Tommaso’s Ristorante Italiano
Sporting an old-school work ethic and menu in tech-obsessed San Francisco, this North Beach institution seals its modern-day longevity by transporting diners to the past.
Tommaso’s, a bona fide San Francisco legend, brought the West Coast its first wood-fired brick oven in 1935. And, nearly 85 years later, not much has changed.
Some things, of course, have: The original owners, the Cantalupo family from Naples, called their enterprise Lupo’s—the first Italian spot in North Beach. Only when their Chinese longtime chef, Tommy Chin, bought the business in 1971 did it become Tommaso’s, after the Italian version of his name. But Chin realized he was more at home in the kitchen than running a business, and by 1973 he sought to sell.
Enter Maria and “Gigi” Crotti, Italian immigrants who’d just arrived Stateside in 1970. “In Italy, my grandfather’s family made cheese, and here he worked as a janitor, as my grandmother raised children at home—but they had savings,” recounts Margi Ochoa, the couple’s granddaughter and manager of Tommaso’s. “It was the American dream: They saw an opportunity, and they worked hard. Very hard.”
That dream has supported three generations: The Crottis’ kids, Agostino and Carmen, now own the restaurant, with Margi and her cousin, Giorgio, on board and ready to take the reins (though Margi knows they’ll “do it until they can’t anymore”). Agostino’s wife, Anna, has worked for years at the restaurant; the young fourth generation is poised for a life in Tommaso’s; and the company keeps employees for decades, with shockingly low turnover. “We all chip in and do what we have to—we all wait tables here,” Margi says of the family. “We work very hard, and our employees work hard, so there’s a lot of respect between us.”
Margi also marvels at the humble restaurant’s bevy of multigenerational regulars—one-time kids who now bring their kids and grandkids. “Being true to who we are keeps our customers coming back,” Margi explains. “Maybe we’re not innovating all the time, but this is our life. It’s a lot of responsibility, so make sure you love it! The times we’re tired or overworked, we remember one saying: ‘for the good of the family.’”
Indeed, though Tomasso’s has made some small changes in recent years—finally accepting credit cards and dabbling in social media—it’s not only the original oven (which still fires every last pizza and entree) that remains intact; it’s an unflagging work ethic. And, for regulars and tourists alike that flock to the 60-capacity restaurant, that old-school, family-values flair hits a welcome nostalgic note. As historic mom-and-pop businesses struggle to stay afloat amid the Bay Area’s evolution-in-hyperdrive, Tommaso’s offers “an oasis,” Margi says, transporting guests to “what San Francisco used to be. People tell us how nice it is to come to a place where nothing has changed, when everything else has.”