Wednesday, February 25, 2009

North Beach Extravaganza!

Last Wednesday my ESF class embarked on our first of six planned field trips, destination—North Beach. Our group, 18 in all, met at City Lights Bookstore, a haven for tourists and city dwellers alike. City Lights is not only one of the most famous bookstores and publishers in the country, but it is also home to the poets of the Beat generation.

Drawn by the bohemian atmosphere, the beat generation began around 1950 with Jack Karouac, Alan Ginsberg, Neil Cassady, and Willian S. Burroughs in New York but the beat movement really took root in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood which provided inexpensive housing and beat hangouts like Vesuvio Café. The literary epicenter of the Beat movement was City Lights Booksellers and Publications who published Alan Ginsberg’s famous poem “Howl.” The beat author reading at the Six Gallery in San Francisco, along with an article, written by Karouac’s friend John Clellon Homes for the New York Times Magazine, dubbed “This is the Beat Generation” and by the late 1950s beats were flocking to San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood.

We strolled down Broadway Street, the main drag in North Beach, toward the chosen restaurant, Bocce Café. Cameras and notebooks in hand, I don’t doubt we looked like a bunch of tourists, which we most definitely are not. As we approached the restaurant hundreds of tiny flashes illuminated the storefront from the cameras of excited media students searching for the best angle.
An Italian flag door and enchanting walkway, lined with beautifully groomed trees and tiny white lights, led up to what we hoped would be the authentic North Beach destination we were looking for. The wooden sign, decorated with grapes and vines, should have served as an early warning to the inauthenticity of the meal, as there is a shocking resemblance to the sign at Olive Garden.

Our gaping table lined the far wall of a nearly empty restaurant. The ambiance of Bocce far outweighed the taste of the penne I ordered, but maybe I’m being unfair. Beautiful mirrors, old bottles of wine, dried garlic and peppers, and wood beams created a wonderful atmosphere. The table was buzzing with conversation as we ordered, ate delicious Italian bread, drank some cheap white wine, and waited in anticipation for the meal we were about to dissect.

When my penne with fresh tomatoes and roasted garlic arrived, I was thrilled, as I had fasted all day in preparation for my Italian feast. Maybe it’s an American thing (which the movie our class watched, Big Night, suggested cheese is), but as soon as my plate was set in front of me, I began searching for the fresh Parmesan cheese. Much to my dismay, the cheese was not fresh my any means, but was crumbled processed cheese, most likely from a nearby supermarket.

Although my meal wasn't as satisfying as I had anticipated, the wonderful service and conversation more than made up for it. North Beach is full of restaurants trying to be Italian, while also trying to please American customers. American customers who tend to like their food fast and familiar. Maybe it's time for us to slow down and really look at what we're eating, whether it's at a hokey Italian restaurant or at home. Stay tuned.