The sun is setting on Dago Mary's.
This old-school Italian restaurant sitting on the lonely edge of the Hunters Point Shipyard is at ground zero for one of the largest redevelopment projects in San Francisco apart from the UCSF campus at China Basin. Unless the restaurant, working in tandem with the developers, can find a way to incorporate itself into the overall scheme, single-family townhomes will stand where this historic landmark does now. And going in just down the street, the new 49ers stadium...maybe. That still remains a pipe dream for the city's establishment.
The land on which Dago Mary's sits has been owned by the Lennar corporation for over two years now, yet only recently has there been serious talk regarding Dago Mary's impending demise. However, things haven't been going so great for Lennar as the redevelopment of the Hunters Point shipyard appears to be one big, nasty boodoggle for any and everyone involved – except Dago Mary's. Much of the drama can be summed up in two words:
The problems associated with the redevelopment project are numerous. Compounded with the standard NIMBYism and opportunism disguised as "community oversight" – a trait which the citizens of the Bay Area have mastered - the site sits partially on and next to a brownfield contaminated with many decades of toxic materials; neither the current owner nor previous one willing to take full responsibility for it. The conversation follows:
"Are you going to clean it up?"
"No, I thought you were."
"I'm not going to clean it up."
"You made the mess."
"It's not my mess now. It's your mess."
"Well, how am I suppose to clean it up?"
"Well, what do you suggest I do?"
"For all I care, you could build a football stadium on it. Caveat emptor, homeboy. Caveat fucking emptor."
Until recently I'd never heard of Dago Mary's. I find this odd considering not too many restaurants are left which use ethnic slurs in their business name. I thought Al The Wop's in Locke was the only one left in California (other than the sole-survivor of the Sambo's chain in Santa Barbara). One would think everyone in San Francisco knew of Dago Mary's, but apparently it remains well under the radar of your average Yelpster – a creature too timid to venture beyond 3rd and Cesar Chavez, but whom feels qualified to be the 240th reviewer of an average sausage counter in the Lower Haight.
Dago Mary's began as Mary's Venetian Villa and was quite the swanky place in its day. The decade was the 1930s and "Mary" was Mary Ghiorzo. According to the current owner of Dago Mary's, Joe Ursino, the term "dago" in reference to Mary was one of fondness, rather than disrespect – which, as anyone who knows anything about American history can tell you, not only is likely but one of the peculiarities of multicultural America.
Mary was a grande dame and savvy restauranteur, and at the time everybody who was anybody was seen at Mary's. Politicians courted her and were courted by her. Diners would taxi out from the downtown for seven-course dinners that cost less than their cab ride ($1.35). Floor shows were common as bands serenaded the evening crowd. In essence, Mary was the American version of Louisa Trotter – only she was real.
That's Mary, in the center.
Mary gave the people of San Francisco everything they could ask for in a great place to eat, dance, drink, and hob-nob, and when the opportunity to spruce up the restaurant presented itself in the form of a Peninsula estate auction, she jumped on it. It just so happens that the fixtures she bought in that auction, fixtures which remain in the restaurant to this day, are just a few of what's left of the grand Linden Towers mansion, formerly in what is now Menlo Park.
Linden Towers was a mansion built by James C. Flood, dubbed one of the "Bonanza Kings" and who made millions off of the stock market during the height of the Gold Rush. No expenses were spared as Flood poured money into his white Victorian-era castle. As often is the case with New Money, tacky, gaudy, and overkill are always the new black. Flood's mansion was derided by his neighbors as a "beautiful atrocity", although that didn't prevent the Flood family from raising two generations of children there. Unfortunately for James, he died less than 12 years after Linden Towers was built.
After awhile, the mansion fell into the hands of the James L. Flood, upon whose death in 1924 it stood empty and in 1936 its contents put up for public auction. Among the buyers was a feisty little woman from Hunters Point who smelled strangely of fennel sausage and marinara sauce, and who - I imagine - had a mouth on her that could make a sailor blush.
Mary embellished her establishment with many of the fixtures from the old Flood mansion (note: not the Flood Mansion on Nob Hill.) These fixtures include a carved marble mantle-piece and exquisite hand-carved wood panels which frame the wetbar, doors, entryways, and windows.
The dining room space is large and open, and suprisingly not too shabby. Despite the location and the unkempt exterior of the restaurant, the table settings and other small details (like the calla lillies) look as if someone has made an effort to make this a comfortable dining experience.
Perhaps that someone is the guy who waited on our table the night Bruce and I were there. This guy, whom we found out later is the cousin of the owner, began by saying that there was no menu per se, but that the menu was a "verbal" one. He then began to list off some of the dishes he could make for us, something like a sausage and pepper dish with pasta, or if we wanted he could whip us up something with poached salmon.
Now, come on: who wouldn't find that just a little bit charming – or at least funny? It was like having a personal chef; "by the way, while you're at it, could you throw in a few mushrooms and maybe some parsley?"
Better yet, this is exactly the same personal, makes-you-feel-at-home, service I'm sure Mary was famous for. It's nice that some things haven't changed.
However, some things have. Price for one thing – a plate of pasta and sausages was $15.50. That's quite a leap from the 1930s, but considering how much food there was, its hard to complain.
Not only was there a generous portion – perhaps too generous for your average person – but the food was exactly what you'd want in a comforting plate of pasta: freshly cooked rigatoni swimming in a thick ragu of sliced bell peppers, chunky tomato sauce, and large hunks of Italian sausage. The parmesan cheese sprinkled on topped wasn't really necessary; it was obviously that pre-shredded stuff. But I don't know...that probably adds to the home-cooked experience for some of y'all.
While Bruce drank ice tea, I had a glass of tap water...since it's free. Dago Mary's has always served customers water from the tap, which puts them lightyears ahead of Chez Panisse.
Besides a young Latino couple sitting behind us, Bruce and I were the only ones dining. It felt a little strange, sitting there in this virtually empty, old place surrounded by history (perhaps, about to be history), looking out through the window across the bay to the Port of Oakland – just underneath the restaurant land scraped and graded for new construction. Old baseball team photos of the San Francisco Seals hung on the wall by the restrooms; many of them brandishing the hurried scribbles of men who have long since passed away.
I asked our server if it was true that they were closing at the end of April. He gives me that facial expression – you know, the "what, me worry?" look – and then attempts to blow off the question. "Everything is still up in the air", he says.
"But we're not going down without a fight."
Somehow, I don't think Mary would either.