The Next Generation: Alioto's in San Francisco
For as long as there has been a Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, there has been Alioto’s Restaurant. Founded in 1925 by Nunzio Alioto, Sr. and his wife Rose, the iconic eatery started as humble fish stall #8, a favorite lunch spot for the local fishermen and dockworkers. The restaurant grew into a city landmark, with a ground floor café topped by floors of fine dining with harbor and Golden Gate views. Little has changed on the menu over time, with signatures such as calamari Sicilian style and Nonna Rose’s famous crab cioppino. Today, Alioto’s is run by third generation family member Nunzio Alioto, 65; and his fourth-generation relatives: daughter Nicole Alioto, 35; cousin Matthew Violante, 44; and nephew Joseph Pezzolo. Recently, Nunzio and Matthew shared the restaurant’s history with us while discussing hopes for its future, as it wraps up nearly 9 decades in business.
Nunzio Alioto: Our business started almost 90 years ago with my grandfather and grandmother. When they passed away, a new generation came around, which was my father and my aunt and my uncle. They ran the restaurant for years. And then, it was my generation--myself and my cousin Joe. And now, my cousin Matthew, my nephew Joe, and my daughter Nicole are getting involved in running things.
I started working at the restaurant when I was 13. I worked in the kitchen for years. I worked on the floor as a server. I worked as a dishwasher, worked as a bartender—every facet of the business. I ended up going to hotel and restaurant school here in San Francisco. And then I ended up working for many great restaurants and kitchens, such as Ernie's, which was a very, very fine French restaurant here. I cooked there for years. After that, I ended up going to hotel school in Lausanne, Switzerland, and then I ended up working in a couple of excellent restaurants over there, such as Maison Pic in France.
Matthew Violante: My entry into the business was not quite as extravagant. I started when I was about 15 or 16 years old. I was working at the crab stand with my grandfather cracking crab and getting everything ready. He put me to work out there to keep me out of trouble because I was in high school. Then I went off to school, then went to San Diego and worked in a few restaurants down there and did some catering.
I came back from school and I had my own business for about 14 years doing graphic design and advertising for a firm, and then came back to the family business. The same thing kind of started over. I worked in the warehouse with the fish, cutting fish, then worked as a sauté chef for about eight months and learned the business from all different angles. I worked downstairs as a manager, then came upstairs.
NA: You know, it's interesting if you look at the history of these restaurants on Fisherman's Wharf. Originally, Fisherman's Wharf wasn't Fisherman's Wharf. It was a lumberyard. It was called Meg's Wharf, then it became Fisherman's Wharf. So, all of these little restaurants were little stands that served fresh crab from the boats. I remember as a kid selling four crabs for a dollar.
MV: You can't even get a leg for a dollar now.
NA: I know, that’s sad. But it's interesting because we're a very traditional restaurant, so once we became a full service restaurant, little has changed. It's sort of like, if it's not broken, why play around with it? What we believe in is to buy the best you could possibly buy for the kind of volume that we do and prepare it fairly simply without getting too complicated. Things do get complex, however, as a family and a business, grows.
MV: Sometimes it's a real shame in family businesses--three generations and things explode.
NA: Because you've got this first generation that has just come from the old country--they work hard, keep their mouths shut. They just want to make it better for their family, give them a good education. And as generations grow and grow and grow, things just…change. And sometimes it’s very difficult because, at some point, you have family members who then get involved from the peripheral of the business, who don't understand the actual workings and goings-on. So that becomes difficult, I think, for everyone to be on the same page. If everyone IS on that same page, I think it's easier for everyone to understand what truly goes on. I think we’re very fortunate in that sense.
MV: I think the bigger challenge that Alioto’s has seen is that Fisherman's Wharf a long time ago was just the traditional restaurants on Fisherman's Wharf. But now we've got corporate places like Chipotle, In and Out, Applebee's, McDonalds and Burger King to compete with. It might seem strange that we consider them competition, but if they weren’t there, we would have their business.
NA: Also, in terms of margins, it's more of a business today than I think it was 50 years ago. I think it was more fun 50 years ago. I truly do. I was a young kid then. I remember family coming down here and we'd have these huge lunches, and no one thought anything of it. We just did it. Everyone got together and we shared food and laughter and drink. Today, that's all gone because it became more of a business. And everyone's worried about bottom line. Everyone's worrying about labor costs. We're worrying about food costs, fixed expenses, margins. To me, it's sort of a bummer in a way. But having family members in the business keeps our tradition, which is real important, as well as the stability and continuity of employees. Our employees don't move around very much. Some of them have been here 50 years.
MV: After they've been here that long, they're family as well.
NA: They're family. So you have to respect that. That's what my father taught me. That's what we teach these kids.
MV: Today our guests are about 99% tourists, but we do have quite a bit of locals who come down and they like seeing the familiar faces of the waitstaff.
NA: Our chef started as a dishwasher. He worked for my Uncle John who was our chef. He mentored him. And now, Don's been our chef for 30-something years.
And we keep continuity on the menu, things like the fish stew, the crab Louie the shrimp Louie--those are real classic things that have been here forever. We do a seafood sausage here that was started by us. That's been on the menu forever and ever. Crab cakes….
MV: Salmon Sicilian.
NA: Our heritage is Sicilian. So my grandmother, when she came from the old country, she took local ingredients, Dungeness crab, and prepared a tomato-based stew. It was very basic. Her original recipe really calls for local things—prawns, crab and clams. And the crab bladder was a real important ingredient to making the sauce. That is her famous cioppino, which we still serve.
But as much as I like tradition, sometimes I just sort of want to take things in a slightly new direction without getting too crazy while still keeping the tradition that we have. I don't want to become a dinosaur because I'm so aware of it. I think you need to be classic and traditional and do the things we do. But I still think we can update it a little more to stay in tune.
MV: I encourage that.
NA: My cousin Joe and I, we got into French service in the dining room where we did carts and flambés. We did some things and they actually did work. People enjoyed it—doing Caesars at the table, for example. We've gone through a lot of different changes over the years. But we tend to keep coming right back to what we are, what we've been.
MV: You don't want to veer too far off what our classic and our traditional dishes are and our feel for the restaurant. But yet, as the new blood, I want to come in and change some things. Not so much with the food, but obviously updating.
NA: Keeping the place fresh, that's important. You try to do things gradually. One way they are making things better is with technology today. These kids—the next generation--are into technology. I'm sort of on the real peripheral of technology. But these guys, they get it and how much more you can do with it to make you a better business.
MV: Working together on things like technology--I'm a little bit older than the other two downstairs, but we have a bond from working closely together, and from trying to keep the place fresh. We're the next generation that's here and we need to do this together.