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One of SF’s oldest Italian eateries prepares to pass the torch

Carmen (left), Anna (back) and Agostino (front) Crotti pose around the family table at Tommaso's Ristorante Italiano in San Francisco. | Sarah Holtz/The Standard

Perched atop a towering hill in North Beach, Tommaso’s Ristorante Italiano is, in many ways, preserved in amber. The cream-colored wooden booths are flanked with 88-year-old murals depicting the Amalfi Coast. They were painted by an anonymous artist who, according to owner Agostino Crotti, was paid in spaghetti. The menu is almost identical to how it was in 1935, though the Crotti family has added items like arugula, Agostino said, “to try to be trendy.” He suggested that the wood-fired brick pizza oven—the first in North Beach—inspired Alice Waters to build one of her own at Chez Panisse. 

Still, change is the only constant, and the oldest continuously operated restaurant in North Beach lacks an heir apparent to carry on the business. Agostino, his sister Carmen and his wife, Anna, who have run the restaurant for 50 years, said they’re ready to retire. 

“We want to enjoy the years we have left,” Agostino said. 

Traditionally, it’s assumed that the next generation will take over the family business. That’s not the case at Tommaso's, the Crottis said, as their children have their own careers and aren’t available to keep the flame alive. After all, restaurant work is incredibly taxing. Most nights, some combination of Carmen, Agostino and Anna can be found on their feet between the kitchen and the front door from 5 p.m. until close. 

So the Crottis are on the lookout for new owners to purchase their iconic eatery. Carmen told The Standard it would be ideal to pass the torch to another family, just as the previous owners did for them in 1973. But so far, she said they don’t have any serious takers.

“We’re waiting for the right fit,” Carmen said. 

The wood-fired brick pizza oven at Tommaso's is as old as the restaurant itself. | Sarah Holtz/The Standard

Before it was Tommaso’s, this Neapolitan restaurant at Kearny and Broadway was called Lupo’s. Opened in 1935, the Cantalupo family sold the restaurant to their head chef, Tommy Chin, in the late 1960s, and he renamed it Tommaso’s in his own Italianized image. By 1973, Chin was ready for another family to take over and found one in the Crottis. 

At the time, Agostino was 19, had recently emigrated from Lake Como in Italy and was working as a barista a few blocks away at now-landmark coffeehouse Caffe Trieste. He bought the restaurant—and eventually the building—with his sister Carmen and met his wife, Anna, in northern Italy in 1976, and the three partners have been serving up Neapolitan pizza ever since. 

The two siblings said that while the first five years in business together were a bit tumultuous—at the time, their mother worked the pizza oven and “kept the peace”—the longevity of the restaurant speaks to the strength of their partnership. 

“We’re so close, it’s pathetic,” Carmen said. 

Over the years, a rogue’s gallery of local celebrities—Francis Ford Coppola, Alice Waters, Herb Caen, George Lucas and Jerry Brown, to name a few—have frequented Tommaso’s. In fact, the week the Crottis spoke to The Standard, Agostino said the former governor had made reservations to celebrate his 85th birthday that weekend. During the Lupo’s years, Agostino said that stars of stage and screen such as Frank Sinatra and the Marx Brothers dined at Tommaso’s when they were in town—presumably because it reminded them of old Italian eateries in New York City. 

The murals along the walls of Tommaso's were created by an anonymous painter in 1935. | Sarah Holtz/The Standard

Half a century later, Agostino and Anna said they hope to retire so they can spend a good part of the year in Lake Como, where many of their relatives still reside, and run a Michelin-lauded restaurant. Carmen said she’ll stay near her children and grandchildren in the Bay Area. Until then, the Crottis are patiently waiting for the right people to come along, which Carmen said has been slow to materialize. 

“After the pandemic, people are very cautious to jump into anything,” she said. 

Carmen added that during Covid, Tommaso’s survived by the grace of their longtime regulars and the robust takeout service they pulled together in early 2020. Of course, it also helped that the Crottis own the building—a San Francisco legacy business since 2018. Six to eight months into the pandemic, she said they were able to bring back their entire kitchen staff. 

Of course, it’s been a chaotic few years for the restaurant industry, with the pandemic and inflation driving up nearly every operating cost. Anna said they’ve had to triple what they spend on eggs, vegetables and chicken. 

“And you can’t triple the prices,” Carmen said. 

Anna Crotti fires up the oven before dinner service. | Sarah Holtz/The Standard

With this future transition, Agostino said he’s most concerned that the next owners keep on all of their employees, many of whom have been with the restaurant for over 20 years. 

“We have a very loyal clientele, too,” Carmen said. “And they don’t want anything to change.” 

At the end of The Standard’s visit, Carmen and Anna could be seen preparing for the first seating of the night, building a crackling fire in the oven.