When a 13-year-old son of Italian immigrants dropped out of school to help run the family produce company, not a soul imagined the young boy would launch what became the world’s largest commercial bank and financial powerhouse: the Bank of America. But that’s exactly what Amadeo Peter Giannini put into action at age 34 when peddling loans to local farmers and family businesses in San Francisco under his small Bank of Italy. As the 1906 earthquake and raging fires crumbled and scorched San Francisco just two years later, Giannini didn’t forget his working-man roots: he promptly opened San Remo Hotel near the shipyards as a home base for workers rebuilding the city.
Inspiring triumph over tragedy, he named his 62-room hotel the “New California Hotel.” The three-story structure on Mason Street reflected Giannini’s heritage through Italianate Victorian architecture, and it quickly became a gathering spot for other Italian immigrants. Many homeless families and disaster-recovery workers received free meals and rooms at the hotel, a tradition that was repeated decades later when housing victims of the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake.
Den of Divine Energy
Renamed San Remo in 1922 in homage to the charming Gulf of Genoa seaside village in Italy, the hotel has never changed its open-arms mentality. As guests have flowed through the lobby, restaurant and guest rooms for decades now, the eclectic mix of people creates an infusive energy that’s almost palpable. Poets and merchant seamen raise a glass with dockhands, businessmen, mechanics, bookies, boxers, mayors and police chiefs.
There was a time, during and after the Great Depression, when artists paid their tabs with paintings while carpenters pitched in with chores and repairs. An unofficial artist-in-residence community at San Remo eventually attracted musicians, poets and designers, including the Andrew Sisters, Mel Torne, swing jazz singer Billy Eckstine, and “the world’s greatest disc jockey,” Don Sherwood.
Those Who Linger
As any hotel with a stream of patrons spanning 100-plus years, the San Remo is rumored to have a few who never left. The most enduring ghost story is of the Painted Lady, a beautiful madame who lived and died in Room 33. A young girl is said to knock on Room 42, perhaps looking for her father who shot himself in the head inside that same room in 1970. The restaurant has its own lingering spirit, a murderer from 1911 who burst into a wedding reception and shot two people during his former lover’s wedding.
The North Beach neighborhood has grown up around San Remo, but in spite of the looming financial district nearby, few guests show up expecting (or desiring) the grandeur of other prominent San Francisco hotels. In this storied hospitality haven built by one of the world’s most prosperous banking magnates, things are old-world and simple.
Guest rooms and common areas exude cozy comfort with understated heirloom furnishings, historic photographs and stained-glass windows. It’s a shock at first, but most guests are more than happy to leave two things behind for a few days: guest room telephones and televisions. Baths are Italian pensione style – down the hall – as is internet connection. Brothers and current owners Tom and Robert Field are just fine with that, and so are the nonstop travelers and locals who break bread and spin yarns late into the night.
They come for the comradery, tall tales and turn-of-the-century Victorian charm – but they also come for the hearty Italian food. During the Depression, cooks at San Remo served family-style Genoan dinners for only 50 cents, tossing out a hearty Mangia, Mangia – Eat, Eat! when plopping down steaming piled-high platters. Hotel dining now harbors a treasured piece of the past: the oldest Italian restaurant in America.
The Flower of Italy
Fior d’Italia (The Flower of Italy) burst to life in San Francisco on May 1, 1886, and was an instant success feeding gold miners, sailors and fortune hunters roaming the Barbary Coast. Chefs and immigrants Angelo Del Monte and Armido “Papa” Marianetti dished out handmade ravioli, tagliatelle and seafood to hungry prospectors and longshoremen, gradually growing into an elegant ristorante serving diplomats and socialites.
But when the 1906 earthquake and fire sizzled and seared their dreams into a pile of ashes, they reacted in the same way as fellow immigrant and banker Giannini. While Giannini jumped to action building the San Remo Hotel to house destitute victims, Del Monte and Marianetti threw up a tent and started cooking. Ladling homemade soup from steaming iron kettles, they literally fed the city for a year while it rebuilt.
Now the two most cherished and enduring legends of San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood age gracefully under the same roof. Fior d’Italia moved into the San Remo Hotel after a fateful restaurant fire on Valentine’s night 2005, bringing the Italian heritage of San Francisco full circle after more than 150 years.
“Italy is a dream that keeps returning for the rest of your life” – Anna Akhmatova