Days of Fun and Olive Oil : Eateries’ Founder Remembers When Pizza Was Pizza
Red is in heaven.
It’s 90 degrees at 10 a.m.--and climbing fast. The restaurant parking lot is steaming. The humidity is buttermilk thick.
And Red, the floppy-eared Doberman watchdog, has just gotten a cool soaking from the garden hose held by his owner, a stout old man with a white handlebar mustache who’s now sweating more than his dog.
“Christ, it’s hot out here,” says George Pernicano, 72, bathed in sweat. “Let’s go inside. It’s cooler in there. Red, you go lay down in the shade.” The dog, who is not stupid, complies.
Inside is not much cooler, but it’s home--a sprawling, boarded-up labyrinth of fuzzy red walls, tons of mementos and the echoes of a million satisfied stomachs.
In the heart of Hillcrest’s rejuvenated business district sits the closed-up Pernicano’s/Casa di Baffi, a 25,000-square-foot gold mine of real estate that has prospective developers drooling.
Pernicano has had the site--bordered by 5th, 6th, University and Robinson avenues--up for sale since mid-1988. He says he closed the restaurant--at least to the public--because the liquor board told him it had to be open at least five days a week.
“That’s bull----,” he says with gusto. “But I didn’t want to hassle with them.”
Pernicano, the patriarch of an Italian restaurant empire in San Diego, decided that 44 years of cooking what many describe as the finest Italian food in Southern California was enough.
He had made plenty of people happy--as well as plenty of money--so he closed the joint.
Besides, there’s always football. Pernicano is as eager as a little boy for the season to start. He purchased 5% of the San Diego Chargers in 1961--he still owns 3%--and hasn’t missed a game since. He’s an unabashed fan, still visiting the field and the front offices, supplying home-cooked food to the players and staff.
Many of his former customers remember the restaurant fondly.
“That was the in place to go for years,” said Pat Rogers, a secretary with the Chargers. “The food was excellent, and it was a fun place to go.”
Jack Teele, assistant to the Chargers’ president, added: “In the old days, it was a must to go to Pernicano’s. There was George and Belle (his wife), and the food and service. It was just a hell of a lot of fun.”
Today, Pernicano, who loves his race horses, cigars and the Chargers as much as fine Italian food, spends his time entertaining offers to buy the restaurant property, but he doesn’t seem to be in much hurry to sell.
He lives in the small, beat-up office in the restaurant’s parking lot during the week--"Who the hell wants to fight that traffic?"--and spends the weekends with his wife at their ranch in Santee, or visiting his two sons and grandchildren.
Pernicano served his cooking apprenticeship in his hometown of Detroit after World War II, and he still does some cooking when friends and family occasionally stop by the restaurant.
For decades it had the reputation of being San Diego’s premiere Italian eatery. Today it looks deserted from the street. It sits dark and empty--except for the proud old paisano and his dog.
“I’ve got my health and my family. What more can a man want?” he says, smiling. He pats his stomach. The trademark mustache--at its longest 14 inches and insured for $50,000 with Lloyd’s of London--twitches a little. Casa di Baffi means House of the Mustache in Italian.
The restaurant is cavernous: big dining rooms, kitchens, hallways, banquet rooms, storerooms, all with high ceilings. Piled everywhere are old newspapers, trophies, photographs, magazines, papers, skillets, antique cash registers and other stuff.
On request, Pernicano, a natural storyteller, launches into a series of tales: how he left Detroit in 1946 to bring pizza to San Diego, how he brought his 10 brothers here to create a family restaurant empire, how everybody from professional athletes to Hollywood’s beautiful people to San Diego’s working stiffs flocked to Pernicano’s for decades.
The stories have been reported in countless magazine, newspaper and TV articles and are well-known to longtime San Diegans. Pernicano tells them with gusto and pride.
His 10 brothers have retired, and his sons carry on the family tradition. Garry owns a place in El Cajon. Larry has one in Scripps Ranch and next month will open another in the Uptown District, not far from his father’s original restaurant in Hillcrest.
About the only thing that irritates Pernicano these days is contemporary pizza chains, lousy cooking and unwholesome ingredients. His face turns red just thinking about it. He begins talking with his hands, the fingers pinched together in the old Italian way.
“Ahhh, that commercial ----,” he says. “Christ, that isn’t pizza. Piling all that goddamn phony cheese in the middle. I wouldn’t let my dog eat that plastic ----. The secret is the crust and sauce. I guess I’m just a fussy old son of a -----.”
He ends his culinary critique--brief but pointed--by waving his hands as if trying to brush away the mere thought of today’s chain pizza parlors.
“Come on. I’ll show you around the place,” he says, heading into the shadowed interior of the restaurant.
The kitchen smells of olive oil, black pepper, garlic, handmade dough, garden-grown vegetables and fine meats. Old pizza ovens, cheese grinders, dough mixers stand unused.
In one dining room is a jukebox--offering Nat King Cole, Glenn Miller, Herb Alpert and their contemporaries--and a 40-foot, 1940s-era bar that Pernicano’s customers carried on their shoulders across the street when he changed locations in 1952.
Old menus show the Pernicano clan in a montage of black-and-white photos taken over the years. In many, George is wearing a chef’s hat and dancing on the tables, bars and counters. Customers are smiling all around. He seems to have done a lot of dancing then. He smiles now.
“Yeah,” he says a little wistfully. “Things were different then. There was more fun. People had a lot more fun. And, with all the taxes and government regulations, all the fun’s gone out of the family business.”
He heads down to the spacious basement. The lights blink on. It is dank and cool. Piles of papers, menus, cups and equipment are stacked high. He looks around. Hundreds of people once ate, drank, sang and laughed here. It was long ago, but you can see it in his eyes: It might as well have been yesterday.
“You dumb dago,” he mumbles to himself. “I’ve got to get this stuff in order.”
He says it like a man who has been saying the same thing for years, who knows it will never get done, but says it aloud anyway once in a while to ease his conscience.
“Look at these,” he says, picking up some black objects the size of footstools: cheese, aged 40 years, rolled in olive oil and black pepper decades ago. Also, slabs of cured ham hanging on hooks. Old ABC beer. In the wine cellar, bottles of Italian wine, about 30 years old. He gingerly handles a bottle.
“Cradle that like the baby Jesus,” he says.
He moves through the blackened passageways leading to his basement offices. More piles of papers, mementoes, Chargers game balls. He has not been down here lately. Memories are jumping up and slapping him in the face. He opens a beat-up cabinet.
“What the hell . . . " His voice trails off.
He finds a wrapped cigar--expensive cigars and the handlebar mustache were his trademarks--and an old Charger jersey, No. 19, ALWORTH across the back.
“Bambi,” he says, using Hall of Famer Lance Alworth’s nickname. “I’ll be a son of a -----. Will you look at that?”
He hasn’t seen some of this stuff in years, and you can tell he is drifting away in memories, standing there in the basement with his old cheeses and wine and photographs of himself with famous athletes and actors and “my ballplayers"--Alworth, Ron Mix, John Hadl and others.
He’s looking at his life, and it’s all a little yellowed and rough on the edges, but he doesn’t seem to mind.
“So much stuff,” he says. “So much ----.”
Later, upstairs, he makes lunch: pork slices, fresh tomatoes, cooked spinach, Italian bread. Plenty of garlic, black pepper, olive oil, vinegar.
“Eat, eat,” he says happily.
It’s something he’s been saying all his life.