Friday, April 30, 2010

Fior d'Italia Celebrates 125th Anniversary Year with 104-year-old Bill Del Monte

Seated in a vintage Surrey pulled by groomed horses this morning was 104-year-old Bill Del Monte, survivor of the 1906 Great Earthquake and Fire, and youngest son of the founder of the Fior d'Italia that today launched its 125th anniversary year celebrations.

Back on his head, his trademark tan tam o'shanter with its red and blue stripes instead of the commemorative fireman's helmet with which he was presented only two weeks ago at the annual earthquake commemoration. He didn't wear the helmet today as 'it looked too heavy!' he said.

Bill was guest of honour at today's party, riding through the North Beach streets with family members and Senator Mark Leno, and escorted by the Sheriff's Mounted Posse.

Inside the restaurant he sat in a private area with friends and family, while customers filled the front part to enjoy their Victorian-priced lunch entrees. Behind him, a historic mural, thought to be of scenes of Tuscany and Umbria with the church of St Francis of Assisi, the painter unknown.

Throughout the restaurant are historic photos of his family, staff, the different buildings that have housed The Fior, and reflections of old San Francisco. Today, the Fior is inside the San Remo Hotel on Mason Street.
pic of publicist Lee Houskeeper of San Francisco Stories, Bill, and neices Barbara Del Monte and Janette Barroca

Bill was born in January 1906, three months before the earthquake, in an apartment behind the restaurant. The paradox of it being a family restaurant was that it origins began in what was nicknamed the Barbary Coast, an area around North Beach infamous for saloons, opium and gambling dens, and brothels that served local San Franciscans, sailors, and farm-hands and miners of the gold rush.

Bill's father came to California for the gold rush but turned to food instead. Settling in North Beach with many other Italian immigrants, he helped establish the area that became known as 'Little Italy.'

photo of Bill's brothers and sister and parents: Attilio, Eva, Angelo and Assunta, Eugene, Guido, and Bill in front beside his mother.

As a young man, Bill helped in the restaurant. 'I was a hat-check boy', he said. As family do, he worked without a salary but enjoyed the tips until the service was franchised out, and Bill's services were no longer wanted. They hired two good-looking girls instead, he said with a grin. And that was the end, for he never worked in the kitchens or waited at tables.

However, he did enjoy the food! His favourite dish was veal made by one particular cook. He described the oval plate with the veal surrounded by sliced potatoes. 'I have never tasted it like that since, I don't know what he did....the herbs he used,' he said. In those days, he added, they had very young veal as the calves were slaughtered earlier than they are today.

He was looking forward to a veal lunch again.

Like Bill, The Fior, has travelled through a century and beyond, somehow managing to survive through a formidable array of events of natural disasters of earthquakes and fire, the politics of Prohibition, the Great Wall Street crash and Depression, two World Wars and recessions.

However, Bill has no memories of his father, Angelo, talking about any particular difficulty. And it seems that when the restaurant was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake, his father just got on with the business of rebuilding the business.
pic of owner Bob Larive and the private party area for family and friends

'He enjoyed meeting people,' is what Bill remembers about him. There was a table reserved at lunchtimes for members of the upper society, like Amadeo Giannin, founder of the Bank of Italy before it became Bank of America. 'A lot of business was transacted at that table,' said Bill.

Asked again what his secret was of not just living to 104 years but of being so active - could it be all that veal and pasta? - he said, 'I don't know. I've been lucky, I've lived through the most eventful century in history.'

Never before or since have so many things been invented, he said. Automobiles, just two years before he was born, radios, electricity, TV and internet, were a few of what he listed.

He is continuing to make history, escorted through the streets in vintage vehicles. When will be his next celebrity appearance? He laughed, he's not expecting any more, but as the living embodiment of over a century of San Francisco's history, this is probably not the last occasion.

How does he feel being such a rich part of San Franciscan history?

'I love that, it's nice,' he said.

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