By: William Masters
The Da Vinci Café, a San Francisco landmark, stood at the corner of Broadway and Stockton Streets for thirty-nine years. Its door-sized front windows overlooked both Chinatown and North Beach. Opened originally to supply fake documentation (passports, drivers licenses, credit cards, etc.) for the local mafia, the café nearly failed as a legit business during its first year under non-professional management and competition from nearby, less expensive restaurants.
Anxiously hosting an impromptu party in the rear banquet room for a neighborhood crime boss celebrating his recent murder acquittal due to the absence of the prosecution’s star witness (anchored to a block of cement resting in peace at the bottom of the bay), the café’s owner, Guido Contini, forgot to lock the front doors. A hungry Saturday, late-night crowd, emerging from the midnight matinee movie at the Times Theater on Stockton Street, noticed the lights still on and found the doors unlocked. Seating themselves, the hungry post-movie crowd looked around impatiently for the absent staff just as a pair of surprised banquet waiters, on their way home, emerged from the rear to a roomful of unexpected diners, and immediately alerted Mr. Contini.
Suppressing his anxiety with a shot of Grappa, Guido greeted the diners with a “Ciao a tutti!” He opened ten bottles of cheap domestic Italian wine (the equivalent of the French vin ordinaire), enough for each table, and served it (paga la ditta), with baskets of leftover breadsticks. Guido convinced the two departing banquet-staff waiters to remain. He tapped the shoulder of a visiting sous chef, still seated as a guest in the banquet room at 2:35 a.m., and put him in command of the kitchen.
“Now is your chance, Roberto,” he told the surprised nineteen-year-old. The teenager, aware that opportunity was not a lengthy visitor, eyeballed the dining room counting the number of patrons, then took inventory of the food in the kitchen: boxes of frozen mussels, ravioli and meatballs, packages of dried pasta, cans of tomatoes, tomato paste, dry salamis hanging by strings from the meat rack, refrigerated pizza dough, and mounds, packages and shakers of mozzarella, romano, gorgonzola, asiago, fontina, and parmigiana cheese.
Within forty minutes, Roberto Antony Mastrocola had transformed himself into the genie of the kitchen. Deftly using his pair of sous chef hands, he produced platters of saucy mussels, bowls of steaming pasta, pizzas with layers of defrosted vegetables, and salads all served family-style to the hungry diners by the two remaining banquet waiters.
Thus, the café gained a reputation as the late-night spot to dine for anyone emerging from midnight matinees at the Times movie theater, for the post-theater, ballet and symphony aficionados, for hungry couples with large appetites earned by dancing at South of Market clubs, but most of all, the destination for post-coital meals. The buzz around town was Fuck your date late, then eat a plate…at The Da Vinci Café.
During the Café’s Halcyon days, Robin Williams made surprise appearances to try-out new stand-up routines; Beverly Sills, after performing in Donizetti’s “The Daughter of the Regiment” at the San Francisco Opera House, dropped in to eat a plate of spaghetti paid for by singing “I Hate Men” from Kiss Me Kate. Cast members from the original touring companies of Les Miz and Wicked, or the later revivals of Phantom, La Cage, The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees, showboated their musical talents with the piano accompaniment of a young Michael Feinstein, prior to his celebrity status and who subsequently returned to play and sing from the Ira Gershwin and Irving Berlin songbooks. Fat-bellied politicians and ousted dictators dropped in for tiramisu or a plate of cannoli and a double espresso. The Prince of Nabu ordered panna cotta, served with a raspberry coulis.
The food never won a James Beard award, earned a Michelin Star, or even rose to the level of cuisine. The most exotic item on the menu, an escargot pizza, earned its popularity because patrons accepted the current mythology that it worked as an aphrodisiac. Although the food never rose above the level of grub, it remained plentiful and cheap. Handsome, bow-tied bartenders created a vibrant bar scene in which they poured generous drinks and offered sage advice as if they’d descended from the Oracle of Delphi, boosting the café’s popularity as high as the fabled beanstalk. Business soared.
The dining room reached and maintained a high level of bonhomie while the rear banquet rooms produced the atmosphere of a high-end universe for everything corrupt, but delectable. For a time, The Da Vinci Café became the place for the cognoscenti to see and be seen.
Inevitably, times changed. The clientele aged. The newer generation’s taste for the healthy, organic food movement combined with the burgeoning work-out culture, replaced the taste and habits of the late-night comfort foodies. Eager young lovers skipped the late-night stop and spent their disposable income on supplies of sushi and light wine to maintain their stamina during extended periods of tantric sex performed in candle-lit, perfumed bedrooms.
The Times Movie Theater closed. Former patrons, now older, domesticated, and anchored to the bourgeoisie responsibilities of marriage, skipped a stop at the café and returned home to meet the time restraints of their babysitters.
Bernstein’s late-night deli opened within two blocks of the legitimate theaters on Geary Street. The Cable Car Diner on Pine Street stayed open until 4:00 a.m. for the Civic Center crowd. The Blue Light Café on Union Street attracted the hip Marina crowd from midnight to 3: a.m.
Other restaurants, discovered this niche group of diners, partnered with extended late-night delivery services allowing night owls watching the Late Late show at home to order and pay for pizza or Chinese take-out from their desktops or smartphones until 3:30 a.m.
While crime in the City rose to unchartered heights, business at The Da Vinci Café plummeted. Younger, hipper, better dressed and coiffed criminals, who could speak intelligently about fiddlehead ferns and nettle pesto, met in corporate boardrooms, sat around tables of hotel ballrooms talking to people on their cell phones instead of those seated next to them. They met in new South Beach penthouses and ate catered meals from The San Francisco Chronicle’s annual list of the 100 top restaurants.
The continued decline in the Café’s clientele served as an unmistakable signal. With the end in sight, Guido Contini sold the restaurant to Lorenzo Lauria, a fedora-clad young hotshot, and grandson to a former a mafia boss. With a little help from Lorenzo’s City Hall connections, he successfully maneuvered past objections from neighborhood groups and legal challenges by environmental lobbies and sailed through obligatory public hearings. He bribed City inspectors for a special permit allowing the restaurant to become a four-story parking garage, with two floors below street level to ensure that the two floors of parking above street level would not exceed the height limit for the neighborhood.
After the successful sale of The Da Vinci Café, Guido sent invitations (with a special “Last Supper” menu and price list) to the best of his extant clientele for a final meal at the café.
By 10:45 p.m., on the night of the Last Supper, all guests had left the café except a pair of older gentlemen dressed in the best of their finery, held together with suspenders, collar pins and ties. Guido advised his staff to allow these men to remain as long as they pleased. The gentlemen’s ages stretched far from their original attachments to a placenta to their current qualification for residency in a cemetery.
From the table at which they had been dining, the two men rose and walked past the pair of open French doors to a table on the patio. For the last time, they wished to enjoy the Indian summer’s lingering warmth and light from the full moon before the San Francisco fog rolled in signaling the staff to switch on the heat lamps.
“Much improved,” said the first old man.
“Yes, indeed,” replied the second old man, smiling to reveal a set of unnaturally white teeth. The whiteness of his Cheshire cat smile matched his still abundant, snow-white hair reflecting a glint of white light from the shimmer on the surface of the water from a birdbath centered in the middle of the patio. The men sat, surrounded by empty, marble-topped tables that glowed in the moonlight with the eerie white patina of a headstone.
Their mercenary server, hoping for an expensive dessert order, sent the busboy with a cart containing fresh place settings, two dessert menus, and a pair of candles. The busboy arrived with a tray of clean cups and saucers, a thermos of fresh coffee, and two candles. After lighting the candles, he offered fresh coffee.
“No thank you,” the men replied in unison.
The busboy retreated from the patio, almost immediately replaced by the original server.
“Our dessert special tonight prepared tableside is flambéed pineapple with mascarpone filled crepes, macadamia nut streusel, and rum raisin ice cream.”
“I don’t think so,” said the first old man, “God forbid I should be responsible for cruelty to pineapples.”
“No thank you,” said the second old man. “Why do chefs ruin so many desserts with the addition of raisins?”
“It’s not the chef’s fault, sir,” began the server. “Responsibility belongs to ambitious cooks and earnest housewives trying to win recipe contests,” he remarked contemptuously, then regained his professional demeanor. “Something from the regular dessert menu, gentlemen?”
“No thank you,” said the first old man. Ask the sommelier to come here, please.”
Bowing deeply, the disappointed server excused himself. Almost immediately the sommelier appeared.
“What can I do for you, gentlemen?”
“We’d like to order a Bordeaux.”
“Of course, gentleman. Have you a preference?”
“Have you a 1982 Lafite Rothschild?”
“We have two bottles, sir.”
“We’ll need only one.”
“A bottle is $3,295, sir.” The sommelier looked hesitant. “I will need to run a credit card please before I open the bottle.”
“Don’t be embarrassed. We understand,” said the second old man, “it’s commerce before tact.”
“But wait!” said the first old man, “What about the 1981 drought in French Burgundy? Did it adversely affect the 1982 grape harvest?”
“You mean taste? Apparently not,” his friend responded. “Certified tastings by both oenologists and sommeliers published in The Wine Spectator attested to the superior quality of the vintage.”
“Wine Spectator? That style magazine!”
“Well, Decanter magazine also confirmed the same.”
“I suppose we can rely on Decanter. Is the 1982 vintage still within the ICC Drinking Window?”
“Just within, but since so many bottles have been consumed and highly rated, I’ m confident we can look forward to….”
“Alright, then. Make it so.”
As soon as the sommelier left, Guido Contini silently entered and appeared at the table. Guido had first noticed these men, over thirty years ago, when as ripely middle-aged patrons, they had first appeared at his café, each as a solitary diner. On one evening, with the first man already seated, the second man arrived, as usual, alone. With no vacant tables, Guido’s hosting instincts moved into gear and he led the second man to the first man’s table.
“I hope you don’t mind, sir, but I often see you both in my café, always dining alone. There is no empty table for this gentleman. Will you graciously allow me to seat him at your table where the drinks will be on me tonight?”
And thus the two solos met. Their first impressions of each other registered as the casual, superficial observations strangers make during an initial meeting. Both men still retained full heads of hair, looked well cared for, and fit enough to wear tailored suits. They had fresh manicures and wore wedding bands. After drinking the first bottle of wine, the men discovered how much more they shared in common. Both practiced law, had served in the Navy, lived through several wars, political assassinations, and stock market crashes. After the second bottle, the men realized they both bore the scars from the behaviors of ungrateful children and survived the pecuniary effects of divorce and remarriage only because (to their vast amusement), both had insisted on prenuptial agreements. This last item sealed a lasting bond between them. Soon they began arriving together two or three times a month, as part of the late-night crowd. Gradually, they became confidants. As confidants, they recommended barbers and tailors to each other, and sotto voce revealed the contents of certain top-secret documents from sealed court cases, offered stock tips, shared newly discovered tax loopholes discovered by their accountants, shoveled the dirt on certain judges, disclosed the names of their connections at City Hall, and finally, shared the prognosis negative each had received from his internist.
For a break on busy nights, Guido frequently sat with the men for a drink. Occasionally he ate a meal with them. None of these men ever met outside of the café. Eventually, they developed the same ease of relationship and level of comfort often found in successful marriages and top business partnerships. Tonight, Guido nursed a set of melancholy feelings knowing this would be the last time they would enjoy each other’s company.
“I’ve come to say goodbye,” he said. “I don’t agree with your plan, but I promise to follow your wishes.”
The men stood up from their chairs. Guido embraced them both, kissing each man on the cheek. “Arrivederci,” he said, and with a shrug of his shoulders, left the patio.
The sommelier returned with a pair of wine glasses and the burgundy. He opened the bottle in the presence of both men. Before he could pour…
“Thank you, sommelier. Please stop. I want to pour. And please close the doors as you leave.”
The first old man poured half a finger of wine into his glass. He lifted the glass to his nose and inhaled. Smiling, he took a sip, held the wine in his mouth for a couple of seconds, and then swallowed.
“Lovely, he said.” Then he filled both wine glasses. The second old man took a small plastic bottle from his jacket pocket. He removed the lid and shook out four pills onto the tablecloth. Then, with a pair of carefully manicured fingers, he deftly pushed the pills to the other side of the table.
“After they dissolve and we drink, we’ll have five minutes to enjoy the wine before its effects render us unconscious. Then, almost immediately and painlessly, our respiration stops, and shortly after that, we are gone.”
The first man dropped two pills into each glass. He pushed one of the glasses across the table in front of this friend.
“This will certainly be an improvement to living in a hospice for three or four weeks, increasingly medicated, semi-conscious, tubed, and catharized.”
“Yes, how can we complain after 86 years of life?”
Lifting their wine glasses, the old men made their last toast, “Fina alla morte.”