Tangled webs of history in San Francisco's North Beach

This is a true story. I promise. My belief in coincidence was stretched by the tale of Lidia Bastianich’s link to my mother’s hometown—Lidia, a world famous chef and restauranteur lived in the same refugee camp that my family did, just a few years after we did— but this coincidence stretches it even further.

I recently met with my friend Carol at Bodega, a favorite wine bar on Columbus Avenue in San Francisco. 

Carol is the publisher of The Semaphore, Telegraph Hill's (the site of San Francisco's famous parrots) neighborhood newspaper. I shared my photographs her with for the newspaper's last few issues, and am now an honorary member of that hood. 

I wanted to talk with Carol about publicizing my upcoming book. Knowing I had grown up in San Francisco’s Russian community, she had recommended finding Russian-focused bookstores. 

That’s how much she knew about Mother Tongue, which focuses on the Balkan side of my family.

Before we had time to discuss the newest hot topic — the replacement of Columbus Day by Indigenous Peoples’ Day — she said, “I’m working on a story for the next issue.” I sipped my wine as she continued. “It’s about all of the Italians in North Beach who fled Istria.“

The look on my face was probably worthy of a photograph. My mouth opened and I just kept staring at her. She knew nothing about my mother, or that she too was forced out of Istria — by Italians.

And, like me, she assumed that most people had never heard of Istria. 

I listened in amazement.

It turned out that Carol had been talking to Bruno Viscovi, the owner of Albona Restaurant, an Istrian eatery that I had taken my mother to several times.

She proceeded to tell me the story of Bruno's family’s eviction from Istria. Apparently, there were quite a few others — including the founders of Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store Café, and, Caffe Trieste.

It’s not that I don’t know these places. Caffe Trieste has been a favorite since I was a teenager being ‘hip.’ I just had neglected to think of them in the context of my own story about Trieste, spending part of my childhood living there at San Sabba refugee camp.

My obliviousness to this possible link was embarrassing, but suddenly it all sank in.

I didn’t have to look for a New York restaurateur to connect my book to the Italian American community. I just had to look around my neighborhood. Thanks to Carol, I am newly re-invigorated in this search!

In North Beach, with travel writer extraordinaire, Don George. 

In North Beach, with travel writer extraordinaire, Don George. 

Richard Le, the manager of the North Beach Public Library — whose name was misspelled at immigration from Lee — was gracious enough to schedule a reading for me.

Hear about the interwoven history of a common Slavic and Italian homeland on Saturday, June 2, 2018 at 1:30 p.m. at the North Beach Public Library, 800 Columbus Ave., in San Francisco. 

A little background:

Bruno Viscovi was born in Albona, or Labin, Istria. In the 1950s, both of our families fled their country of birth, but for very different reasons. In 1988 Bruno opened Albona —then the only Istrian restaurant in the Western United States — in San Francisco’s North Beach.

Gianni Giotta, founder of Caffe Trieste and one of North Beach’s great personalities, was born in Rovigno, or Rovinj, on the Istrian peninsula, two years before it was transferred from Croatia to Italy. Like my grandfather Martin Marinovič, Gianni came from a fishing family. He and his wife, Ida, immigrated to San Francisco and, in 1956, opened Caffe Trieste, the first espresso bar in San Francisco.

Mario Crismani opened the now famous Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store Café on Columbus Street in 1972. He was born in Pola, or Pula, Istria, where he met his wife Lilliana and where my grandfather worked in the shipyards. They lived in Trieste, where I spent my first four years, until coming to San Francisco. He often played bocce at the courts in Aquatic Park, below my home.

In the epilogue to my book, Mother Tongue, I talk about the refugee camp at San Sabba:

“We also learned that the Displaced Persons camp set up in this place after the war had sheltered two primary groups of people. The one we had been part of were those — mostly Russians — who were displaced by the post-war spread of Communism. The others were Italians displaced when Istria was given back to Yugoslavia.

A few years earlier, I had bought my brother an old copy of LIFE magazine from the week of his birthday in September 1947. Incredibly, the cover story was about the return of Istria to Yugoslavia from Italy that very week. It turned out that the land taken from my mother’s family at her birth was returned to her country at the birth of her son.

Just as my family had been persecuted 25 years earlier by Italians, the Italians were then persecuted by the Yugoslavs. Many lost their homes and fled the country. The issue was still so raw at the end of 2013, as I was researching this story, that Wikipedia temporarily froze their articles on the subject because of contention and disagreement.”