like now, and what his new passion in life is. Give it a listen, then go buy a few of his 65 flavors of sweet, sweet fudge.

Z Cioccolato can be found here.

Photo Gallery: Street Life Edition

A customer buys a 'HOWL' bumper-sticker in City Lights Books in San Francisco's North Beach. As a symbol of the Beat Generation, the bookstore is a city landmark that attracts visitors from all over the globe.


Happy V-Day from Leonard Cohen

Wherever you are, and whomever you’re with, these are still words of wisdom on this day that now seems dedicated to chocolate, stuffed bears and the trite commercialization of the deep, ancient, indescribable, unquantifiable emotional bond between two people, (or directed at someone).

Every heart, every heart
to love will come
but like a refugee.

– Leonard Cohen, ‘Anthem

Until next time, leave the flying to me!

Where to eat in North Beach…and read some interesting poetry, for free.

I’ve now spent more time in North Beach than any other neighborhood this year except Lake Merritt in Oakland, (which will always win- it’s where I live), and I’m really loving what I’ve been discovering.

The most pleasant surprise I encountered was Don Pisto’s, an upscale Mexican restaurant practically concealed in an otherwise plain looking building on Union Street above Columbus. There is no name on the front of the restaurant, just a small menu with short plat descriptions, prices, and the address and phone number. Here, Pete, the owner, welcomes you to come in, sit down, and make yourself at home. Pete dresses casually, belying the classiness of the restaurant and complexity of the dishes. Food at Don Pisto’s is what you’d expect from a Mexican restaurant, but in name only. They have tacos, tostadas, tortilla soup and other such staples, but all their dishes contain subtle riffs on the average Mexican food tune. Their burger, marinated overnight in bacon and sauteed onions, was recently ranked #10 on 7×7 Magazine’s “Top 100 things to to try before you die 2011” list. Adam and Niño staff the busy kitchen, while Nick directs patrons to tables, makes cocktails, rings up bills and pops beer caps. Nick is also a vintner, and recently made his first cabernet, which he sells to restaurants throughout the city.

You can most easily find the restaurant by walking up Union from Columbus and looking to your left for the small Kingdom Cake window, then continuing up Union another 75 feet or so. But don’t pass Kingdom Cake too quickly. Their locally-baked cupcakes draw rave reviews from customers, and Myles, the resident cupcake slinger will happily talk to you at length about San Francisco and the Giants, (although probably not in that order).

Elvis Christ, a local personality/poet/artist has also put his stamp on the ‘hood with his clever sayings that put strange twists on well-known sayings. Here are some photos of his work, which I found at the corner of Grant and Vallejo.

Until next time friends, leave the flying to me!

Photo Gallery: The Kitchen Edition