Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Lunch Plans Switcharoo: a traditional Italian-style sit-down for a quirky Asian & Greek happy hour with style

A funny thing stood between me and attendance at the 125th anniversary promotional lunch at Fior d'Italia, purportedly the oldest Italian restaurant in SF's North Beach, during which they honored their original menu (20 cents for eggplant parmigiana!): a long, slow-moving line, consistently consisting of somewhere around 300 people, wrapped around the block and down the street, roughly 100 feet long and with clusters often 10 feet wide - just about as far from being single-file as you can get and still have something resembling a queue of humans.

And the semi-linear crowd only partially represented the number people with designs on getting inside, since most of the would-be diners came in groups, leaving one or two persons designated as place holders while the rest escaped to enjoy espresso, wine, sandwiches and window shopping, only to join the line again near the door. Anatre fortunate!

Gauging the distance I had meandered during the first hour in line, I became quite skeptical about my prospects of actually getting inside before they closed the door at 4PM to wrap up service and begin their private in-house celebration. Anatre fortunate anche!

I felt no small amount of pity for the multitudes gradually joining the confused conflux behind me, who certainly had no clue at all that they stood no chance whatsoever of even smelling the eggplant.

Eventually the chef made the announcement, "We will be closing the door at four! If you don't get in by then you are shit out of luck!"

A few people left, but most of us wanted to see what would happen at the bitter end; we'd waited too long not to.

Many of the wannabe-ravioli-eaters were tricked into coming down by the ABC news, who featured a story about the restaurant's anniversary special, but which broadcast turned out to be a terribly misleading disservice, because anyone who had decided to attend due to that featured bit was fated to wait in line only to be turned away.

Myself included.

"I'm gonna do something..." said the house ospite, "...that much I..." but his voice trailed off in thoughtful uncertainty, since he and we all knew that he ought not make promises he would not be able to keep. A few of the hungry nonpatrons clapped anyway.

A quarter past four the rabble became antsy in the pantsy, for, though they had long ago given up hope of getting a plate, they saw that the host was handing out vouchers. But the excitement burped and faded away when we learned they were for 15% off, which would just cover the tip, maybe. He may as well have been passing out twenty dollar bills, with Mickey Mouse' face printed on them.

I don't really think the staff at Fior d'Italia won over many new customers that day, except for claiming the title of oldest ristorante in Little Italy. The people who did eat may very well opt out of returning soon, only to pay full price next time, especially with so many dining options in the City. And the people who had waited so long and then were turned away didn't leave with the impression that their feelings mattered much to the proprietors, who simply lacked the warmth and when-you're-here vibe that would have drawn them back.

When you are confined or deserted with strangers for any length of time, before long those strangers often become your friends, and such was the case here.

Meet: the Gan family: Matt, who wanted to take the family out to the special lunch in the first place, and who, when he learned the vacant value of the vouchers, said, "I gotta hurry up and throw this away," as though he needed to think about anything other than Italian special offers, just to come back from the staggering disappointment. Matt Gan's parents, Grant and Liz, couldn't have been sweeter, as with their friend Lily, and Susie, Liz' mom, with her aquamarine sweater, pink cap and hint of senility, could not have been any cuter.

And then there was Christabella Savalas, who informed us that, yes, Kojak, er, Telly Savalas was indeed her first cousin. Christabella is a bubbly and vibrant person who wears her heart on her sleeve and shares everything. She plays (and teaches) piano, speaks (and teaches) several languages, and has worked in many aspects of film and television production and performance.

Making a unanimous snap decision, we all loaded up in two cars and drove to our Plan B destination: McCormick & Kuleto's in the Ghirardelli Square, where they have spectacular happy hour specials. We ate 1/2 pound cheeseburgers and chicken sliders, each for under $3, and we didn't miss the red sauce one bit.

And I proposed a toast: to the 125th anniversary of Fior d'Italia (the inside of which I am certain none of us are likely to ever see), and the great new friends that came in lieu of pretentious pasta.

Buon appeti..., er, no no.

Who love's ya, baby?!

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