Friday, April 30, 2010

Fior d'Italia Celebrates 125th Anniversary Year in Authentic Italian Style

'We're just thrilled to be going into our 125th year,' said Bob Larive, owner of the Fior d'Italia.

Bob and his wife, Jinx, have owned the Fior for 20 years and as such are the newest keepers of over a century of history and tradition.

A tradition and record not only within San Francisco but for the whole of America as The Fior carries the flag for being the oldest continuously operating Italian restaurant in the country.

'I'm proud that we've been able to do that,' said Bob. Over the 125 years, only three groups of people have owned the restaurant. His days are steeped in history, with photos of his forebears and historic photos of the restaurant hanging all around the walls. And he's looking forward to the next 125 years, joking that he wouldn't be around for that celebration.

The Fior, he said, represents the 'veteran' San Franciscan restaurant, holding onto tradition with 'real Italian food, like grandma used to make.'  Every so often, a customer will comment that the food reminds them of their grandmother's cooking. 'Nothing makes my chef prouder,' said Bob.

Upholding authentic Italian cuisine in a competing market of what Bob describes as 'yuppie' restaurants, is obviously a challenge. Yuppie restaurants do 'funny things with the food', are popular for a year or two and then move on, he said. In the interim, they are affecting the city's traditional restaurants, some of whom have had to close. 'That's a shame,' he said.

The Fior also offers 'real service' with staff that 'stay with us forever,' he said. 'JC', and he pointed, had been working there for 32 years. There is not the same professionalism in restaurants that use college kids in training, he said. 

The enduring style of The Fior, said Bob, may be semi-formal with the waiters wearing tuxedos, but it is also 'a lot of fun.'

'It's casual in its own way,' he said.

Fun today it certainly was, with the restaurant crowded with people enjoying their Victorian celebration for as little as 5 cents or as much as 30 cents.

Chef Gianni Audieri couldn't agree more. Is he going to produce a signature dish for the anniversary?

Horror sweeps across his brow. 'I don't believe in signature dishes,' he said. Chef Gianni has been there for 25 years and his great love is for authentic Italian food.

pic with Bill Del Monte, the 104-year-old son of the founder of The Fior
Neither does he, when asked, recommend a favourite dish out of the 70 dishes on the menu. Always his reply is, 'You decide! It's your taste!'

Has this 72-year-old chef created any of the dishes on the menu, given them a personal twist?

'No, I try to stay traditional,' he said, abhorring modern experimentation like 'putting bananas in pasta!' His search and goal to stay true to the cooking of old Italy.

Of course, the menu has changed from its earliest days. The original menu featured frogs legs, but that was not on offer today. A lot of dishes, sweetbread - pancreas -  liver, kidneys have faded from the menu as 'most people do not accept it,' he said.

There is also much more meat as people can afford it now.

The Fior's cuisine is based on the traditional cooking of Genoa and Tuscany, northern regions of Italy that in the old days were wealthier than the south.

'North of Florence' , he explained, and you have the slightly richer egg pastas of cannelloni, lasagne, tagliatelle, ravioli and tortellini.

'South of Rome' and you have the pastas that are made with only flour and water, like spaghetti, linguini, macaroni. With one complication that confuses people, 'tagliatelle' is a northern name, and 'fettucini' is the same pasta with a southern name.

With the richer northern region, rice also became a starch staple, he added.

And authenticity means lightness of sauce: one ounce of pasta with one ounce of sauce, said Chef Gianni, not the American and British way of smothering pasta in sauce! If 150 calories becomes 1,500 calories, who's fault is that?! he said.

The Fior gradually over the years became one of San Francisco's top restaurants, but in the beginning it catered mostly for hungry, working men. Platters of salad and pasta would sit in the middle of the tables, the food plentiful when cents were not. They fed men toiling 12 hours a day, six days a week for $6, so that five cents for a meal was a lot of money, said Chef Gianni.

Chef Gianni has had a rich and varied culinary experience, cooking around the world. He began in kitchens when he was only 16-years-old, and his talent was spotted. He was sent to culinary school and afterwards went to Lausanne to both cook and learn French. He has worked in Germany, Italy, England - including the Regency Hotel in Piccadilly - and on a cruise ship, emigrating to New York at the end of 1960.

After nine years in New York, he went to the Carribean, Miami, South America, including Venezuela, and LA, where for a while he owned his own restaurant with a partner. When his restaurant went through difficult times, he had an offer to work at The Fior.

'I said, "what the hell is the Fior d'Italia!' he recounted. But once he saw the restaurant and the beauty of San Francisco, he was hooked. Love blossomed not only in the kitchens and the city. He met and married his wife, Trudy, who was the restaurant's office manager, and today they have two boys, 'who are not cooking!' said Chef Gianni with a smile.

With Bob and Jinx and Chef Gianni, history and tradition will continue to be celebrated and upheld for future generations.

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