RESTAURATEUR, WEEKEND FARMER WRITTEN BY DOMINIC MERCURIO
Sicilian American Dreams and Sardines
I was born and raised in Monterey. My Sicilian father came from North Africa, because he followed the fish. He had been fishing off the coast of Algeria when he heard about the sardines in the Monterey Bay, and that’s how my story begins.
My dad started off with nothing but eventually got a boat, landed a job fishing, met my mom, had a family and bought a house, but not in that order. He learned the language--not just English but French, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish so he could fish. He did what he had to do to get by, and he taught my brother and me that value, too. He had four brothers and four sisters, and they would save their money to send for one sibling at a time, first the brothers and then the sisters. By the time they had all come over in the 1950s, the sardines were all fished out of the Bay, so my dad got on a tuna boat and went to South America. And when that was done, he went to Alaska where he fished for 35 years in the summers. He was very successful, but not just financially; he succeeded because he knew what was important, and he taught us that. He lived the American Dream, and I’m grateful that I have been able to as well.
My maternal grandfather, Santo Pisto, came from Sicily to Syracuse, New York, where he married my grandmother, Santa, and they moved to Monterey. They opened a very successful tailor shop in downtown Monterey. They were awarded the contract for Fort Ord to alter the officers’ uniforms and never looked back. I remember going to their shop as a kid after school on Friday or on Saturdays, and it was always busy. They made alterations; all pants were cut to size and hemmed, especially for the military, so there was always a box of material from the cut ends of the pants that we kids loved to play with.
To keep the children entertained—and out of the scrap box—my grandparents would put us on the machine and let us sew the ends together. Eventually we knew how to sew and would make blankets from the scraps. My grandparents told us to give them to the hobos, so we were giving back to the less fortunate. And I learned how to sew out of it. To this day I hem my pants, and I think everybody at least ought to know how to sew on a button. I was lucky enough to get my grandfather’s sewing machine, and I have it in my home as one of my most prized possessions.
My grandfather Pisto’s story is another tale of the American Dream. He was dedicated and wouldn’t take no for an answer. When Urban Renewal kicked him out of his tailor shop downtown, he moved his business to the garage of their house on Scott Street. They continued their business, very successfully, for the rest of their careers. He ended up doing alterations for Clark Gable and other celebrities when they came to Carmel; Santo Pisto became the guy all the stars called in the area. And he always made clothes for the family: He made me suits and vests that I loved wearing.
I was raised on Spaghetti Hill, the residential area between the Defense Language Institute (Presidio of Monterey) and downtown Monterey. It’s where all the Sicilians settled when they came to fish, a sunny part of town within walking distance of the wharf for the fishermen. There was a bread man who would come by every day because you had to have fresh bread. I always knew when he was coming, because he played music from his truck. He’d stop every few houses and pull out a big tray so you could buy fresh bread. A few times a week an ice cream truck came around, too, and a doughnut guy. They all played music from their trucks, and to this day the sound of those tinny tunes brings back the most carefree memories of my childhood.
On Sunday mornings the whole neighborhood smelled like tomato sauce, because all the moms and nonas made spaghetti sauce on Sundays. The streets were filled with us kids playing, biking and running around in the aroma of garlic and onions, tomato and basil until we were called to lunch. Sunday lunches were sacred. We all gathered in the dining room around twelve or one o’clock, after mass and the spaghetti sauce had simmered enough. The kids always sat at one table and the adults at another. My nano, Santo Pisto, the patriarch, always sat at the head of the table with his Gallo wine next to him on the floor. Since Sundays were sacred, he would pour each of us kids a capful of wine from his jug into a glass and top the rest off with 7up. We thought we were so grown up, and we would giggle and impersonate the adults. But we knew when to cut out the nonsense and listen whenever there was a problem brought to the table. Nano always resolved whatever issues might come up.
They were always brought forth on Sundays and had to be solved right then and there, even if there was a bit of arguing or yelling to get there. Those rituals are long gone now but shaped who I am and how I approach the world; everything can be solved over the dinner table, and mealtimes are sacred.
One Sunday a month we would visit my Aunt Mary right up the hill. Sundays meant dressing up and, of course, we would stop at Scotch Bakery in Pacific Grove to pick up a dozen sugar cookies and custard puffs to bring for the visit. We would get to eat the sweets while the adults visited and drank their coffee. In 1998 I, by then the owner of Café Fina, was out golfing with Jack Watson, who was just selling the old Scotch Bakery, and I asked him if he would teach me how to make the cream puffs from my childhood. He told me he would if I would have my guys there first thing in the morning that Tuesday. Jack kept good on his word and taught me and my guys how to make those cream puffs, and they have been on the menu at Café Fina ever since.
My mom used to sit me on the counter while she cooked. She chopped garlic for just about everything, but my favorite was watching her make Italian salad dressing. She would let me help her chop the garlic; it was supposed to be very fine, so she would tell me to keep going if it wasn’t to her liking. We would put that in a coffee mug and add olive oil and vinegar, then a bay leaf that she had dried herself, and a bit of ketchup, oregano, salt, pepper and some thyme. She stirred it up with a fork, and that’s what we had on our salads almost every day. I make it to this day.
My mom taught me how to make all sorts of Italian dishes, such as braciole, a stuffed beef roll. She would tell me what cut of meat to buy--beef flank--and how to know when it was good. Her instructions were very detailed. Basically, you pound the flank until it’s real thin, you salt and pepper it, adding olive oil, mozzarella, parmesan and salami on top of this thin piece of meat. Then you line it with hardboiled eggs, roll it up like a giant sausage and tie it tight. You then brown the meat and cook it in a tomato sauce for about four hours. When it’s ready, you slice it for these rings of meat that are to die for.
My nana knew how to make everything, and she never had a recipe book. When I’d bring home rabbit from hunting, I’d ask her, “Hey Nana, what do I do?” She wouldn’t skip a beat and dived right into skinning and gutting the rabbit. She knew which parts to tear off, what to keep and what to throw out. Then she’d rattle off the ingredients for sweet-and-sour rabbit with carrots, celery and onions. I remember her saying, “First you flour it, add a little vinegar and a little sugar….” I would always need her to repeat it several times, because she just called out the recipe without stopping to take a breath.
Watching my mom and Nana cook for so long taught me not only to appreciate food but also about the dedication good food requires. I have that kind of dedication for my restaurant. I believe good food takes good ingredients and time, and I’m always there keeping an eye on the place. If you want something to be successful, you have to dedicate yourself to it. I learned from the fishermen that the fish don’t take a day off, and you can’t do that in the restaurant business either. We work through the holidays; we make the restaurant our second home. You have to if you want to make it.
Fish and Game
For as far back as I can remember, my dad would take me out fishing on his little boat in the Bay, and we’d catch rock cod and sand dabs to take home for dinner. My mom would cook with anything we brought home, and she made the best cioppino with the rock cod. The sand dabs were always lightly floured and pan-fried. Once when I was about ten, we went out fishing for bonito off Cannery Row, and I hooked one. Dad yelled, “Reel it in,” but it was big, almost my size, and I couldn’t reel it. So I fought it and it pulled, so I pulled; it was such a thrill, but the fish ended up going up under the boat and getting free. Even though I got yelled at for losing that one, I’ll never forget the excitement of it.
When I was 13, my dad took me to Alaska to fish for the summer. That year Fish and Game had predicted a bad season, so they limited the nets that each fisherman could have from 150 fathoms to 75. But, if you bought a gear-holder permit, they would give you an extra 25 fathoms. As a result, many of the fishermen brought their kids--my father included, and I was the lucky gear holder; that way you didn’t have to pay the kid and you got more net to fish with. I spent the next 19 summers fishing in Alaska.
In the off season I’d come back and work the restaurants. My uncle, John Pisto, owned the Captain’s Gig on Fisherman’s Wharf; and when I was ten, he hired me to wash beer mugs for 50 cents an hour. By the time I was 12 he had me help him with the cooking. A couple of years later he sold the place and opened the Whaling Station Inn Restaurant. I started washing dishes there and eventually worked my way up to assistant manager. In 1981 my uncle John and I opened Domenico’s on the Wharf together, and it’s still kicking, although I co-own it with my brother now.
I definitely worked my way up in the restaurant business. I remember my uncle telling me, “You want to make more money? Learn to prep.” After I learned to prep, he told me to learn to cook. And after that he said to bus tables. I did it all and definitely worked my way up.
Ever since I was a kid, I loved being outdoors hunting and fishing. To this day I make trips to Alaska to go sport fishing, and I’m regularly out on the Monterey Bay—both in the ocean or in the rivers and canals. But the most relaxing of all is duck hunting. I love being out there early in the morning, when it’s so peaceful and quiet. And the comradery with friends and family is something I wouldn’t trade for the world.
When I was 17, I was making good money fishing in Alaska in the summer and working in the restaurants during the rest of the year. I was loving life and wanted to buy a Z28 Camaro, but a family friend, Mrs. Crecchio, grabbed me by the ear and dragged me down to Shankle Realty. At the real estate office she said, “You’re not going to buy a car, you’re going to invest in a house.” So, I bought a house on La Salle Avenue in Seaside. I bought the Camaro the next year.
I loved fishing. I was going to move to Washington and fish, leave the restaurant world behind, buy a boat and leave Monterey and have an adventure, but life had other plans. A couple days before Christmas in 1988 the owner of Geno’s (the restaurant in the current place of Café Fina), the patriarch of the Genevese family, called. He was my grandparents’ neighbor and knew me well. He told me, “I’m selling this place.” He had mentioned this before and I didn’t want to miss the opportunity, so I told him, “I’ll be right there,” and my life changed overnight. I went from being a fisherman with dreams of Washington and Alaska to a Monterey Wharf restaurant owner. I ventured out on my own and opened Café Fina, named after my mother, Josephina.
For years my father and I continued fishing in Alaska during the summers, but eventually I got too busy with the restaurant and wanted to be there full time. I wouldn’t have it any other way, because Café Fina is my home and has been very good to me.
Friends with Giants
About 30 years ago I was working at Café Fina when a mountain of a man walked up with his wife. They looked at the menu and walked away then came back, so I asked them what they were looking for. The man was polite and said, “I’m just looking for some good clam chowder.” I pointed to a table in the corner and told them, “Go sit down. I’ll bring you the chowder. If you don’t like it, don’t pay, and don’t come back.”
The man turned out to be John Madden, the famous football coach. He and his wife came back the next seven Sundays. I was nervous at first. John was big, as big in personality as he was in stature. And he had a voice that just bellowed out. On one of those Sundays, he asked if I liked to play cards. “Yeah,” I told him, “I like to play cards.” “You got guys?” he asked. “Yeah, I got guys,” I said. “Okay, I got some guys, too. Why don’t we get a poker game going?” he asked eagerly.
I thought to myself, I’m not playing poker with John Madden. I don’t have that kind of money. I was only in my third year at Café Fina. Maybe he could sense my hesitation, so he said, “Forty dollar buy-in.” He smiled and added, “We’re just doing it for fun.” “All right, I’ll give it a shot, I got nothing to lose. Forty bucks, maybe eighty, if I buy in twice,” I said. I didn’t want him to think I couldn’t afford to play a round or two of poker. That game turned into a 28-year game and a lifelong friendship.
Some of my favorite memories were made with John Madden, like going cross country on his bus 13 times (he had his own bus, because he was claustrophobic and refused to fly), or cooking for the San Francisco radio station KCBS (740 AM) barbecue. I did that for 19 years consecutively, feeding over 400 people each time.
In 2006 when he was inducted into the football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, John called me on a Sunday to tell me, “Listen, I got a crazy idea. Now, if you want to just come out and enjoy yourself, that’s fine, but I’d love to have you cater the event. It’s going to be 500 people.” I told him I would be honored to cater the event. We went on talking every day, but the following Sunday when we were on the phone, he brought it up again, saying “Are you sure you’re good with catering the event? It’s okay if you want to just come out and hang out with the guys and enjoy yourself.” I reassured him, “No, I want to, I’m positive, it’d be an honor.” And again the following Sunday when we were chatting, he said, “Are you sure you want to do this? You don’t have to.” “Yes, I want to, I already told you I wanted to and quit asking me,” I told him. And then he gave me this message, “OK, well don’t screw this up, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity; this is a really big deal and I can’t have you mess it up.”
That made me nervous, but it worked out great; it was quite the production. He flew me and 20 of my people out to Ohio, and we brought all our own barbecue grills and smokers; we had them hauled in on trailers. We cooked right there in the Hall of Fame. It is one of my favorite memories, but I didn’t enjoy the event like the others might have; because it was so important to me, I couldn’t screw it up for John. After we cooked and served the food, the next day I flew home on my friend’s private jet exhausted while the rest of the crew hung out for the game and partied.
A few years into our friendship, I asked John if he wanted to get involved in a farming venture. None of my friends from Monterey wanted anything to do with farming, but I was set on it. There was a plot of 25 acres for sale in Los Banos, right next to the freeway. I could tell it was going to be turned into a subdivision, but it was perfect for farming. He didn’t bat an eye, and just like that we became almond farmers together. I bought a home out there, too, so I can get away from the restaurant and hunt at my duck club.
A few years later we bought another 700 acres and farmed it, quite successfully, for 20 plus years. I also grow fruits and vegetables for the restaurant there, and eventually I’ll leave it for my kids. In the fall of 2021 John and I sold the 700 acres, and I replanted the original 25 acres with almonds. Unfortunately, John never got to see the fruits of our labor because he passed away on December 28, 2021.
The Old Country
I have visited Italy three times. In 2019 I went to Sicily with Roxanne, my girlfriend, to meet my cousins in Furci Siculo, a small town just south of Messina where they filmed the scene from The Godfather in which the young girl in the car was blown up. We had arranged for a young driver to pick us up after we got off a cruise in Messina. Mario was about 30 and spoke to us in Italian. I responded to him in the only Italian I knew, and he kept looking back at me, dumbfounded. Finally, he pulled over, choked up. “What’s wrong?” I asked. “That’s the dialect that my grandfather spoke,” he said. “Well, that’s the Italian I learned from the old Italians who came to Monterey,” I told him. He ended up calling his mom, crying to tell her the story. I don’t speak Italian, but I speak old Sicilian.
On another trip to Italy, I wanted to learn how they made pizza so perfectly. Café Fina was the first restaurant in Monterey to have a wood-fired pizza oven, and I wanted to learn from the pros. I had seen it in Sainte-Maxime, France, in an Italian restaurant, and the whole restaurant ran out of that oven; it was a giant and the temperature was very high. You only had to fire the pizzas for a few minutes, and I just loved the set up. At Café Fina we offer wood-fired pizza just how I like it--I love the charred bubbles of dough on the edges of the pizza, and it doesn’t have to be huge and thick to be good. You want to taste the pizza flavor and let the fire bring out those flavors.
I have lived a great life, and I attribute it to the values my family instilled in me. I’m grateful to have raised two beautiful children, Dominic and Kathryn, with my ex-wife, Naida, to whom I was married for 17 years. I have passed my family values down to my children. Although my son loves the restaurant business, it is changing, and regulations make it hard to keep up. After working for me at Café Fina and a few other restaurants in town, he went to the police academy and has been a police officer for over seven years now and loves his work.
Kathryn has a degree in business and marketing from Fresno State and is married to Matt Donangelo, who has a degree in agriculture and works in the agriculture business. Kathryn worked in the agriculture industry for a few years until 2021, when she had my granddaughter, Gianna Grace. Kathryn is now a full-time mom and runs a food blog at www.kathrynskitchenblog.com.
My favorite dish on the menu at Café Fina is named after Gianna--pasta Gianna, a baked rigatoni with meatballs, sausage, peas and mushrooms topped with mozzarella. It’s all my favorite things in a pasta.
I was born and raised on the Wharf, I love coming to work, I love the view of the Monterey Bay, I can’t imagine another life. The bay is always different, from the south winds to the north winds, the differences from high and low tide, the birds, the otters, the seals. Every morning when I come in to work and open the window, I have an espresso and take in the view before I start my day. I can’t imagine ever not working, but eventually I may have to train somebody to run the restaurant. I’ll always have a spot in my heart for the Wharf.