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Growing Up with Giovanni Lo Coco

Photos courtesy of Lo Coco’s except where noted.

 

Giovanni Lo Coco opened his first Lo Coco’s restaurant in 1966 in Jackson, California.

Giovanni Lo Coco immigrated to the United States from Porticello, Sicily, in 1962. His daughter, Suzanne Lo Coco, describes him as a man with “tremendous style and social grace … attractive, with black hair and piercing blue eyes, warm, humorous, and above all an extraordinary cook.”

On arriving in San Francisco, Giovanni went to work waiting tables at Scoma’s Restaurant at Fisherman’s Wharf. In acknowledgement of his larger-than-life gregariousness, he was assigned to the VIP section. There, he was the waiter requested by many of the big names of the day, and he would eventually be honored with a best waiter in San Francisco award.

Giovanni left home over a disagreement with his father. The junior Lo Coco had wanted to build a
pizzeria/ristorante on family land in the mountains overlooking Porticello just below Solunto, a Greco-Roman archaeological site, but his father sold off the property, claiming that the restaurant would be “just a playground for Giovanni.”

Sicily’s loss was our gain as Giovanni Lo Coco established several restaurants in the United States, two of which his children and wife Debbie still run in the East Bay: Lo Coco’s on Oakland’s Piedmont Avenue and Lo Coco’s on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley. Both restaurants opened in the early 1980s, and both serve food based on Giovanni’s traditional Sicilian recipes. Suzanne Lo Coco describes what
that means:

“Sicilian food integrates gastronomical influences left behind from numerous conquerors. For instance, saffron, currants, citrus, pine nuts, almonds, and pistachios show Moorish influence. At Lo Coco’s, we make our meatballs with pine nuts and currants.”

A Big Night in Carnelian Bay

Suzanne throws pizza dough at the Oakland restaurant in 2015.

Five decades after Giovanni arrived in the United States, his vivacious, attractive, entrepreneurial daughters, Suzanne and Maria Lo Coco, are entertaining two journalists on a snow-spattered evening at Suzanne’s home beside Lake Tahoe at Carnelian Bay. Initially, it had been a craving for a cross-country ski experience in the record-breaking snow that brought us to Suzanne’s nautically inspired Airbnb— Runabout Lodge—a dream Tahoe lodging complete with a steam room/shower and outdoor hot tub set amid the pines. We had no idea how much more we would get. Within a few hours of arriving we were listening to a long string of charming and hilarious tales about Giovanni Lo Coco, the irony being that we had traveled 200 miles to hear these stories set at two establishments located so very close to our Berkeley homes.

A month later, we’re back in Tahoe by invitation from Suzanne and Maria, who are about to recreate their version of the movie Big Night via their father’s recipes and stories. Suzanne is doing the cooking. Both sisters are doing the talking. We’re drinking negronis, which Suzanne says she learned to make when she was 14. As siblings do, the women argue vociferously over details as they talk about their fantastic father. Here is the evening by courses served and tales told.

In 1976, Giovanni toasts with Jerry Ellen, his first wife, in front of the mural at the old Pleasant Hill Lo Coco’s location. In the same spot, he introduces his daughter Maria, then age 13, to new customers.

Apertivo: toasted Tahoe Bakery bread with extra-virgin olive oil, sauteed mushrooms, and burrata, served with some family history

Both Suzanne and Maria worked in their father’s restaurants from a very young age. Suzanne was waiting tables at age nine, charming customers with her youth and natural extraversion. She had a habit of bussing the table while the diners were still seated, but, what the heck, she was a money-maker. Giovanni would count her hefty tips and yell out over the counter, “Watch out for my daughter! She will steal the gold teeth from your mouth.” Maria now runs Lo Coco’s on Piedmont Avenue.

Suzanne: When asked why he came to America, Dad’s classic response was: “I watched too many cowboy movies!” In reality, Dad was chasing the American Dream. Shortly after arriving in 1963, he ran out of money. So, he borrowed a friend’s car, posed for a picture with the Golden Gate in the background [see previous page], and mailed it to his father saying: “Doing great. Just bought a new car. I’m investing in a new business and could use a little more cash…” Failure was not an option.

Dad learned to cook from his parents, but he also showed natural talent. Cooking is a large part of Sicilian culture—as you are eating you are talking about the next meal. Dad also studied food history and food chemistry, and was like a scientist in the kitchen. His father’s friend once commented: “When Giovanni cooks, it is like he is creating poetry!” Dad was a passionate perfectionist in the kitchen.

Our family has a villa overlooking the sea in Porticello, where Dad would dry and can his own tomatoes in volume to serve at the restaurants. Many of our ingredients are imported from Italy, including our semolina pasta and the Parmigiano-Reggiano and Pecorino Romano cheeses, which we cut, dry, and grate ourselves. We use fresh, organic extra-virgin olive oil from Veronica Foods in Oakland.

My father is a quintessential entrepreneur, and he infected all six of his children with that spirit. I have apparently passed it on to my children, as they now run my former restaurant, La Fornaretta, in Newcastle, California. My youngest, Gian Luca, reminds me of my dad: fearless, tireless, highly motivated. My oldest, Gilberto, inherited my father’s natural ability in the kitchen and love of people.

For the April 2017 interview dinner at Carnelian Bay, Maria brought a loaf of Lo Coco’s flatbread from the Piedmont Avenue restaurant and Suzanne served it with a smoked salmon carpaccio. Also on the menu was Giovanni’s Aphrodisiac Salad. (Photos by Mary Tilson)

Antipasto: smoked salmon carpaccio marinated in olive oil, lemon, and julienned green onions, served with Lo Coco’s proprietary flat bread, and spiced with tales of mortification and family-induced PTSD while dining out

I may be a piece of shit… but my food, nobody can’t beat ‘um!
—Giovanni Lo Coco

Suzanne: Dad’s favorite meal was corned beef and cabbage, and he loved Sam’s Hofbrau in San Francisco. One time I took him to a new trendy restaurant. Dad looked over the menu and said, “Let’s go to Sam’s. We will enjoy a beautiful corned beef sandwich and forget about all this bullshit food!”

In an effort to “emancipate” our palates—as Dad would say—we grew up eating at some extraordinary establishments. In fact, in 1976, we were the first kids to dine at Domaine Chandon in Napa Valley, a fine-dining establishment that offered innovative French-California cuisine. They were so unprepared for kids that they graciously served us dessert wine in champagne flutes. When we were older, I recall feeling totally embarrassed on one of those visits when Dad summoned the chef de cuisine to our table so he could carefully explain exactly how to make the sauce for his pasta.
Maria: My first wedding was at the Resort at Squaw Creek. We are headed up to the tasting for the wedding feast, and I’m begging my dad not to embarrass me. We are sitting with the chef at Squaw Creek. Dad wants the tortellini with pheasant broth. Dad asks if the broth is made with real pheasant. The chef says testily, “Yeah, I plucked the pheasant myself!” Dad tastes the broth and says, “You didn’t cook the broth with the skin. You have to use the skin; it gives all the flavor to the broth.” After a while the chef calms down; I am mortified but resigned. But of course, for the wedding, the chef takes my father’s advice, uses the pheasant skin, and admits the broth is much better.

In 2007 at the family home in Porticello, Sicily, Giovanni dries tomatoes to serve at his California restaurants. In 2013, Suzanne fries eggplant at the same spot.

Primo: Linguine Tutto Mare served with a tale of customer relations à la Giovanni

Maria: In the early years at the Piedmont restaurant, my dad would get New York strip steak, bread it Sicilian style, bake it in the oven, and serve it with limone. That is all. I’m waitressing, I’m young. The customer, she gets the steak with a little penne al sugo [pasta with tomato sauce]. So I bring the food to the lady and she takes a bite and says, “This isn’t very good at all!” She asks for steak sauce. I tell her, “No, my dad won’t have that here.” She is furious. Feeling overwhelmed, I start to cry and go back to the kitchen to tell my dad, between sobs, what happened. Now, in those days I was easily mortified. For me it was like Big Night with my dad as Primo and I’m Secondo. He says, “Steak sauce? On my meat?” And he storms out of the kitchen toward the lady’s table, “‘Scuse me, what are you saying? This is the most beautiful piece of meat that you’ll ever gonna eat in your life!” She replies with attitude, “It needs sauce. I’m sure it would help it.” He leans in and says, “Lady you don’t got a palate in your mouth. You wouldn’t know good food. You don’t deserve my food. You can go. It would be my pleasure if you would go.” And she did. I recall that some of the other customers applauded Dad after she left.

Contorno: Giovanni’s Aphrodisiac Salad of radicchio, baby arugula, shaved fennel root, Kalamata olives, and phallic-looking Belgian endives shooting out the middle, served with some philosophy of life

Maria: Dad preached, “Everything in moderation.” But he overdid everything and was totally unconventional. Often he’d show up just in time for the dinner rush still wearing his silk shirt and Italian loafers because he had just come from the racetrack. He’d wrap a tablecloth around his waist and start cooking, always with a cigarette hanging from his mouth. His philosophy was: “You must work hard, but you must also play hard!”

Suzanne: One time I lost my shifts to another waiter, and I was mad about it. Dad says, “He is getting married and his fiancé is pregnant. You live at home. You must treat people well. The tables can turn and maybe you will work for him someday. You must always treat the people the way you want to be treated.”

While living in L.A., I worked for these horrible Italian guys; I planned to quit by walking out in the middle of a busy Friday night after I’d taken all the orders. But Dad said, “No. You must leave with the honey in the mouth. Let them be the pieces of shit that they are, but you must be sweet. Always leave the door a little open—give the golden way—you never know in life.” Although this advice is counter to my dad’s behavior at times, he was fair and compassionate.

Today, guests at the Berkeley Lo Coco’s are likely to meet Suzanne and Maria’s half-brother Gaetano, who runs the front of house.

Dolce: To be continued with canolli at Lo Coco’s Berkeley

Giovanni Lo Coco died in his beloved Porticello in 2012 at age 77. If the measure of a person’s life is that they loved well and were well loved, then Giovanni’s life was an unmitigated success. He also left a legacy of great food—which continues at two enduring restaurants—and good stories remembered by his children and by many others who were lucky enough to have known him. ♦

You don’t put cheese on seafood, sir. You will ruin my pasta!
—Giovanni Lo Coco

Suzanne Lo Coco Tells the Tutto Mare Story
One evening, a middle-aged couple came into Lo Coco’s for the first time. They said they had heard about and were eager to try the seafood pasta. Back in the kitchen, Dad went to work preparing two perfect portions of Linguine Tutto Mare. He had prepared his fish broth earlier in the day with ample amounts of imported saffron, adding a generous ladle of the broth to his Tutto Mare sauce to enhance the delicate seafood flavors. After artfully arranging the shellfish over perfectly cooked al dente linguine, he summoned the waiter to walk the two piping-hot dishes out to the couple.
Dad always enjoyed watching people take their first mouthful of his steamy masterpieces. Peering into the dining room from the kitchen, he noted faces obviously pleased with the presentation, the happy customers taking long whiffs of the tantalizing aromas.

Then to Dad’s horror, the man picked up the grated Parmesan cheese. In a flash, Dad leapt into the dining room—a definite feat for his age and large size—just in time to throw his cupped hands under the tilting spoon of grated cheese, and in one continuous swoop, he caught and flung the cheese over his shoulder, dusting the floor and tables behind him. “You don’t put cheese on seafood, sir. You will ruin my pasta!”

The couple froze in total dismay, and when the man found his voice again, he huffed, “Excuse me, but this is my pasta, sir, and if I want to sprinkle cheese on it, then I will do so!”

Dad firmly gripped the edges of the table, leaned in within inches of this customer’s face, and began to shake the table just enough to rattle the silverware. “This is my table sir—in my ristorante…” And lifting the plate of Tutto Mare off the table he added, “And this is my pasta—that will be eaten in my way—or you can leave!”

The couple sat speechless. Dad, having preserved the integrity of his Tutto Mare from certain cheesy contamination and establishing undeniable ownership of his restaurant and everything in it, felt terrifically relieved and ready to schmooze. Gently replacing the plate of food, he poured on the charm, talking about the chemistry of the food, the quality of his ingredients, the cost of saffron! “This is beautiful, clean food—authentico! If you put ‘um the cheese, you kill the flavor of the sea—it’s very delicate, and the cheese is too strong. Believe me sir, eat in my way, and I promise you will enjoy. And if you don’t like it—I don’t let you pay!”

The couple ate every last string of linguine on their plate and used the Sicilian flatbread to sop up every drop of broth. They paid their bill, and before leaving, asked to speak with Dad. The man stood up from the table, gave Dad a solid handshake, and said, “I want to thank you, Giovanni, for one of the best dining experiences of my life! I have never been yelled at by a restaurant owner, had so much fun, and eaten so well. Thank you again—we’ll definitely be back!”

Lo Coco’s Linguine Tutto Mare

Suzanne Lo Coco says her father was as proprietary about his fish broth recipe as he was about the one for the family pizza dough, and she risks causing him to turn over in his grave if she reveals anything more than that he made the broth using a whole rock cod. Regardless of whether you make your own or buy a good prepared stock from your local fishmonger, be sure to simmer it with some saffron threads.

Serves 6

1½ pounds Manila clams, rinsed well
1 pound black mussels, rinsed well
12 extra-large jumbo scallops (or 2–3 per person), sliced ¼-inch thick
12 prawns (or 2–3 per person), peeled and deveined
1 cup fish broth (homemade or purchased) with 1 teaspoon saffron threads added
1 head garlic, peeled
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
¼ cup chopped Italian parsley (set aside 2 tablespoons for assembly)
¾ cup dry white wine (avoid chardonnay)
1½–2 whole lemons
½ cup water, or more as needed
½ cup crushed San Marzano or other pear-shaped tomatoes
3–4 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons chopped fresh sweet basil
1 pound linguine (At Lo Coco’s, we prefer the Italian De Cecco brand)
Salt and pepper to taste
Dash chili flakes (optional)

This recipe requires about 45–60 minutes of cooking time, provided you have accomplished all the prep tasks such as cleaning the seafood. If you are making your own fish broth, add the saffron threads while it’s cooking. If using purchased stock, heat it with the saffron before using.

Finely chop three or four cloves of garlic and place in a small bowl with 1 tablespoon olive oil. Set it aside with 2 tablespoons of the chopped parsley to add as you assemble the dish for serving. Finely slice the rest of the garlic and set aside for the sauce.

Start heating a large pot of water (salted to taste) for the pasta.

Place a deep 12-inch-diameter sauté pan over medium-high heat and add remaining olive oil and sliced garlic. Stir occasionally until garlic reaches a golden color. Add clams, mussels, and white wine. Squeeze the juice of 1 whole lemon into the pan. Add broth (with saffron) and water plus the crushed tomatoes, 2–3 tablespoons butter, remaining chopped parsley, and chopped sweet basil. Bring to a medium boil, stirring occasionally. Reduce heat to a simmer and let cook for about 10–12 minutes.

Meanwhile, make sure the pasta water is boiling, and about 5 minutes after you have reduced the cooking sauce to a simmer, drop linguine in the boiling, salted water and cook al dente. (De Cecco linguine takes 10 to 12 minutes.)
When the sauce has simmered for 10–12 minutes, discard any clams or mussels that do not open or that open only slightly. Then add the scallops to the sauce and let sauce cook for another 3 minutes. Add the prawns and cook for 2 minutes longer. Squeeze the juice from ½ lemon into the finished sauce and stir.

When pasta is cooked, strain and replace the pasta into the now-empty pot along with another teaspoon of butter, the reserved olive oil and chopped garlic mixture, and the reserved 2 tablespoons chopped parsley. Ladle about ¾ cup of liquid from the sauce over the pasta and set pot over low heat, stirring until all the ingredients are integrated.

Portion the pasta into individual pasta bowls, adding even amounts of clams, mussels, scallops, and prawns to each bowl. Pour the remaining sauce evenly into each bowl and serve. Garnish each dish with a light sprinkle of chopped parsley and the optional chili flakes.

Lo Coco’s Berkeley is located at 1400 Shattuck Avenue. 510.843.3745, lococospizzeria.com

Lo Coco’s Oakland is located at 4270 Piedmont Avenue. 510.652.6222, lococospiedmont.com

Mary Tilson is the host of America’s Back 40, an Americana music program featuring fun music and in-studio performances, heard every Sunday at 1pm on KPFA-FM 94.1 or KPFA.org. On occasion, when she’s not cross country skiing or swimming the Great Lakes in one day, she writes about food. You may reach her at maryltilso(at)gmail.com.

Cheryl Angelina Koehler is the editor and publisher of Edible East Bay and author of Touring the Sierra Nevada, published by University of Nevada Press.

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