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November 17, 2020

North Beach Original: Capannina’s Michele Di Ruocco Joins The Tony’s Team

by Joe Bonadio

If these suddenly frosty mornings are any indication, we’re heading into holiday season here in the Bay Area. And despite the formidable challenges we’ve faced this year, it’s important to remember to be grateful during times like these. With that spirit in mind, this week we’ll continue our recent focus on the people that make Tony’s the special place it is.

Last week I sat down with Michele Di Ruocco, who recently agreed to join the management team at Tony’s. Many of you may know Michele from Capannina, his celebrated restaurant on Union Street in Cow Hollow, which sadly closed earlier this year due to the pandemic. But as you’ll see, the man’s history in San Francisco—and North Beach in particular—goes back quite a bit further. Our conversation follows below.

Joe Bonadio: How long have you been in the restaurant business?

Michele Di Ruocco: I’ve been in the industry since 1993. I came to San Francisco in 1991 to visit my brother, who lived in San Francisco. I grew up on the island of Capri, in Southern Italy by the Amalfi coast.

I only stayed three months the first year, but six months the second year, and in the summertime I was going back home. Capri is beautiful in the summertime.

JB: But San Francisco finally won you over.

MD: Oh yes, exactly. I was going back and forth, and then I decided I had to stay here in San Francisco. I loved North Beach because that’s where I always worked, that’s where all my friends were, and that’s where I always hung out. I still live just three blocks away from here.

Michele Service

Michele talking with customers last week at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

JB: To this day?

MD: Oh, yeah. I lived on Greenwich and Grant for about 24 years, and now I live on Francisco for the past three years.

JB: How did you get into the restaurant business?

MD: Well, I always had a passion for food and wine, and for people. And when I got here, all of the Italians I was meeting were in the restaurant industry. So I just got into it, and started helping my friends.

I was managing a few places, and then I opened my own in 2005.

JB: What were the first places you worked?

MD: I was at Caffé Greco for four years. Then I was at Steps Of Rome—they had a café, and a trattoria where Tony used to be a regular. He was very young, and over in Castro Valley working at Pyzano’s.

He would always come in to North Beach on Friday or Saturday with his brother Frank, and he loved to come into the trattoria for dinner. I always took care of him there, and that’s where we initially met. And when he opened here, I came three, four nights a week. I loved the bar here, and I fell in love with Stephanie and Vanessa. I would always come with my wife and sit at the bar, and enjoy some Negronis, and Tony’s delicious pizza.

JB: Tell me about your first restaurant.

MD: My restaurant was on Union Street in Cow Hollow—it was called Capannina. Capannina is a famous restaurant in Capri that has been around since the 50’s, a place where a lot of celebrities and locals dined. It was my favorite restaurant back home, so when I was thinking of a name, I decided to name my place Capannina.

Unfortunately, I had to shut it down after Covid. I know I could have built a parklet, but the clientele there…

JB: Not parklet people?

MD: No. And the feeling of Capannina was really all about the dining room. It was a small room, it was very intimate. I was there six nights a week, and I knew all the regulars well. It was like a big family—I would go to each table, and greet everyone. It was that kind of a restaurant.

Tony's Detroit-style pizza

Tony’s Detroit-style Deville, with hot pepper oil, soppressata, nduja, arugula, mozzarella, parmigiano and honey. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

JB: So you’ve been here at Tony’s for a couple of months now. How did that come about?

MD: Well, one day I was walking by and I ran into Natale (Tony’s GM), and told him about the restaurant. The way I am, I like to be with people. And I remember telling him that I felt like part of me was missing, because I wasn’t in the restaurant.

And he said: Maybe we need help here—let me talk to Tony.

So I came in and met with Tony and Natale, and they offered me a position. And I love it! First of all, I’m in my ‘hood, so I get to see a lot of people I know. And I love Tony.

The only negative thing is that I’m not a regular customer anymore! I used to bring my friends here all of the time.

JB: Oh, your friends are still going to come!

MD: Oh definitely, even more now that I’m here!

Me and my wife Laura, we love to eat at bars. We used to go to Rose Pistola, we go to Joe’s, to Tony’s….we know all the bartenders, and we love to go and chat, and talk about life.

JB: Yeah, that’s something that we all miss. How do you feel about the city pushing back against indoor dining?

MD: Well, I’m half and half. You see what’s happening in Europe, when I talk to my family….in a way, I think they made the right choice. Now, we’re going into flu season, so it’s a little tricky.

JB: I think it’s something everyone in the city is struggling with right now, that tension between safety and business.

MD: Exactly.

Michele at Tony's

Michele enjoys a glass of Montepulciano in front of Tony’s Pizza on a recent sunny afternoon. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

JB: On a lighter note, I’ve got one last question for you. We recently ran a piece in which I asked the regulars what they most liked to order at Tony’s. You used to eat here three or four times a week—what do you get?

MD: Wow. Well, one of my favorites is the coccoli—the original one with the prosciutto and burrata. I love that.

And I love the squash blossoms. I grew up eating squash blossoms. We had them in the garden. Zucchini gives you an abundance of blossoms, it just keeps giving.

JB: So you’re putting them in pastas, on pizzas, in salads…

MD: Exactly. And another one of my favorites is the pizza with the squash blossoms and the burrata, with the prosciutto. Have you had that one?

JB: No. But you can bet I will.

MD: You know, another thing I love: in Naples, one of the most famous pizzas is the one with sausage and rapini. You know, the broccoli rabe?

JB: Of course.

MD: I really have to remind him. I don’t know why he doesn’t make it—maybe it’s not one of his favorites?

JB: Maybe it’s not. You know, not everyone likes rapini.

MD: Yes, that’s true. But that pizza is so traditional.

JB: And Tony makes the best sausage.

MD: Exactly! I’m going to remind him again.

JB: Do it for both of us. Thanks again, Michele!

————

When I spoke with Tony about Michele, he had this to say:

“Back when I was 21 and going on dates, I would come to North Beach….and here was this guy at the door at Steps of Rome. Michele had such finesse, and he always made you feel great–you felt at home. He was just a first class maitre’d, owner, everything.

Over the years we became close, and I would think to myself, if I ever had a restaurant I’d want someone like that. I’ve asked him more than once, and this time I was fortunate enough for him to accept. We’re thinking of a future concept in North Beach, but with Covid, we’re in no hurry. Meanwhile he is able to understand the culture here, and absorb what we’re doing in North Beach.”