From Tuscany to North Beach to Cavedale Road
A man in his element: Lorenzo Petroni at North Beach restaurant, conducting his meals, his restaurant, his wines and his guests like a magnanimous maestro.
I have experienced, of late, two slices of heaven.
The first: a single eggplant parmigiana, fleshy, succulent, enveloped in crisp bread crumbs and tomato, an exclamation of fresh pepper on the tongue—matched with a glass of ruby magic, a big, curvaceous, 2003 Brunello di Sonoma that gladdens my heart and rearranges my knowledge of wine. Around me gleams the white linen, orbiting waiters and plangent chorus of North Beach Restaurant at
8 p.m., where for 38 years this corner of San Francisco—gilded and starched and polished to perfection—has turned city cacophony into straight-ahead jazz, and meals into sacrament.
The second is a scene from the top of the Mayacamas Mountains overlooking Sonoma Valley, reached only after a precarious zigzag up Cavedale Road. Here the steep slopes of the Poggio alla Pietra Vineyard are combed into rows of baby spring vines and tied up at the ends in silver olive trees, where the vistas are robin’s egg blue and flecked with tiny farmhouses.
So what do these two scenes have in common? What links North Beach and Cavedale Road?
His name is Lorenzo Petroni and his is the presence Central Casting would send if you asked for the perfect Don, the head man, il patrono. Hailed by friends as “The Mayor of North Beach” and owner of the eponymous North Beach Restaurant since 1970, each night Lorenzo holds court over one of the city’s most beloved dining institutions, a Tuscan eatery where politicians, dignitaries, artists, socialites, executives and various arbiters of taste come to talk shop, cut deals over steaks, collude by candlelight under ceilings of air-cured hams and bask in streamlined hospitality.
From our corner table in the evening din, Lorenzo is at home in his multiplicity—a sanguine, twinkle-eyed raconteur, a social magistrate, a sort of culinary traffic control tower. There are infinite requests, calls, situations, but they rarely disturb the cadence of our conversation, such is the shorthand of Lorenzo’s raised eyebrow, his single word, his purposed look—a network of gestures transformed into authoritative juggernauts, changing the present tense of the restaurant like a pacemaker setting the tempo of the heart. The blood flow quickens. Tables are cleared. A tab is paid. Waiters run.
Tucking his napkin into his collar over a stomach that’s clearly embraced its profession, Lorenzo prepares to do what he has done for a lifetime: make dining joyful. And after 38 years of purveying joy, Lorenzo hasn’t slackened his pace. He recently turned 70, an age he gleefully mocks.
“I stop flossing my teeth and start flossing my ears.”
We begin with the 2003 Brunello di Sonoma. Lorenzo’s longtime winemaking dream was to cultivate Brunello di Montalcino-cloned sangiovese grosso grapes and transmute them into fantastic wine. So he did. In 1991 he and his wife, Maria Elena, found 37 virgin acres in the Western Mayacamas. Rife with sunlight, volcanic minerals and vertiginous slopes, it would eventually nourish organically grown sangiovese grosso grapes to rival the best in Italy.
Sangiovese, of course, is the grandfather of chianti; its family tree has 14 clones, of which Brunello is one of the most prominent, appearing frequently in new “Super Tuscan” blends like tignanello. Some Italian resentment is brewing and some (so far futile) legal squabblings over American viticultural use of the name “Brunello.” But Lorenzo holds he legitimately imported and cloned the grape to make it uniquely Sonoman, and Italian purists can, basically, go to hell.
Such sentiments aside, the whole winemaking enterprise has been an amorous, if not economically fruitful, labor for Lorenzo. “An old Italian guy told me once, ‘If you’re going to plant grapes to make wine, it will be 20 years before you break even...’ Well, it’s been16 and we haven’t broken even yet!”
Lorenzo’s philosophy, however, puts perfection before profit.
He can’t place enough emphasis on dropping a third or more of the vineyard fruit during the course of the ripening season.
“The grapes here in America are prostituted,” he says, dolefully shaking his head. “You must understand that the vine is a weed. If the vérasion (the color change as grapes ripen) is not uniform, we have to drop, and (thereby) we leave only the best fruit.”
Then, sans fancy gauges or sugar count science, Lorenzo decides to pick by good old-fashioned tasting. And that’s a subject on which he has several strong opinions. Before I can taste Brunello, for instance, Lorenzo schools me in the proper technique of his predecessors.
“When I was 6 or 7 years old, my grandfather gave me my first taste of wine,” he grins. “He told me to ‘hold it in the front of your mouth for a count of eight, then slowly let it fall back on either side of the tongue.’ This,” he says, heaving with merriment, “is what my grandfather called, ‘taking the pants off.’”
And if there’s a wine whose pants should come off, surely it is the Brunello. It is big and come-hither, a full-blown Rubens of a wine, with a bouquet of cherry whipped into shape by a little leather and tobacco. I taste and there’s a predominance of ripe red fruit, rich as a velvet curtain. It could be said that Brunello has curves in places where other wines don’t even have places. In Lorenzo’s words, it’s “sexy…like a Mustang!” and an “easy drinking wine, well made with no corner. It just keeps floating.”
Lorenzo likes to point out how the wine “changes every five minutes” in the glass. “Don’t forget, alcohol is an object, but wine is a living thing.”
By this point we are dining on big discs of fresh tomatoes with burrini cheese soft as melted butter in the center. The dish is edged in a caramel stripe of balsamic vinegar—a deceptively simple but vivid combination of flavors.
While the restaurant spawned Lorenzo’s fortune, Brunello is his passion. And while winemaking furnished the motive for cultivating that sun-bleached Sonoma Valley hillside, the Poggio alla Pietra (hill of stone) is clearly about more than wine. It is refuge from city frenzy, a gathering place for family and friends, a rarefied kingdom over which Lorenzo presides with fierce generosity. It’s also the living laboratory of a modern country squire: There’s an open-air villa with moving walls and a retractable roof (all the better to receive the mountain breeze); a soon-to-be finished rabbit and poultry palace for the free-range pollo and coniglio that will eventually stock the North Beach kitchen; and a 5,000-case basement winery where Brunello, cabernet, syrah, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc go to seek consummate perfection.
Gathered there on a summer Saturday to share a sumptuous lunch are Lorenzo and Maria Elena, their sons Peter and Marco (a daughter, Lora, is absent), Peter’s wife, Drinda, and their son, Giovanni. (Drinda manages the Petroni Vineyards Wine Club and Peter is the winery’s operations manager.) While Marco grills chicken, Lorenzo supervises wine flow and shares his vision of a sustainable estate. All vineyard machinery runs on biodiesel using oil from the restaurant; the chickens will be fed restaurant waste; rattlesnakes are allowed to flourish among the vines to control gophers; and the entire vineyard is organic.
Lunch, like any true Italian meal, is part celebration and part liturgy. Marco has achieved something magical with baby zucchini. There’s Caprese salad with Petroni’s own olive oil, the chicken and a quarter wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano eaten by the handful.
Beyond the benevolence and culinary mastery of the bon vivant, there is more to Lorenzo. Generating joy is not easy and not always joyful. His children describe him as “hugely generous,” “very difficult,” “demanding,” “controlling,” “extremely hard-working,” and, perhaps most satisfying to il padre, “a man of great vision.” Like the rest of us, he wrestles with his own demons, which you catch in the fleeting moments when his face sags. He has lost a child and known grief.
“I’m very religious. I’m a straight shooter. I pray every day,” he says solemnly, and it’s true. Then the gravid gaze passes. “Dear God, please forgive me for drinking so much….” The mischievous grin returns, the merriment continues.
Such an oenological work ethic is evident in the 400 choices offered on the North Beach wine list. When shopping abroad for wines, Lorenzo tastes 75 to 100 a day. And he doesn’t spit. (Spitting is “vulgar, is disgusting.”) On those days, he thinks, “How does Lorenzo die? In the line of duty.” He laughs.
Lorenzo is on duty all the time, and although his Sonoma escape is a jewel of calm—beautiful and still in the afternoon— he nevertheless hops into his car at 4 p.m. sharp, descends the winding mountain road and returns to his restaurant, taking his place at the table seven nights a week, week after week.
There the conversation revolves, naturally, around food. “The most beautiful and simple things are the best,” he says. “When I eat something, I want to know what I’m eating. If eating chicken, I don’t want the taste of something strange.”
This Tuscan simplicity is a hallmark of the North Beach menu. The quality of cooking is so good, the ingredients are so superb, there’s no need for the dishes to masquerade in the borrowed costume of other cuisine. Lorenzo, you see, doesn’t understand this fusion thing. “Fusion,” he winks, “is confusion.”
Much of the menu includes Lucian recipes passed down from his family. Growing up, he lived in a modest house in the country outside Lucca, where the family had a bit of land, some rabbits and chickens, a garden. Even during the crucible of war, his aunt and grandmother somehow managed to cook incredible meals, from pastries and cakes to hearty pastas and succulent meat dishes.
Lorenzo translated the lessons of Lucca into the ultimate immigrant success story. Arriving in America at 19, he plunged straight into the restaurant business. A motivated kid who started out mopping floors and scrubbing pots, he now hosts the likes of A-list stars and heads of state.
Fresh from an address to the United Nations, Arnold Schwarzenegger flew in to have dinner at North Beach with wife Maria, former secretary of state George Schultz and his wife, Charlotte. The San Francisco mayor dines there a few times a week, and Lorenzo is an old friend of his father, Judge William Newsom. “I’ve known Gavin since he was this big,” he says, gesturing a couple of feet off the ground.
Most evenings the restaurant seems to attract an iconic—at the very least unforgettable—cast of characters, a virtual repertory troupe of “Tales of the City.” Willie Brown pops a $10,000 bottle of wine. James Beard violates his own pairing pronouncements, consuming the petrale with red wine (much to Lorenzo’s amusement). Patrons look over to see various and sundry luminaries seated next to them. Mayor Newsom pays his respects to Lorenzo before eating at a discreet table in the back. Other regulars may not make the gossip columns but leave immutable imprints on the restaurant’s social chemistry.
One friend, a horseracing announcer named Sam, has the face of an angel and enough tortured jokes for an express ticket to hell. Sam materializes at your table like a rabbit sprung from his own hat, dispatching rounds of vaudeville chestnuts so fast you’re still sorting through five different punch lines when he growls, “I’ve got a million of ‘em!” and retreats in momentary triumph back to his table.
Waiters, comprising their own Greek chorus, form a zero-gravity ballet along the seams of scenery, slipping through membranes of conversation to pour, clear, nod, pepper and balance the entire enterprise on the backs of their hands. It’s been decades for most of them, and Lorenzo is familiar enough that they love him, but don’t necessarily need to
“How are you doing? Is Lorenzo feeding you too much?” asks one, weightlessly steering me aside with genuine worry. I reassure him before heading back to our table, where Lorenzo has snapped his fingers for another bottle.
Despite North Beach’s maelstrom of bigwigs and the incessant scrutiny of gourmands, food critics and culinary Yelp vigilantes, Lorenzo espouses an approachable attitude about wine.
“People should drink what they can afford and what they like! Who am I to impose my (tastes)?” he asks emphatically, his voice unrolling like a proclamation. “Nobody trusts their own palates,” he says. “Some people will come in and look at the wine list and not look at the names, only the prices, and they order the most expensive.”
I nosh on the sublime eggplant parmigiano while Lorenzo dines on long, tissue-paper petals of prosciutto. As a main course, he orders me “Salmon My Way”: slices of thin salmon cooked only by five minutes of contact on a heated dish, then finished with capers and butter. It is paired with a predictably perfect Petroni syrah.
Other celestial dishes float in: fresh breaded abalone so good you eat it with tears and lemon. There is cured lard, the color of alabaster, on crostini. Fresh radicchio ruddy with earth and minerals.
Soon Lorenzo’s friends are invited to join our table: a candidate for San Francisco Supervisor sits down for a late bite to eat, followed by an internationally renowned sculptor. Conversation dovetails from politics to anecdotal news and catching up. Lorenzo laughs loud and long. You get the sense he has more eyes than a jellyfish, that he could be directing air traffic while dishing up a one-liner, but the man is so smooth, so munificent, you’d never know or care.
Waiters kind as princes sweep away plates and bring cold Sgropin cocktails— prosecco, grappa, and lemon sorbet. Cupped by the circuitry of the city and the incandescent chatter of this passing Friday night, you remember that eating and drinking is not a sensorial escape to the peripheries, nor an absence of thought—but a moment of being that tethers us most closely to our own humanity. Isn’t that the purpose of a good meal? At the very least, it’s a waking dream where your mind can navigate life’s more serious questions in a dark cherry Mustang. If so, Lorenzo’s doing something right.
From the Winter 2008 Issue of SONOMA