top of page
THD Oral History Project Logo



Born in 1942, Rita grew up in North Beach when nearly everything about the neighborhood was Italian. Her parents, immigrants from Calabria, turned an empty lot next to their house into a farm, where they raised vegetables and poultry. Like most people in the neighborhood, she was a regular at Saints Peter and Paul Church, and she attended Catholic schools before starting a 50-year career as a nurse. Rita and husband Blaine Ellis have a son, and in 1984 they moved into the same house at 2048 Stockton Street where Rita was raised. Rita and Blaine now divide their time between San Francisco and New Mexico, where they built a home. When in North Beach, they enjoy spending time with friends from the neighborhood.

Transcript: Rita Pisciotta (1942- )


The following oral history transcript is the result of an interview with Rita Pisciotta on August 8 and August 15, 2022. The interview was recorded at her home at 2048 Stockton Street in San Francisco, California. The interview was conducted and transcribed by John Doxey, manager of the Telegraph Hill Dwellers Oral History Project.

Format: Originally recorded on a Canon XA11 camcorder. Duration is approximately one hour, 22 minutes.

Attribution: This interview transcript is property of the Telegraph Hill Dwellers. Quotes, reproductions and excerpts must be cited as follows: Oral history interview with Rita Pisciotta, August 8 and August 15, 2022, Telegraph Hill Dwellers Oral History Project.

Summary: Born in San Francisco in 1942, Rita Pisciotta grew up at 2048 Stockton Street with her three brothers. Rita’s parents, Alfredo and Ana Pisciotta, emigrated from Calabria to San Francisco in 1933. Her neighborhood was largely populated by Sicilian fishermen and their families and bordered the industrial zone that stretched northward from Francisco Street to the Bay. Rita attended local Catholic schools and then Providence School of Nursing in Oakland, which prepared her for a 50-year career as a nurse. This work began in 1963 at San Francisco General Hospital, where she worked until 1970. After living in Italy for two years with her first husband, Rita returned to the Bay Area and resumed her nursing career, while living in Mill Valley and later in Guerneville. She spent much of her career as an intensive care unit (ICU) nurse at California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco, work that she found deeply rewarding. Rita met her current husband Blaine Ellis in the early 1970s, and they have a son Doniel. Rita and her family returned to live in North Beach in 1984 – in the same house where she grew up. Since retiring in 2014, Rita has stayed active with personal interests, such as learning to play the harp, and she and Blaine now divide their time between San Francisco and New Mexico, where they built a home. When in North Beach, Rita and Blaine enjoy spending time with their friends from the neighborhood.

In this interview, Rita speaks of growing up in the 1940s and ‘50s at the intersection of Stockton and Francisco streets; her parents’ move in 1933 from Calabria to San Francisco, where her father’s brother was living on Telegraph Hill; how her paternal grandparents moved to San Francisco around the turn of the 20th century but returned to Italy soon after the 1906 earthquake; the small agricultural town in Calabria where her parents were raised; how her neighborhood was comprised mostly of Sicilian fishermen and their families; how her street formed a boundary, with the area north of Francisco heavily industrial; sounds and smells from her childhood neighborhood, including the musty smell of the nearby malt factory and the smell of homemade wine fermenting in neighborhood basements; the empty lot next to her home, which her family turned into an urban farm complete with vegetable garden, ducks and chickens, and a peach tree; her father’s jobs as a janitor after arriving in San Francisco, a pipefitter at Hunters Point Naval Shipyard during World War Two, and later as owner of an upholstery business; her family’s home in Woodacre in Marin County, where her family spent summers escaping San Francisco’s fog; Saints Peter and Paul Church as a unifier of Italians from different regions; attending school at Presentation Grammar School on Russian Hill, then transferring to the school at Saints Peter and Paul after Presentation was closed by construction of the Broadway Tunnel; attending Presentation High School and hanging out with the Irish boys from Archbishop Reardon High School, including fun times at Montara State Beach and the Laguna Seca race track; trying to look hip when visiting the Co-Existence Bagel Shop and other Beat hangouts in the late ’50s; the sound of shortwave radios in the Sicilian homes she visited, which wives used to communicate with their husbands’ fishing boats; how her parents pushed the use of English rather than Italian at home; attending Providence School of Nursing in Oakland, then starting work as a nurse at San Francisco General Hospital in 1963; playing as a child among the nearby ruins of Toland Medical College, a precursor to the UCSF School of Medicine; how her mother rescued a child from a burning house in 1953; her father’s winemaking in North Beach and Woodacre; moving to Italy in 1970, where she lived for two years with her first husband in Perugia and Calabria; living in Mill Valley in the early ‘70s, where she met photographer Blaine Ellis, her current husband; working for more than 35 years as an ICU nurse at the California Pacific Medical Center; how working a part-time schedule allowed time for raising her son Doniel and a satisfactory work-life balance; returning to North Beach in 1984 and the house where she grew up at 2048 Stockton Street; splitting time in recent years between San Francisco and New Mexico, where she and Blaine built a house; enjoying her retirement, which allows time for playing the harp and spending time with friends in North Beach.

Note that an oral history of Rita’s father, Alfredo Pisciotta, was recorded in 1996 and is available on THD’s website at

Rita Pisciotta has had opportunities to review the transcript and has made corrections and emendations. The reader should keep in mind that he or she is reading a transcript of spoken, rather than written, prose.


JOHN: This is John Doxey and I’m sitting with Rita Pisciotta in her home at 2048 Stockton Street in San Francisco's North Beach district. This is our interview for the Telegraph Hill Dwellers Oral History Program. Rita. I think it would be nice if we started off today talking about growing up in this neighborhood. This is the very house in which you grew up. Is that right?

RITA: [00:01:49] Yes, yes. I would like to talk about it.

JOHN: OK. And so maybe if you could tell me the year you were born and were you actually born in this house or were you born in a hospital? And this is the home where your parents were already living, right?

RITA: [00:02:07] I was born in 1942, May of 1942. My parents were living in this house. I was born in Saint Francis Hospital here in San Francisco. I grew up in this house with three siblings. And when I was, I think, around 12 years old, my father built the house next door and the family moved next door. And we rented this flat.

JOHN: Was this … this home pre-dated your parents, though? This is…

RITA: Oh, absolutely. This house was built in … just after the earthquake in 1908, after the 1906 earthquake. So it's over 100 years old, and it's doing very well. It has been through several earthquakes. Not the ‘06 one, of course.

JOHN: Was it built by Italian craftsmen, do you think?

RITA: [00:03:06] I don't think so, because I have some of the old records from the city, and they were not initially … I don't think they were Italian. I can't be sure. I can't find those records, I'm gonna have to go back to the archives in the city and find out. But initially, from what I can understand, I think this was initially just two stories. Right now it's a three-story building, and initially it was two stories. And then they added, I think they added this floor, which is the top floor, because the wainscotting and the wood design is a little different than the downstairs. So I think the downstairs might be the older section. And this was added later. I don't know exactly when. [Traffic noise in background here.]

JOHN: And your parents came from Calabria, right?

RITA: [00:03:56] That's right.

JOHN: And was it 1933?

RITA: [00:04:00] They came to San Francisco in 1933. My mother was actually born in New York, in the Bronx. Because at that time, at the turn of the century, my grandparents on both sides came to America. My maternal grandmother and grandfather came to New York. And that's … where my mother was born. When she was five, they returned to Italy because they were by that time, they were considered quite wealthy. They were able to return to the village and build a very nice house. And so she was actually five when she went back. My paternal grandparents came to San Francisco because there were many, many relatives and friends who had moved to this district, lived on Telegraph Hill. So my father's father and mother came here at the turn of the century, and they were here for the earthquake in San Francisco. And my grandmother was terrified by the earthquake. You know, they had to move off the hill. I think they were probably living in tents in the park. And she said, “Get me out of here. I'm gonna go back to Italy. Don't ever … [chuckles] I'm not coming back.”

JOHN: There's no earthquakes in Italy after all.

RITA: [00:05:22] Oh, yeah, right. [chuckles] Southern Italy. Yeah, there's a few. So my grandfather said, “OK, if you go back to Italy, you're never coming back here. I will not bring you back.” And he did not. He came back, but she never came back. And he returned, and so my father was actually born in Italy. And his father returned to San Francisco and never returned to Italy until my father was 16. So he was here for about 15 years while my father was growing up.

JOHN: What was the town where your mother and father…?

RITA: [00:05:57] Oh, it's called San Sosti. S-A-N  S-O-S-T-I. San Sosti. It's in the mountains as crow flies it’s probably only 20 miles [chuckles] but it's a long, you know, hour’s drive from the coast because it's a windy, windy road. And I did live there in Italy for a while. [Transcriber’s note: San Sosti is a comune in Calabria, southern Italy. As of 2011, the town had a population of 2,126 people.]

JOHN: What sort of … what's the main industry? What did your family do, your ancestors?

RITA: [00:06:24] Agriculture. Although it is in the mountains … so, I mean, they didn't have, you know, land with wheat or anything like that. It was mostly fruit, figs. Fig trees and fruit trees and big vegetable gardens.

JOHN: And they would take their produce and sell it in a larger city or...?

RITA: [00:06:49] No. No. I mean…

JOHN: Just for local consumption?

RITA: [00:06:51] It was for local. That was my mother's side of the family. My father's side of the family had … a little bodega where my grandmother sold wine and, you know, like a salami. [chuckles] And they all had … ‘course they all had animals ‘cause they all made their own cheese…

JOHN: So we're jumping ahead a little bit. We're going to talk about the garden that your parents had in San Francisco. But do you think this is where they developed that … that sort of know how?

RITA: [00:07:27] Absolutely. Absolutely. It's a way of life back there, you know. They had their own gardens, they preserved their own meats, they made their own sausages, made their own cheese, even made their own soap.

JOHN: Wow!

RITA: And I’ll tell you that story later.

JOHN: OK. So when your father came to … first of all, he met your mother. And by the way, this is Alfredo Pisciotta we're talking about. And your mother was Anna, is that right?

RITA: [00:07:56] Yes. Her last name was Vidiri, which in Latin means to see. [chuckles]

JOHN: They met...

RITA: [00:08:03] …in Italy. They grew up together.


RITA: And she went back to Italy when she was five. They lived very close to one another in the village, just like half a block away from each other. So they grew up together.

JOHN: And how old were they when they decided to move to…?

RITA: [00:08:17] They came here in 1933. So my father was probably 22. My mother was 20, something like … let’s see 19...

JOHN: And they chose San Francisco rather than New York or other places where there's lots of Italians?

RITA: [00:08:34] Right. They chose San Francisco because my father's brother was living here. He had a brother that was living here in North Beach on Telegraph Hill. And that's why they came here.

JOHN: And they … did they come to initially to this house or did they stop … was there somewhere they lived before coming here?

RITA: [00:08:54] Yes, they lived up on Green Street. Up on the hill. Just down the street from … I can't remember the address, but it's between Montgomery … just below Montgomery on Green Street is where they lived when they first came here. And I think they lived there until they bought this house in 1939. In the middle of the Depression, they bought this house for $5,000. But my father had to get a loan to get it. [chuckles]

JOHN: At that time, what was your father doing?

RITA: [00:09:30] Oh, in in Italy my father was a tailor. And so when he came here, my uncle was also a tailor working here. So he worked with them. But my father had a story about when … when he initially, when he just had gotten here, I guess he had a janitorial job somewhere around Market Street. And it was at night, you know. He would go in there and do the … clean up the shop or whatever it was where he was a janitor. And he would walk home early in the morning. He would come through the Broadway Tunnel. Not the Broadway Tunnel, Stockton Street Tunnel. Of course, he didn't speak any English. And these two men accosted him, and he didn't know what they were saying to him because he didn't understand what they were saying. [chuckles] And so eventually he realized they wanted his money. Well, he didn't have any. He gave ‘em what he had, which was very, very little, and they went on their way. So when my father got home that morning, he said to his brother, “What does kill him mean?” [chuckles] So one of these burglars robbers said to the other, “Shall we kill him?” And the other one said, “Nah.”

JOHN: It’s a good thing he gave ‘em some money.

RITA: [00:11:02] [chuckles] So, yeah. So that was my father's story, you know. He remembered that word “Kill him,” whatever that meant.

JOHN: The Stockton Tunnel has always been a dodgy place.

RITA: [laughter]

JOHN: And so when they came here, ultimately and, you know, in 1939 and bought this home in … where we are right now, 2048 Stockton, were there a lot of other people from the Calabria … Calabrese people?

RITA: [00:11:34] Down here no. Most of ‘em were up on the hill. This was really very industrial. This was the end of the residential area. It was all industrial. [Transcriber’s note: Rita is referring here to Telegraph Hill.]

JOHN: [00:11:45] And going from here … by the way, just for listeners, this is on the corner of Stockton and Francisco. So Francisco north to the Bay, would it have been all industrial?

RITA: [00:11:58] Yes. Yes. Waterfront trains. There was the Belt Line that came right up half a block from the house, which I remember. And it came up Francisco Street as well. There was the Simmons factory. There was also on the corner of Bay and Francisco, or Bay and Stockton, was a company that produced oxygen and carbon dioxide. Big tanks. They were like probably about six, you know, the big six foot tall … and that's one of the sounds I remember growing up. The clanging of the … as they were moving these tanks at night, they would sound like bells clanging at night. 

[Transcriber’s notes: Per Wikipedia, the San Francisco Belt Railroad was a short-line along the Embarcadero that connected the Port of San Francisco to many waterfront docks and to industries and warehouses which were adjacent to the waterfront. It began as the State Belt Railroad in 1889, and was renamed when the city bought the Port of San Francisco in 1969. The railroad ceased operation in 1993.; Per Wikipedia, the Simmons Bedding Company is an American manufacturer of mattresses and related bedding products. The company was founded in 1870 in Wisconsin by Zalmon Simmons. As the company’s grew nationwide sales, it acquired manufacturing plants in San Francisco and other cities around the U.S. and Canada. The San Francisco plant was located on or near Francisco Street in North Beach, and Simmons later moved its northern California plant to San Leandro.]

JOHN: I'd love to … if you would just continue in that vein and tell me some of the other things that you remember as a child growing up in in North Beach. Other sounds and smells and things like that.

RITA: [00:12:56] OK. Sure. Of course, I just mentioned the clanging of the big canisters, which were like bells. And, of course, the sound of the foghorns.

JOHN: Which fortunately we still have.

RITA: [00:13:13] Yes, but not all of them. The one that was closest to us is the one that was at Aquatic Park. And now you don't hear them as much as … as I remember them.

JOHN: You mean they were much louder?

RITA: [00:13:28] Much louder, yes, because they were closer. Or there was one that was closer to us. So … and then another … the smell of North Beach as we walked to school in the morning, the cool morning in the fog, you would get this whiff of fermenting wine coming out of the cellars, ‘cause everybody was making wine for the family.

JOHN: Was that at a certain time of year, in the fall?

RITA: [00:13:53] Of course, it was in the fall. Yeah. After the harvest. But everybody made wine. And there was this wonderful, sweet, fermented smell. And there was always a cool smell coming from these … from the garages and the downstairs.

JOHN: What would the men … I assume it was the men who were making the wine, did they go and choose their grapes somewhere?

RITA: [00:14:20] Yes. Yeah, because obviously we couldn't grow anything here. Yes. They went to the vineyards up in Sonoma County and purchased truckloads. Big boxes of grapes.

JOHN: And how would they bring those here?

RITA: [00:14:38] Well, we went up and got them. They weren't delivered to us. We were, you know, we were poor. [chuckles] We went up and, you know, with a few friends with cars and, you know, brought the grapes back and pressed them in the basement here. I have my father's crusher and press in the backyard now.

JOHN: We'll take a look at those later, I hope.

RITA: Yeah.

JOHN: How did your father … had he learned winemaking from the old country or...?

RITA: [00:15:10] Of course. Well, I think I mentioned that his mother had a little bodega, a little shop where she sold wine. And my father talks about when he was a little boy, he would have to go to the next village with the donkey to get grapes or to bring wine. So the next village, you know, this is a very mountainous area, so he would bring the grapes or the wine or whatever he was delivering to the next village. And he would do that as a young man or a young boy for his mother's shop.

JOHN: There's a … there was a malt factory, isn’t that right? [Transcriber’s note: Per Wikipedia, the North Beach Malt House is a landmark building located at 445 Francisco Street. It originally served as a malting factory and brewery for 40 years. It was nearly destroyed in the 1906 earthquake. The owner at the time, George W. Bauer, rebuilt the Malt House using concrete and steel girders. His company, Bauer & Schweitzer, continued to supply malt to Bay Area breweries, including the Anchor Brewing Company, into the 1970s. Following its closure in 1981, the building fell into disrepair and was then used for the on-site filming of several movies and TV shows. The site was developed into condominiums in the mid-90s and began selling in 2001.]

RITA: [00:15:51] Oh, yes. Right. Well, yeah, you could still see it from the window here. The silos are still there. I could see the silos right now. The malt factory was just one-half block away. And the Beltway, I think it's called, the trains, they were smaller … oops, what’d I drop?

JOHN: You’re OK.

RITA: [00:16:15] Oh. [chuckles] The trains would actually come up to the malt factory, which is a half a block away up Francisco Street. And they would also come up Stockton Street because there was also … the main malt factory’s on Francisco, but there was a subsidiary of it here, a half a block away on Stockton. The trains would come up and the malt would be … there would have big shafts, and the malt would go down into these shafts and it would create a musty aroma in the air.

JOHN: Did you like that smell?

RITA: [00:16:56] Yeah. You know, you could smell it. And, you know, it's this warm, musty smell from the malt.

JOHN: Was that malt used to make beer?

RITA: [00:17:06] Beer. I was just looking at some of the historical sites, and there was a brewery down on Mason and Francisco. Oh, but that was in the 1800s. Maybe that's where it all started, I don’t know...

JOHN: What year was it then, or approximately when was it, that that Beltline or, you know, the trains stopped coming?

RITA: [00:17:26] I don't remember. I can't tell you. But it stopped coming when I was quite young, probably in the … I’d say about 1950.

JOHN: After the war and…

RITA: [00:17:38] After the war...

JOHN: …the rise of the automobile I suppose.

RITA: [00:17:40] Yes, after the war. I don't remember the trains coming up. But the tracks were there for a long time. So it was after the war, in the 1950s.

JOHN: And can you tell me more about the garden? I'd say it was a famous garden in the neighborhood. I've heard a lot about it.

RITA: [chuckles]

JOHN: Pisciotta garden. So as I understand it … the address where we are right now is 2048. And what was the address of the lot that was…?

RITA: 2060.

JOHN: 2060. And at that time when you were very young, it was just an empty lot, right? [Transcriber’s note: In 1939, Alfredo and Anna Pisciotta bought a property at 2048 Stockton Street, where they raised Rita and her three brothers. They also bought a then-undeveloped lot at 2060 Stockton Street, which became a small urban farm complete with chickens, rabbits, ducks and a large vegetable garden. The Pisciottas later built a house on the 2060 Stockton Street property that covers much of the farm, but still leaves a backyard garden space.]

RITA: [00:18:15] Yeah, the whole length of it. And it's a 70 foot … 50-by-70-foot lot, a big lot. And we had rabbits, chickens, ducks and a nice big organic garden and a peach tree. It's the only fruit tree we had was this peach tree.

JOHN: Did you get sweet peaches?

RITA: Hmm?

JOHN: Were the peaches sweet?

RITA: [00:18:32] Well, they were. And to this day, my favorite fruit is peaches. [chuckles]

JOHN: That's … given the climate in San Francisco. But I guess North Beach is a nice climate so...

RITA: [00:18:41] Yeah. I have two fig trees in the back that my father planted. But he planted … he didn't have those there when I was growing up in the ‘40s and ‘50s. He probably planted ‘em in the ‘60s. They’re quite large now.

JOHN: So what percentage of your … the food that your family ate was grown in the garden?

RITA: [00:19:05] Oh, well, probably most of the meat, you know, whether it's rabbit or chicken or duck. So I'd say probably 80 percent of the protein was probably from the garden. Now being in San Francisco, we are limited on what we could grow because of the climate. I mean, we couldn’t grow corn or anything. Not that Italians grow corn. [chuckles] But green vegetables, you know, and beans. Tomatoes, not that well. But later on my parents bought a house in Marin, and that's where we could grow tomatoes.

JOHN: And what was your role in terms of the garden? Did you have chores that you were doing?

RITA: [00:19:50] I was the only girl, and there were three boys. But I was the only one that really got involved with any of that. I actually used to help my father slaughter the animals. Which most people think, “Oh my God, how could you do that as a kid?” Well, yeah, you just did. [chuckles] So that's what I remember about mostly is helping my dad.

JOHN: Was your dad the one who did most of the work in the garden, or was your mom also doing…?

RITA: [00:20:23] No, I think they did it together. And the same with raising the animals. We did at one point have a lamb that we brought eventually to Marin County. We only had the lamb here for a short time.

JOHN: What is your order in terms of birth order with your…?

RITA: [00:20:41] I’m the second oldest. My oldest brother has passed away.

JOHN: And you have two other brothers?

RITA: [00:20:48] Yeah. And the brother after me … there's only two of us left. The third child after me recently passed away. And then I had my baby brother, who actually lives in Marin in the house that was our country home.

JOHN: Did all of you stay in the Bay Area or Northern California?

RITA: Mm-hmm. Yeah.

JOHN: It sounds like a close family.

RITA: [00:21:13] Yeah.

JOHN: Let's continue a little bit more on your father. After working as a tailor, and you said he had some janitorial work when he came, I think he worked in the naval shipyard, didn't he? [Transcriber’s note: Alfredo Pisciotta worked on submarines at Hunters Point Naval Shipyard during and for a few years after World War Two.]

RITA: [00:21:34] Yes. Don't forget, this is World War Two. And he … by that time, he had become a citizen and, you know, he had a family. So they didn't draft him. So he worked during the war at the naval shipyards, and he worked on submarines. He was a little man. So he could crawl into these … he did the pipefitting for the submarines. And what was interesting about that is that … when the submarines were completed … they would have a maiden run. And I can remember my father said that they had all the people that … or the men that had … or at least some of the men that had worked on the ship go on the run. And, you know, it was like a test run. [laughter] [Transcriber’s note: helicopter noise in background here.]

JOHN: Guinea pigs. [chuckles]

RITA: Right. [chuckles] If it failed, it was their fault I guess, I don't know. But yeah, my father did do that. He went on a maiden run on one of these submarines during the war.

JOHN: Just for the record, I should say that this Telegraph Hill Dwellers Oral History Project did an interview with your father, and you and your mother were also present. And that was done in 1996. And so some of these stories were told, but I think you're telling them in a more clear way in some ways. [Transcriber’s note: the transcript of an oral history interview with Alfredo Pisciotta, recorded in 1996, is available at]

RITA: Right. [chuckles]

JOHN: And I do remember one funny thing from that, him talking about his work on the submarines, is that he was given this kind of a proclamation or something from the Navy, which was pretty funny.

RITA: [00:23:16] Right. Yeah, it was very elaborate, you know, and … did you get a picture of it?

JOHN: No, but let's … we'll get a picture of that later.

RITA: [00:23:28] I can't find it. I think maybe my brother might have it. I can't find it. But it always hung in the hallway here, you know, framed. I mean it was like … my father was very proud of it. [chuckles] But it was kind of done in a tongue-in-cheek kind of thing because it said, you know, Alfred Pisciotta went to Davy...

JOHN: Davy Jones locker.

RITA: [00:23:52] Right. Yes, exactly. [chuckles] I think during that interview she read … didn’t she read it?

JOHN: There was … yeah, I believe it was read into the interview. So we can find the language there.

RITA: [00:24:05] Yeah.

JOHN: So around what year was it that your family got a … was it a kind of a second home or a summer home in Marin County?

RITA: [00:24:13] Yeah, in the San Geronimo Valley on the way, you know, past Fairfax, on the way to Point Reyes. In Woodacre. At that time, most of the Italian families had summer homes in Marin. You know, when we’d get out of school in June, we'd spend the next three months at our summer home. That's what everyone did.

JOHN: Just to get away from the fog and…?

RITA: [00:24:38] Yeah. ‘Cause, you know, it was foggy and cold. But it was always warm and pleasant in Marin. But that was not unusual. I think you asked me about the neighborhood, if there were any Calabreses in the neighborhood. Not here, but these were all Sicilian fishermen. All. I can … to this day, I can look at every one of those houses down Francisco Street and tell you what Sicilian family name was in that house.

JOHN: Are some of them still … the families still around?

RITA: [00:25:11] There's few of us that are still around. [chuckles] There is one family, Ballestreris, still own a house up here. Yes. And another family … I think the great-granddaughter lives in it, I don't know. But, yeah, the Sabellas were across the street, the La Torres were across the street, the Biancas. They were all fishermen. [Transcriber’s notes: Sabella and La Torre, a seafood-focused restaurant at 2809 Taylor Street, was established in 1927 by Luciano Sabella, a Sicilian immigrant, and his son Antone. Per the restaurant’s website, after World War Two, Antone decided to sell the stand to his two brothers Frank and Michael Sabella and his two nephews Toni and Louis La Torre.]

JOHN: And did you … I don't know, did the people from different parts of Italy who lived in North Beach, they all get along pretty well?

RITA: [00:25:48] Yes. Primarily because of the church. That brought the Italians together. I mean, this is the Italian church, right? It wasn't just a Sicilian church. It wasn't just for the Calabrese. It was for the Italians. So that community brought everybody together. The language, of course, was different ‘cause Sicilians had a very, you know, they were...

JOHN: Their own dialect.

RITA: [00:26:12] They had their own dialect. We had our dialect. We could understand each other, but there was clearly, you know … and then the northern Italians, of course, spoke the pure Italian. [chuckles] They didn't have the dialect.

JOHN: Did the people from some of the northern European places … sorry, the northern Italian places, look down...?

RITA: [00:26:32] Look down. Yes, of course. At the southern Italians for sure. There is no question about that. I wasn't aware of that, but I knew it existed. I wasn't aware of it as a child. But in retrospect … and then I eventually learned, yes, the north looks down on the south without a doubt. And most of the families in this particular area were … I know I can't say most of them were southern Italian. There was pretty much a mix of all regions in Italy.

JOHN: Did you find many non-Italians living in North Beach at that time?

RITA: [00:27:14] My mother's best friend was a Greek woman. [chuckles] And, no. [chuckles] There were not many non-Italians, at least not in our community. I mean, it was pretty close community with the church and the activities in the school. All of us kids went to the school here. Some of the kids did go to public schools, but most of the Italian kids went to Saint Peter and Paul’s. [Transcriber’s note: Saints Peter and Paul Church is a Catholic Church located at 666 Filbert Street, directly across from Washington Square. It is administered by the Salesians of Don Bosco.]

JOHN: And did you go to the school that's affiliated with Saints Peter and Paul?

RITA: [00:27:55] Yes. Yes. All my brothers and all of us went to Saint Peter and Paul's and graduated from there.

JOHN: And were you part of the Salesian Boys’ and Girls’? [Transcriber’s note: The Salesian Boys’ and Girls’ Club, based at 680 Filbert Street, provides after-school activities, enrichment programs and services to kids and teens from the greater North Beach, Russian Hill and Chinatown communities. In 1994, the Salesian Boys' Club merged with its sister Girls' Club and the club came to be known as the Salesian Boys' and Girls' Club.]

RITA: [00:28:05] Well, there wasn't … when I was young, it was not the Salesian Boys’ and Girls’.

JOHN: It was only boys.

RITA: [00:28:11] It was only boys. And it was only girls. [chuckles] There was just a Salesian Girls’ Club and there was a Salesian Boys’ Club. It wasn't until much later that it became the Boys’ and Girls’ Club. Now that we're on that subject, the school originally was a boys’ school. I assume you know that. Yeah, it was originally a boys’ school. And those of us that went to Catholic school went to Presentation Grammar School, which was up on Mason and … I can't remember the cross street.

JOHN: Was it Broadway … on the other side of what's now the tunnel?

RITA: [00:28:51] Yes. As a matter of fact, when I was in the second grade they had to close down the school because the Broadway Tunnel was being built. And we were just right above. We were one block … what is the one block after that, is that Pacific?

JOHN: Broadway, Pacific.

RITA: [00:29:10] Yeah, so I think it was right on the corner of Mason and Pacific. And so they closed down the girls school because of the construction of the Broadway Tunnel. So we came down here to the Saints Peter and Paul's, and that's when it became boys and girls and became coed.

JOHN: And ever since then it’s been...?

RITA: [00:29:28] It’s been coed.

JOHN: It never went back to the girls going up to the...?

RITA: [00:29:31] No, they never re-opened that school. Yeah, but the high school I went to was run by the same nuns. Presentation. [chuckles]

JOHN: You went to Presentation High School? [Transcriber’s note: Presentation Sisters have provided education to Bay Area children since the gold rush. The Sisters operated Presentation High School in San Francisco from 1915-1991. This school was located at 2350 Turk Boulevard (at the corner of Turk and Masonic) from 1930 until its closing in 1991. This property was later acquired by USF.]

RITA: [00:29:41] Yes. Yeah. So, but … and I can't remember when. Well, if I was in the second grade … do you know when the...?

JOHN: The tunnel was built? I don't. [Transcriber’s note: Construction of the Broadway Tunnel began in 1950 and the tunnel opened in 1952.]

RITA: [chuckles]

JOHN: We can look that up. Where is Presentation High School, or was it?

RITA: [00:30:00] It was over on Turk and Masonic. Do you know where Lone Mountain is, up on the hill? Well, right below it was the girls’ high school. It is now part of USF.

JOHN: So it was run by the...?

RITA: [00:30:15] Presentation nuns.

JOHN: But the … isn't USF, it's a…?

RITA: Jesuit.

JOHN: Jesuit. So are the nuns there affiliated with the Jesuits at all?

RITA: [00:30:24] No. At that time there was Presentation High School. There was St. Ignatius High School that was run by the Jesuits. Presentation was run by the nuns, the Presentation nuns. And Holy Names … the Holy Names was up on the hill? No, no. Anyway, it was a private college for women. I can't remember the name of it. Do you know? It’s now part of USF.

JOHN: Lone, it was Lone Mountain. [Transcriber’s note: Lone Mountain College was founded in 1898 as Sacred Heart Academy in Menlo Park, which then became College of the Sacred Heart in 1921. In the 1930s, it moved to San Francisco and became San Francisco College for Women. It was located near the former Lone Mountain Cemetery. The school changed its name again to Lone Mountain College in 1969, at which time the college began admitting men and became co-educational. In 1978, the college was acquired by the University of San Francisco.]

RITA: [00:30:57] Lone Mountain! That's right. Holy Name is on the other side. Yeah, Lone Mountain. Yeah. So there was St. Ignatius, Lone Mountain and Presentation were all in the same area off Masonic. And there's a beautiful building right on … that was the nuns’ convent, which is now a college or something, right on the corner of Turk and Masonic. Beautiful structure.

JOHN: I know that building.

RITA: [00:31:24] Yeah. We have beautiful gardens between that … between the nuns’ house and the school were beautiful gardens for us students.

JOHN: We've talked some about your childhood. But as you moved through and became an adolescent and in high school and so forth, what are what are some of the memories or activities that you were active with?

RITA: [00:31:48] We used to … well, one of the things we did we used to go to beach parties at the Montara Beach over Devil's Slide, before it had the tunnel. That was one of my memories. Another memory we would go down to Laguna Seca to see the races. We traveled down. And this is when I'm, you know, junior and senior in high school. There’s a couple other things that we did as… [Transcriber’s notes: Montara State Beach is located eight miles north of Half Moon Bay on State Route 1; Per Wikipedia, Laguna Seca Raceway (now re-branded as WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca) is a paved road racing track used for both auto racing and motorcycle racing, built in 1957 near Salinas and Monterey.]

JOHN: Were there things in the neighborhood?

RITA: [00:32:19] No, because I didn't hang out with the boys in the neighborhood. I wasn’t interested in the Italian boys. [chuckles] I was interested in the Irish boys from Noe Valley that went to Riordan. [Transcriber’s note: Rita refers here to what is now called Archbishop Riordan High School, a Catholic school located at 175 Frida Kahlo Way in the Ingleside neighborhood. Riordan was an all-male school until it became co-ed in 2020.]

JOHN: What was the attraction of the Irish boys versus the Italian boys?

RITA: [00:32:36] Well, you know.

JOHN: Something different?

RITA: Something different. [chuckles] So that's how I got to … ‘cause I don't think the Italian boys were interested in going to, you know, Montara Beach parties or the Laguna Seca races. They were … North Beach boys stayed in North Beach.

JOHN: A little bit later in our conversation we’ll get around to talking about art and artistic communities. But when you were growing up, did you begin to develop interest in art? I mean, did you get some of that from your family?

RITA: [00:33:13] No. The only thing I was interested in or I got involved in I was part of the choir at the church. So I learned the Gregorian chants and I loved singing. Not that I was an accomplished singer, but I could participate in groups choral. That's probably the only artistic thing I did growing up. It wasn't until later on in life that I got...

JOHN: Were you still in the neighborhood in the ‘50s, though, when … you began to see more of the Beats coming in and…?

RITA: [00:33:47] Yes. And I can remember … I can remember. [chuckles] We were just high school kids, right. So we'd don our black stockings and our black turtlenecks trying to look like ... and we’d walk by the Bagel Shop. We didn't dare go in. [laughter] But I remember walking by the Bagel Shop and the Brighton Express. We could go into the Brighton Express. I don't know if you have heard about the Brighton... [Transcriber’s notes: Per SFGate, The Co-Existence Bagel Shop, located on upper Grant Avenue, served as a deli/eatery hangout where poets and intellectuals could stock up on caffeine, alcohol and food. It sometimes hosted open mics and performances, and poet Bob Kaufman wrote about it in “Bagel Shop Jazz.” The Bagel Shop closed in 1960.; the Brighton Express was a café on Jackson Street near Kearny.]

JOHN: I don't know the Brighton Express.

RITA: [00:34:15] It was on Jackson Street, and it was a little … it was very much like a New York bar. It was all brick, and it was a coffee shop. It was like one of the first coffee shops called the Brighton Express. And that's where we would go pretending we were Beatniks, drinking coffee. [chuckles]

JOHN: If your parents had known … I mean were the … I'm guessing that the Italians in the neighborhood were maybe a little more conservative and didn't appreciate some of these things.

RITA: [00:34:43] My parents were not like that. If anything, my father was probably … he accepted anybody. I mean, he was a very loving man, a very, very generous man. So … and they had many friends of different ethnic groups, you know. So no, my parents never...

JOHN: I guess we should go back to your father a little bit, because I guess he continued working at the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard into the ‘50s sometime. But then he opened his own business, his upholstery business.

RITA: [00:35:20] Right. Well, before he went … I don't know if I skipped a little segment there. He worked for Daini, a company called … an Italian from … a Calabrese, who was my godfather, had a very successful upholstery shop in San Francisco. And my father worked for him. And that's where he learned the trade. And that was when I was … that was probably … my father probably started working for him because I have some documentation, some papers in the late ‘30s. Yeah. Through the ‘40s until he went to the naval shipyard. He worked for, he worked as an upholsterer, and that's where he learned the trade. [Transcriber’s note: A good friend of Alfredo Pisciotta named Daini, who was also Rita’s godfather, ran a successful upholstery shop on Pine Street and invited Alfredo to work at this shop, where he learned the upholstery business.]

JOHN: And then after finishing with the shipyard, he went back to that?

RITA: [00:36:16] He built this house and included a little shop downstairs. But even before that, when we were still living here and he was working for the Daini company doing upholstery he was having like two jobs. He was working at the naval shipyard and he would do upholstery in the basement here. So he had basically two jobs.

JOHN: Did your mother ever do anything outside the house?

RITA: [00:00:24] Oh, yeah. When she first … I have some wonderful pictures of my mother … when she first got here, she worked at the Bemis Bag factory, which was down here on the waterfront. Are you familiar with it? Have you heard about it? [Transcriber’s note: The Bemis Bag Company was a national leader in the manufacturing and sale of bags and sacks used for housing flour, grain and other commodities. The company operated a San Francisco manufacturing plant at 1088 Sansome Street.]

JOHN: I don't know it.

RITA: [00:00:44] It was a company that made cotton bags for wheat. You know, the big bags for grain. And the women sewed these bags. They were all made out of cotton. Beautiful, colorful cotton. I actually have a piece of that fabric here that my mother made into an apron that I still have. [chuckles]

JOHN: That’s great.

RITA: [00:01:13] Yeah. So she worked when she first got here. She didn't have any children. Well, that's another story. When my parents were in Italy, they got married and in … let's see when’d they get married? ‘31, ’30. In 1930 they got married. They were in Italy, and she got pregnant. And they had always planned on coming to America ‘cause she was a citizen. Well, while she was pregnant she found out that if she had that child in Italy she would have to leave the child there. She could come to America with her husband, but she couldn't bring the child. She’d have to bring the child later. Or call for the child later ‘cause that child is an Italian citizen. They would have to go through that. So she’s six months, seven months pregnant, and they made a sudden decision to come to America because they didn't want to leave that child there. So they came here, and she actually had a stillborn. So she never…

JOHN: As I recall, they had a very harrowing trip over, a long ship ride.

RITA: [00:02:28] Yes. A long ship ride coming from Italy, stopping in North Africa. And my father and mother describing the women with their faces covered, you know, which was a real... [chuckles] I mean, they were from this little village and seeing all this exotic stuff in North Africa … when the ships stopped there. But anyway, she lost that child. So she was … she was, you know, she didn't have any children for several years. So she did work soon as she got here, and she worked at the Bemis Bag factory.

JOHN: You mentioned earlier the Simmons factory. What did they make?

RITA: [00:03:07] Mattresses.

JOHN: Oh, that's the Simmons mattresses?

RITA: Yes!

JOHN: I see.

RITA: [chuckles] Simmons mattresses. And I guess it burned down in the ‘60s. And that's when they moved, I think, to the East Bay and they built Akron and that whole development and the apartments. [Transcriber’s note: correct spelling of Akron is unconfirmed. Rita is referring to the commercial and housing development at Bay Street where the now-closed Safeway grocery store (at 350 Bay Street) was located. This was formerly the location of a Simmons mattress manufacturing plant.]

JOHN: So … oh, do you have any memories as a young person in North Beach of holidays? I've heard a lot of people talk about the Saint Joseph days and things. 

[Transcriber’s note: Per Italian Sons and Daughters of America, Saint Joseph Day (also known as the Feast of Saint Joseph) is celebrated across Italy on March 19 to honor Joseph, husband to the Virgin Mary and earthly father to Jesus. It is also the day in which Italy celebrates Father’s Day. The feast of Saint Joseph is more prominent in Southern Italy, particularly Sicily, where he is the Patron Saint, as Saint Joseph is credited with saving Sicily’s residents during a devastating drought. Celebrants often place a traditional altarorSaint Joseph’s Table in private homes, churches, social clubs and even cafes. Though celebrations of Saint Joseph’s Day are now less common among Italian-Americans than in earlier generations, it is something older Sicilians still take great pride in. The table is filled with gifts, both of food and sentimental ones, offered to the saint in thanksgiving for prayers answered. A vivid description of a Saint Joseph’s Day celebration can be found in the oral history of Frances Farruggia at]

RITA: [00:03:35] Oh, I'll tell you about the Saint Joseph. What's interesting about Saint Joseph is that the Sicilian women had had a devotion to Saint Joseph. The Calabrese didn't. But my mother's … a lot of my mother's friends were Sicilian. And they would have a special, you know, a gathering of women. Only women, no men. And I remember going with my ma. And it was all women, and they'd have all these candles and they would sing. And it was in reference to Saint Joseph. That's the only thing I know about Saint Joseph. And the only connection I have … just to Saint Joseph is through the Sicilian women Another thing I wanted to mention about my recollection growing up in North Beach is … all of the Sicilian women whose husbands were fishermen had radios, transmitters. And they would constantly have it on. What is It called? Shortwave. They would … dial into the shortwave. All their husbands were out there fishing. And that's how the fishermen would communicate with one another through shortwave. And the women at home could hear them. And so when you would go into a, you know, a Sicilian home, there was always the crackling of the sound of the shortwave radio. It was always on because the women were always listening for their husbands on there.

JOHN: That's a great detail.

RITA: [00:05:17] So there's another … there's an audio memory that I have of the crackling of the shortwave radios.

JOHN: Was the church an important part of your family's life?

RITA: [00:05:30] Oh, yeah. Absolutely. Even the…

JOHN: Did you go every Sunday to mass?

RITA: [00:05:35] Of course. Of course. [chuckles] Everybody did. It's like, why wouldn't you? [laughter]

JOHN: And that was the great unifier, as you said, of the neighborhood.

RITA: [00:05:46] Exactly. Exactly. It was. And, you know, all the celebrations and the, you know, the Columbus Day celebrations and things like that. My parents always had … whenever there was any kind of an occasion at the church or a church picnic or a community picnic, my parents my parents would have the Salami booth. They would have the wheel and you spin the wheel and put a quarter on the number. And they did that for years. That was their thing. [chuckles]

JOHN: Did people like, you know, your family as an example, or the neighborhood in a more general sense, have connections to San Francisco outside of North Beach, participating in more city-wide things as well?

RITA: [00:06:31] A very close friend of the family was the O’ Haras. Now, I don't know how much you know about San Francisco history, but there was a columnist called the Question, Man. Do you know the Question Man?

JOHN: I do remember the Question Man.

RITA: [00:06:48] [chuckles] OK. Well, she was a very dear friend of my parents. Novella. Did you know Novella? [Transcriber’s note: Novella O’Hara wrote the daily Question Man column, which appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle from 1964 to 1982.]

JOHN: No, but I understand that she used to stay at … or used to go to the New Pisa restaurant and question the customers.

RITA: [00:07:05] Yeah. And anybody on the street that was … Yeah, it was called the Question Man, but it was not a...

JOHN: That was a long running feature in The Chronicle, I believe.

RITA: [00:07:15] Yes! Yes. And they’re Irish. [chuckles] Her husband was Kenneth. And her son, you know, grew up with my one of my brothers. And whenever we would have a family dinner or Christmas or one of the celebrations, we'd always have it in … we’d clear out the shop. It was … it’s a big space. And we'd put this long, long table, and we'd have about 30 people and have Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving. And there was always at least 30 people, and they weren’t only just family … Novella was always there, the O'Haras and other families. So that's one area that my parents didn't just stay in, you know…

JOHN: Language would have been a bit of a barrier, though, right? Because your father, I think he'd learned English over the years…

RITA: Yes.

JOHN: But it was always, let's just say Italian was always his first language.

RITA: [00:08:16] Of course. Even for my mother. Even though she was born here and she … it was … but being raised in my family, I can understand Italian perfectly well. I can understand it because I heard it in the neighborhood. I heard my parents speaking to one another, speaking to the families. But they never spoke to us in Italian. So I can understand it, but I cannot speak it fluently. I can speak it, but not fluently because my parents didn't want us to … didn't want Italian to be our primary language. So English was our primary language.

JOHN: There was never any thought then that the family might return to Italy some day?

RITA: [00:09:06] No, no. It was … this was World War Two. Italians were not thought of too highly during World War Two. I don't know if you know the history of the Italian internment…

JOHN: Well, certainly…

RITA: Right? You know about. So I don't I need to explain that to you. So there was that element. You know, we’re in America, you speak English. You speak American. [chuckles]

JOHN: Was there, I mean, of course...

RITA: [00:09:33] So they spoke perfect English by the time I came along. I mean, they'd been married for many years before we came along. They were childless for quite a while.

JOHN: Did you … I heard somebody say once that you could tell what day of the week it was almost because you could smell everybody cooking the same things on the same days.

RITA: [00:10:01] Alright, that's true. Did you … well, it's the pasta sauce on Sundays. [chuckles] And I'll tell you a story about that one. I was taking an Italian class at the Italian Athletic Club. And the woman that was teaching it was … she was a teacher, very intelligent, very bright woman. And after class one day, she said, “Rita, I kind of don't understand why, you know, you don't speak better Italian. I mean, you grew up here in North Beach, your parents are Italians.” And I said, “Well, we didn't, you know, my parents didn't want us to be primarily Italian-speaking.” She said, well, her father was a lawyer. OK, they lived in the Marina. So she told me her story. She said they were so paranoid that whenever they would be on Sunday, when they're cooking the pasta and the sugo for the pasta, they would close the windows so the neighbors … this is the Marina, it wasn’t North Beach … so the neighbors would not know they were Italian. She told me that. And her … I think her father may have been interned or may have been arrested or questioned or something like that. I don't remember the full details. But they were very paranoid. We were not [chuckles] because they didn't come after, I mean, people like my parents. They went after the radio announcers, they went after lawyers. Those were the people. The intelligentsia is who they went after … who they watched.

JOHN: I'd heard from somebody else I interviewed that there was … and this might have been before World War Two actually broke out … but, you know, people large gatherings of people listening to Mussolini's addresses in parts of North Beach.

RITA: Yeah, I’m sure.

JOHN: I'm sure that attracted the attention of the authorities.

RITA: [00:12:09] Mm-hmm.

JOHN: So you went on to college after … immediately after finishing high school?

RITA: [00:12:20] Yes. After high school, I went on to nursing school in the East Bay. Providence College of Nursing, which was affiliated with Holy Names College up on the hill, which was a women's college, Catholic women's college. And after that, I started working at San Francisco General. I worked there... 

[Transcriber’s notes: Per Wikipedia, Holy Names University was a Catholic university in Oakland. It was founded in 1868 as Convent of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart by the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, with which the university remained affiliated until it closed in 2023. The original site of the convent was on the shores of Lake Merritt. By 1908 the convent began to offer classes at a post-secondary level and was renamed the College of the Holy Names. The school moved to its present location in the Oakland Hills in 1957. The school took its present name in 2004.; Per Wikipedia, San Francisco General Hospital (now formally known as the Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center) is a public hospital under the purview of San Francisco’s Department of Public Health. It serves as the city’s only Level 1 trauma center and is the largest acute inpatient and rehabilitation hospital for psychiatric patients in the city. The hospital is a safety net hospital additionally serving poor, elderly people, uninsured working families and immigrants. As of 2014, 92 percent of the patient population at ZFGH either receives publicly funded health insurance or is uninsured.]

JOHN: Right away? You got a job right out of college?

RITA: [00:12:49] Oh, yeah. It was never a problem getting a job for a nurse.

JOHN: And did you … did you specialize in a certain kind of nursing?

RITA: [00:12:55] Well, I started off in, yeah, not because I chose to, but I just kind of fell into it the neurosurgical unit, ICU, which is pretty heavy duty. Most of our patients [chuckles] were old guys that fell down, had … too many drinks and got subdurals. It was the General, you know, so we got a lot of that. We also got, you know, head wounds, stabs in the head, stuff like that. [chuckles] [Transcriber’s note: Rita refers here to subdural hematoma, a pool of blood between the brain and its outermost covering. A subdural hematoma can be a medical emergency and is often caused by a head injury strong enough to burst blood vessels. Age, blood-thinning drugs and alcohol abuse increase risk.]

JOHN: [00:13:28] Rita, let's, if you don't mind, take a short break here.


JOHN: [00:00:03] OK. This is John Doxey from the Telegraph Hill Dwellers Oral History Project, and I'm sitting with Rita Pisciotta. This is our second session together and today is Monday, August 15th, 2022. And we're sitting in Rita's delightful back garden, which I think we'll talk about. But Rita, I wanted to pick up on a couple of things from our last session that … more details about what it was like to grow up living in North Beach and, you know, more of the kind of visceral things, the sights and smells. And you had mentioned a few things that you had wanted to include but hadn't. So maybe you could tell me some of those.

RITA: [00:00:57] I think last time I talked about the shortwave radios and the … OK, so I won't mention that. But … and I think I also spoke about the sounds of the…

JOHN: The foghorns…

RITA: [00:01:13] The foghorns and the clanging of the big oxygen tanks.

JOHN: Right, you did.

RITA: I talked about that. The other real strong memory is of the fishermen. Because this section of San Francisco, or of North Beach, was primarily Sicilian fishermen. We were not Sicilians, we were Calabreses. [chuckles] We were probably the only Calabreses here. The rest of them all along Francisco Street were all fishermen. And one of my earliest memories is Mr. Bianca, who lived across the street. He was an elderly gentleman, old fisherman. And he'd sit out in a nice little wooden chair in front of his house mending his nets. And he would spread the nets all the way down the street, and he would be mending them.

JOHN: These were very large nets, right?

RITA: [00:02:02] Yes, they were huge. I mean, they were spread like halfway up the block. And he would be mending them by hand.

JOHN: What were the fish that they primarily use these nets to catch, do you know?

RITA: [00:02:14] I don't know. But I do remember them. They would occasionally accidentally catch an octopus in their nets. And so we always got octopus, which was one of my favorite foods. But, you know, probably mostly sardines. It depends what was running at the time. But they were big, huge, long nets that they would use at the time, which I think are not environmentally the thing to do right now. [laughter]

JOHN: So much of this area between say, between where we are now on the corner of Francisco and Stockton from basically northward toward the Bay from Francisco, was Sicilian fishermen in those days. Is that…?

RITA: [00:02:58] Just Francisco Street. Because after that, there were no private homes. It was all industrial.

JOHN: All industrial.

RITA: [00:03:08] So Francisco Street was really the…

JOHN: The boundary.

RITA: The boundary. There were … nobody was living beyond us, beyond Francisco Street. It was all industrial.

JOHN: Did you know anybody from the DiMaggio family?

RITA: [00:03:24] I didn't personally. No, no, I did not. Joe DiMaggio was, of course, older than me. [chuckles]

JOHN: Older and had gone off to the Yankees by the time you were...

RITA: [00:03:33] Yes. So, no, I did not know them. My family didn't know them.

JOHN: But a lot of other great ballplayers, I think, came through that community.

RITA: [00:03:45] Yeah, probably. But as a young girl, I was not interested in any of that kind of thing. [chuckles]

JOHN: What about … you had mentioned that growing up there was the just the foundations or ruins left of...?

RITA: [00:04:01] Oh, yes. Right up … just half a block up Stockton Street, on the corner of Pfeiffer and Stockton, was a concrete foundation. It was an empty lot with all these huge, big concrete foundations. As a child, I didn't know what that was. But that's where we played. It was a big empty lot. Come to find out, that was the Toland Medical School, which was the first … eventually it became part of the University of San Francisco … U.C. Medical Center. But it was the first educational medical center. And it was called Toland. 

[Transcriber’s note: Per Wikipedia, the UCSF School of Medicine is the oldest medical school in California and in the western United States. The school was founded in 1864 as the Toland Medical College by Hugh Toland, a South Carolina surgeon who found great success and wealth after moving to San Francisco in 1852. A previous school, the Cooper Medical College of the University of Pacific was founded in 1858, but entered a period of uncertainty in 1862 and joined Toland Medical College in 1864. In 1873 the college affiliated with the University of California. Toland Medical College was constructed in 1864 at North Beach at Stockton and Francisco streets, opposite the San Francisco City and County Hospital.]

JOHN: Dating from, I believe, the 1880s or something like that?

RITA: [00:04:43] Yes, yes. I think it started 1850s. And it wasn't here very long, but it was definitely the precursor to the medical school … up on Parnassus. Eventually, in the later … I think maybe … late 1850s they moved up to Parnassus. But it started right here. And so there were still the remains of those foundations when we were kids in the ‘40s.

JOHN: Presumably, maybe it was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake?

RITA: [00:05:14] Probably. Probably. It probably was…

JOHN: Because this area was heavily damaged.

RITA: [00:05:18] Absolutely. Absolutely. This house was built shortly after the earthquake. Two years after the earthquake in 1908. Yeah.

JOHN: Were there other smells?

RITA: [00:05:32] Yes. There was a bakery down at the corner. Venetian Bakery. And in the morning, you would have this wonderful aroma of baking French bread. It was Victoria … Venetian Bakery on Powell and Francisco Street, just down the street.

JOHN: The Venetians made their presence felt then?

RITA: [00:05:54] Yes.

JOHN: [chuckles]

RITA: But they didn't live here. [chuckles] It was primarily Sicilians in this part of North Beach. And then, of course, there was … I remember the peddler would come around. He would park his truck on Francisco Street and honk his horn, and … all the housewives, all the ladies would run out there and buy their vegetables from him. The vegetables we couldn't grow on our garden here … my parents had a garden … and he would come regularly and...

JOHN: Grown somewhere else in the Bay Area where it was warmer perhaps?

RITA: [00:06:32] Yeah. Probably. You know, I'm talking about the 1940s. So there were big agriculture … farms just like near South City. That was all agriculture, all those hills in the valley.

JOHN: All of what’s now Silicon Valley was…

RITA: [00:06:51] Oh, that area for sure. Yes. Orchards and, yeah. Yeah. Very different at that time.

JOHN: You showed me also a clip from I think it was the San Francisco Examiner that your mother was on the front page. Can you tell me a bit about that?

RITA: [00:07:08] Yes. Actually, it was my mother actually saved a little boy from a burning house right next door. So happens that the little boy's mother and my mother were very close friends, and they were always … my mother would be out on her porch and this woman would be down there and they'd be talking. And while they were talking, Mary Vella, who was a fisherman's wife, became hysterical. It turns out that she'd had some clothing near a heater in the hallway, and it immediately burst out in flames. And she was absolutely hysterical. And called 9-1-1. Or not 9-1-1, she called the fire department. My mother ran over and ran through the flames. Because the little boy, who was, I think, three at the time, was in the back bedroom. So she had to go through the flames to get to him. She got minor burns, but she was able to get the little boy out. And the house was totally destroyed. It was … a little cabin, it was quite beautiful. It was built in the late 1800s, and it was an all-wooden cabin. And it had a beautiful little porch in the front and a beautiful garden in the front. And it burned. But, yeah, my mother was a little heroine at the time. [chuckles] [Transcriber’s note: This event happened in 1953 and was reported in local newspapers.]

JOHN: That's a nice story. Very heroic.

RITA: Yeah.

JOHN: But the fire was contained? It didn't damage your home?

RITA: [00:08:41] No. Because that house was toward the back of the lot. Our house was toward the front. So it didn't … they were not adjacent at all. And they were like … so it didn't affect our house at all, but it totally destroyed that little house.

JOHN: This garden that we're sitting in is … it's very close to the garden that you…

RITA: Described…

JOHN: … that you had described previously that was much larger before the building was built on it. And so many of the fig trees and things were planted by your father probably.

RITA: [00:09:21] Yeah, my dad. The fig trees. We've got two large fig trees. But unfortunately here in San Francisco we have lots of figs on the trees, but it's never hot enough for them to…

JOHN: Really ripen.

RITA: To ripen. But they're quite beautiful and they're quite old, these trees. Yeah, we had a huge garden just next door before that house was built. Yeah.

JOHN: We'll take a look at it later, but the crusher that your father used to make wine is…

RITA: [00:09:52] It's right here in the garden.

JOHN: … sitting over here. I don't know if this. Well, if I move the camera around, will it capture this?

[Transcriber’s note: camera pans across crusher and other winemaking tools laying in Rita’s garden.]

RITA: [00:10:07] This is the crusher, and I would crush the grapes. And after they were crushed, we would put them or my dad would put them in the press, the wine press. It's behind that plant, I don't think you could see it. But there. So these are pieces … that are left from … my father's winemaking days.

JOHN: And did he make wine until the time he passed away? I mean, was he continuing?

RITA: [00:10:42] We continued to do it … as he got older, we did it at our place in Marin County. We had a place in Woodacre. And by that time, my father and mom were elderly. So the whole family got together and we did make some wine in Woodacre. But that was probably, let's see, that was like 40 … my son was probably one or two … no, by that time he was six. So it was about 40 years ago was the last time we made wine. And that was not here in the city but in Marin County. Yeah.

JOHN: And was it mostly red wine that he made or…?

RITA: [00:11:23] No, it would always be white grapes that he would buy up in Napa or Sonoma, you know. Sometimes we'd go up and we picked the grapes ourselves, which was always fun. We'd go up there, the whole family’d go up there, and we would go into the orchards. Because the vineyards would take the first, you know, they would go in there and take all the grapes. But there was always a lot of grapes left. So we would go up there after they've harvested their grapes, and then we would get what was left and use that for our wine.

JOHN: So thank you for these nice descriptions of what it was like to be here when you were younger.

RITA: Yeah.

JOHN: …in the ‘40s and ‘50s. And. And then what year was it that you finished high school?

RITA: [00:12:13] I graduated from high school in 1960.

JOHN: Sixty. Six-zero. And as you said earlier, you went to Providence College.

RITA: [00:12:24] Providence College of Nursing, which is … was in Oakland, affiliated with Holy Names College, which was a women's college up on the hill. So that's where I got … I became a nurse. And after graduation, I worked at San Francisco General. And that was like from … no, ‘63 I started at General. And it was shortly after I started there that we nurses actually had the first strike. I mean, nurses didn't strike in the ‘60s. [chuckles]

JOHN: What was the impetus for the strike?

RITA: [00:13:13] It was pay. And of course we were city employees ‘cause we were working for the county. So we actually went on strike, which was unprecedented at the time. And, you know, I don't even remember specifically, but I think it was staffing and pay.

JOHN: Isn't it interesting that that continues to be an issue?

RITA: Yes. [laughter]

JOHN: I think it was just today that the Kaiser mental health people went on strike over staffing issues.

RITA: That's right. Exactly. But that was unheard of at the time. Nurses would never do something like that. When I trained as a nurse, we were told that if a doc … if you're sitting there charting and a doctor walks in the room, we nurses stand up and give that doctor our seat. That's the way we were trained. Well, it's not like that today. [chuckles]

JOHN: And you began to see how long you were working at General. How…?

RITA: [00:14:19] I worked at General for about 10 years. Then I moved to Italy, lived in Italy for a couple years. My husband at the time was on the G.I. bill. So he was studying art and literature in Perugia. So we were in Perugia, Italy for a while. And then at my family's small village in Calabria and lived there for a while. And then came back.

JOHN: When you were there, did you work at all?

RITA: [00:14:56] No, I did not. No.

JOHN: Did you … can you tell me how many children you have?

RITA: [00:15:02] I have one son.

JOHN: One son?

RITA: Mm-hmm.

JOHN: And his name?

RITA: [00:15:07] Doniel.

JOHN: Doniel.

RITA: [00:15:09] And I have two grandchildren.

JOHN: And did he … was he born when you were in Italy?

RITA: [00:15:14] No, no, no. I remarried. My son is … I had my son with my second husband.

JOHN: With Blaine?

RITA: [00:15:25] Yes.

JOHN: And what is Blaine's last name?

RITA: [00:15:27] Ellis.

JOHN: Blaine Ellis.

RITA: [00:15:30] Yes.

JOHN: He's a very nice guy and a very accomplished photographer. [Transcriber’s note: Blaine Ellis is a San Francisco-based photographer whose work appears in numerous public and private collections, including the Aaron Siskind Foundation Collection at the Rhode Island School of Design, the Museum Of Fine Arts, Santa Fe, New Mexico and the Bibliotheque National de France.]

RITA: [00:15:35] I think so. [chuckles]

JOHN: What was it that drew you to nursing?

RITA: [00:15:42] Oh, I remember very clearly what drew me to nursing in high school. In my senior year, I took an anatomy and physiology class, and the nun was just so … she was a wonderful teacher, and she got me hooked on anatomy and physiology. And that's when I decided I wanted to go into nursing. Of course, we're talking about the … late 1950s when I'm in high school. Do you know what kind of choices we had as young women? After we graduated from high school, you became a teacher, a nurse, a housewife or a nun.

JOHN: Or a secretary.

RITA: [00:16:28] Oh, yeah. Or a secretary. Those were the only choices we had. It's much different today … young women have a lot of choices to do other things. But those were our choices. And I chose nursing.

JOHN: A noble profession. And when you came back from Italy, did you resume working as a nurse?

RITA: [00:16:49] Of course. Yes. And then I was living in Mill Valley, and I worked … I started working for California Pacific up on Buchanan. And I worked there for many years. I finally retired eight years ago from California Pacific. [Transcriber’s note: Rita refers here to California Pacific Medical Center (CPMC), now owned by Sutter Health, a general medical/surgical and teaching hospital that currently operates three acute care campuses in San Francisco. With the opening of its Mission Bernal and Van Ness campuses, CPMC ended inpatient hospital and emergency services at its original two campuses – the Pacific Campus at 2333 Buchanan Street (originally Presbyterian Hospital) and the California Campus at 3700 California Street (originally Children's Hospital.)]

JOHN: And you described yourself earlier as critical care nurse. Is that like the ICU?

RITA: [00:17:18] It’s ICU. Critical care … yeah. I did…

JOHN: Is that what you specialized in?

RITA: [00:17:24] I did … over 50 years of ICU nursing. Toward the end, you know, after I had a child, I didn't do it full time. I would do … I was only doing it part time, which made it possible. But I stayed with the intensive care unit for 50 years.

JOHN: You must have found that work to be quite satisfying and rewarding?

RITA: [00:17:46] Rewarding. Very satisfying. Very challenging, very rewarding. I love dealing with not only the patients, but the families. And as medicine changed, nurses became more essential in the care and … of patients. Initially, when I first got out of school, it was the doctors that made all the decisions and all the input was strictly from the doctors. Eventually, nurses became a very integral part of the decision in planning care for these patients. The doctors listened to us. We were with the patients, you know, eight to 12 hours a day. The doctors weren't there. We knew these patients. So they listened to us and our input became very, very important. And that's changed a lot. That's the way it is today, and nurses are a strong, integral part of decision-making and patient care.

JOHN: Since you were there so long and you must have really risen in seniority, did you become kind of a manager?

RITA: [00:18:55] No, I didn't want to do that. I mean, I was, you know, charge nurse from time to time. No, because my priority was my family. I didn't want to get involved any more than that. So, you know, I would be a charge nurse from time to time, but I didn't want to get into management. It was not something that I aspired to.

JOHN: And was it a career that … as you just said, family was your top priority. So it gave you enough flexibility to…?

RITA: [00:19:24] Yes. Yes. And as I said, I only … I didn't work full time. I didn't work five days a week; I worked three days a week. So that gave me time for my work and time for being a mother and having a family.

JOHN: And what year was that? You said that you began your CPMC work when you were still in Mill Valley, right?

RITA: [00:19:49] When I got back from Italy, which would have been 1971 or ‘72.

JOHN: What year was it that you transitioned back from Marin County to San Francisco?

RITA: [00:20:03] Oh. No, I went from Marin County, Mill Valley … then I moved, we bought a house in Guerneville. And that's where my son was born. And we were there for 10 years. And then when one of the apartments here in the city became available, my husband said, “Time for us to go back to the city.” And that was in 1984 I returned to the city. So I basically left San Francisco and the home 1969 and came back in 1984.

JOHN: Had you been perhaps at least in the back of your mind, looking for an opportunity to get back into … particularly this neighborhood, North Beach?

RITA: [00:20:55] Absolutely. I mean, you know, this is…

JOHN: And the timing was right.

RITA: [00:20:59] Yeah, the timing was right. And one of the apartments came available, I said, “We're moving.” [chuckles] So we came back. Yeah.

JOHN: And did you buy a unit or are you renting?

RITA: No. My parents…

JOHN: Oh, it was from … your parents were still alive?

RITA: [00:21:13] Yes, my parents were still alive. And we came and lived in this … the flat that I'm in now. So I've been in this flat since 1984.

JOHN: And did any of your siblings cohabitate here? They had all left and…

RITA: Yeah.

JOHN: Yeah. And now you and Blaine are the owners of this building. Is that correct?

RITA: [00:21:34] Well, it was left to me and my brothers and our descendants.

JOHN: But there's two units in your home. So is the other unit rented to...?

RITA: [00:21:48] My niece is there now.

JOHN: Your niece is there now?

RITA: [00:21:50] Yeah, that's right. You just asked me [chuckles] … my niece is living there now. But they just bought a house in Marin [chuckles] so they're leaving. Yeah. So I'll be the only family member. The rest of the units are being rented. Will be.

JOHN: Are both of the buildings, then, both of the addresses in your family?

RITA: [00:22:11] Yes.

JOHN: I see.

RITA: Both buildings belong to the family, and they still do.

JOHN: And did you maintain, after you returned to this neighborhood, the Guerneville home for some time, or did you let that go?

RITA: [00:22:24] Well, no, we kept it.

JOHN: You kept it.

RITA: We kept it. And eventually we bought a house in New Mexico. Built a house there because we thought that would be fun. Bought some bare land and we literally built the house.

JOHN: [00:22:35] Would you like your sunglasses?

RITA: [00:22:36] Yes, I think I should wear them. [laughter] Yes. Ah, that’s better.

JOHN: Very stylish. So you have … do you still have the Guerneville home?

RITA: [00:22:50] No. We sold that and we bought another property in New Mexico.

JOHN: And is that near Santa Fe?

RITA: Mm-hmm.

JOHN: And you spend several months a year there now, or...?

RITA: [00:23:01] Yeah, maybe four months a year.

JOHN: What are some things that you have taken up as activities or hobbies, if you will, since going into retirement?

RITA: [00:23:12] Well, I've always … I've always had a lot of craft. I have a big, large loom, so I've done a lot of weaving … but about 10 years ago, just before I retired, I was in the ICU and I heard this lovely, lovely music. And I thought, “Where is that beautiful music coming from?” And I turned around and here's this young woman playing a harp for the patients, for my patient. And I thought, “Wow, that's really … how wonderful.” And I started asking her about what she was doing. And she was … a therapeutic harpist coming to the hospital and playing for the patients.

JOHN: That's very nice.

RITA: And it turns out that she was also teaching therapeutic harp. And I thought, “Wow!” So I started … I decided I was going to learn the harp. So I play the harp now. Not well [chuckles] but I do play the harp. I've never played an instrument, ever played an instrument. So I had to learn everything about music, how to read music. The only the only experience I had with music was when I was in school singing in the choir, learning the Gregorian chants. [chuckles] But that was … my only experience with music was vocals, chorales. But never really understanding music or music theory. So that I've taken up in the last year. [Transcriber’s note: sounds of passing airplane and a crow in background here.]

JOHN: Do you think you'd like to do something therapeutic with it?

RITA: No. [chuckles]

JOHN: Or just for your own enjoyment?

RITA: [00:24:48] Well, yes, it is therapeutic for me. [chuckles] But no, I am not comfortable enough to be playing for patients or someone else.

JOHN: That's a great … thing to be doing though. What are … some other things I think that I've noticed about you is that you have a very close circle of friends, od people who live in the neighborhood.

RITA: [00:25:13] Yes. Most of our friends are artists. Most of them are local. We've known them for years. So there's a little enclave of us that still remain. My husband worked at the Spaghetti Factory with several of the artists that are still living in the area. And that was back in the ‘60s when he lived at … worked at the Spaghetti Factory. So, yes, it's a very close community. And that's why I really love living here. I mean, we walk to the park every day and I always bump into somebody. And it's really like a village. North Beach is like a village. And so it still maintains that sense of being a small community, you know people. And then we have this wonderful park. So … and when you when you think about the European villages, they always have a center and a church and the community around it. And that's very much like this. So I think of it as a village. 

[Transcriber’s note: Per the San Francisco Planning Commission and the San Francisco Chronicle, the Old Spaghetti Factory, located at 478 Green Street, was a cafe, cabaret and restaurant owned and operated by Frederick Kuh from 1955 to 1984.In the heyday of the Beatnik period, from the mid-'50s until the early '60s, the place was renowned not only for serving bargain-priced pastas but was an incubator and magnet for local artistic talent.]

JOHN: It strikes me that if you structure your life right, if you don't have a job that's in another county or something crazy like that, you can really just do everything within walking distance.

RITA: [00:26:33] Yes. Absolutely. Yeah … I mean, I only take my car if I have to leave the city to go see my grandson or my son. But otherwise I don't need it here in the city.

JOHN: Where does your son live?

RITA: [00:26:47] He lives in Marin County.

JOHN: He does.

RITA: [00:26:48] Yeah.

JOHN: And he has a son?

RITA: [00:26:50] He has a son and a daughter. So I have a granddaughter and a grandson. My grandson is 10, my granddaughter is 18. She's up at Humboldt College, just started her sophomore year.

JOHN: You mentioned that you had spent with your first husband some time in Italy, Perugia…

RITA: Mm-hmm.

JOHN: …while he was pursuing artistic studies. And then you had gone to Calabria. And is that a place that you continue to visit, your ancestral home you might say?

RITA: [00:31:36] Yes, we have gone … and ‘cause I still have aunts and uncles and mostly cousins that are still there. Actually, I only have one uncle that's still there.

JOHN: Do they ever come and visit you here?

RITA: [00:31:49] Yes. Yes. One of my cousins … a couple of my cousins have come here … ‘cause I have family in Australia, too. I think I mentioned that earlier that a lot of Italians went to Australia ‘cause they couldn't come here in the ‘50s. So yeah, I have cousins … that are from Australia that have come visit, and those from Italy as well. And my uncle came, too. Yeah.

JOHN: It's nice.

RITA: Yeah.

JOHN: Well, is there anything else that we haven't covered?

RITA: [00:32:20] I don't think so. I think we've pretty much got everything, yeah.

JOHN: Well, let's … I want to thank you so much for taking time.

RITA: [00:32:25] This has been fun. Thank you.


bottom of page