A Tribute to Good Times

East Bay's old-world Italian-American restaurants offer bargains, nostalgia, and, for one food critic, a sense of melancholy.

Plenty of restaurants bank on America’s collective hunt for a sense of our own history, but that old-timey feeling is tough to recapture. Mel’s Diner spit-shines it. Buca di Beppo scrapbooks it. Fuddruckers plastic-wraps it. For the real thing, you have to go where times haven’t changed.

A quarter century after the Tuscan invasion, now that diners in the know can name 25 shapes of pasta and debate Sicilian versus Calabrian wines, good ol’ Italian-American food is quietly making a play for respect. And Banchero’s Italian Dinners in Hayward and Francesco’s Restaurant in Oakland are doing the same thing they’ve been doing for decades. Whether you enjoy it depends on your own history.

Just beyond the pack of working parents waiting for pastas at the take-out desk, Banchero’s main dining room is a maze of brown leatherette booths, all populated by middle-aged couples and multigenerational families. With wood paneling, plastic plants, and framed craft-festival landscapes, it’s the kind of place that should still smell like Marlboros and spritzes of dimestore perfume. The tables are set with thick white china ringed with red grandma-era motifs.

Banchero’s has been owned and operated by the same family for 57 years — customers who ate there as boys and girls now bring their grandchildren to share the experience. It’s also one of the last outposts of a type of dining that has all but disappeared from the Bay Area: the family meal. Though you can order the entrées à la carte, for a few dollars extra — we’re talking less than $15 a person in all — you receive a six-course meal. Yes, six.

First comes the soup, a thin tomato broth with pasta and barley, served with a warm Italian loaf (a half-loaf of butter-drenched garlic bread costs $2.75 extra). Next, the salad — a decent mix of iceberg lettuce, shaved carrots, and chickpeas, not overdressed — and the cold-cuts course, with some salami, some canned green and black canned olives, some pickled vegetables, and a few anchovies. Course four: pasta, or, spaghetti in a simple tomato sauce with a few specks of ground meat and another plate of beef-spinach ravioli, much closer to al dente than the spaghetti, in the same red sauce.

By the time our entrées arrived, we could only pick at them. Here was the comfort food we sought: The breaded beef cutlets à la milanese (downscale veal scaloppine) were tender enough, and squeezing the accompanying lemon wedge over the creamy mushroom-butter sauce covered up the taste of the oil they were fried in. The chicken Parmesana was breaded, too, and then smothered in red sauce, with a slice of mozzarella baked onto the top. A big square of lasagna ($9.75 for the entire meal!) layered flat pasta with some ricotta, some mozzarella, and scattered chunks of ground beef, all bathed in red sauce. For dessert: scoops of maraschino-studded spumoni, the only course I finished, and gleefully.

The food was edible but simple to the extreme, the culinary equivalent of a bottle of Two-Buck Chuck. Our waitress stopped by after every course, offering to wrap up the leftovers. “Most people take everything home for breakfast the next morning,” she said.

The Bargiacchi family has been in the biz in Oakland for generations: Matriarch Josephine Bargiacchi opened Villa de la Paix and the North Pole Club. Her son Dewey set off on his own to open Francesco’s in 1968, and his daughter and son-in-law, Theresa and Mike Erwin, now run the place.

Most Oaklanders will recognize Francesco’s, having passed its red, green, and white awning and its lawn statues of Venus and mushrooms on their way to the airport. The original decor is remarkable as a museum to the good life as the middle class once defined it. The low-lit restaurant is bathed in deep colors — shiny black scalloped booths, a blood-red swath of painted brick above the kitchen line, chair-backs upholstered in hunter green. Lighted glass grapes dripping from the ceiling illuminate the main room, and swags of Christmas-style white lights drape along the top of the carved-wood divider separating rows of booths. “My father would love it here,” my friend said.

But for me the atmosphere evoked more melancholy than nostalgia, and it took me a couple of days to figure out why. When I was a young kid, my family couldn’t afford to eat out. Restaurants were someplace we only went on the road. And the Howard Johnsons and Florida steakhouses always impressed me as sophisticated but lonely places. The pleather-covered menus, the ritualized cheer of the waiters, the bathrooms with their canned-flower smells and pull-down towels — everything Francesco’s had aspired to be — seemed to exist for people who didn’t have families. I preferred to eat at home.

An odd confession for a restaurant critic, I suppose. Then again, Francesco’s food may have had something to do with the mood. The big menu covers breakfast, lunch, and all the Italian-American classics, from eggplant Parmesan to chicken cacciatore (takes twenty minutes). With the exception of deep-fried zucchini sticks wrapped in white linen napkins and a housemade Caesar salad whose dressing was big on lemon and anchovy, just the way I like it — if you order it for two, the waiters will mix it at the table — the food suffered from too much canned garlic and too little care. The signature chicken Francesco with linguine proved an underseasoned heap of pasta with a few chunks of mushrooms, green onions, and red pepper scattered throughout. Veal scaloppine drowned under a buttery mass of oxidized garlic and mushrooms. My chicken cacciatore was sure big on abbondanza, with tomato chunks and green peppers the size of babies’ fists, canned black olives, and whole mushrooms, enough to literally feed a family of four. But none of the gargantuan ingredients had much to do with one another.

Yet it was hard to look around at the 35th anniversary banner and the crowd and not think Francesco’s is doing something right.

My dining companion commented on the banner to our waitress, who was in her sixties and running as fast as the younger gals. “Oh, that’s a couple of years old,” she said. “We’ve been open for 37 years.”

“And how long have you been here?” my friend inquired.

“Thirty-three,” she answered. We gaped.

“After a couple of months of working here, I said I’m never going to leave,” the waitress said. “And I haven’t.”

How many restaurants can boast that kind of loyalty?

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