San Francisco – a revival of Italian culture?

The first thing I want to do in San Francisco is to see if there are any visible reminders of the impact the emigranti made on the city. I can’t get out of my mind images of the Ticinesi on board a train in 1890 headed for California as described by businessman and editor, Giorgio Cavalli, in L’Elvezia. Giorgio Cavalli account

From my lodgings, the historic San Remo hotel (since 1906), I stroll through the Italian neighbourhood that is North Beach. As in New York, the Italian district here is cheek by jowl with Chinatown. And this is very evident on Broadway, just above Columbus. The Ticino Hotel whose rooms were once advertised in the local Colonia Svizzera newspaper is now a Chinese supermarket, bordering a Chinese-run hotel (not in picture) and a motor inn.


I decide to find out what has become of the building that once housed La Colonia Svizzera – an Italian-language semi-weekly – as it billed itself. A little further up on Columbus I turn left to look for the address, 580 Washington Street. I knew the newspaper stopped publishing decades ago, but I didn’t expect that the building would have disappeared too! A gaping hole in the form of an alley is where I deduce the structure once was, just opposite a modern San Francisco landmark, the Transamerica skyscraper.


 This inspires me to head for the Museum of Modern Art to see the mark left on San Francisco by modern-day Ticinesi. The structure housing the museum was designed by well known Ticino architect, Mario Botta. His signature style has reshaped the cityscape of Lugano, and adds a distinctive touch to San Francisco.


Cavalli’s business was located somewhere on Montgomery near Columbus. I’m not sure exactly where to look and come up empty handed, but do stumble past the offices of Swissnex. It’s a Swiss government-supported effort to promote business and educational ties.


I find myself retracing my steps on Columbus and notice the name of a shop on the corner with Stockton that I missed heading up the street: A. Cavalli & Co, Italian bookstore and imports.


I stop for lunch determined to ask whether there might be a connection to the Cavalli I’m looking for. Yes, says Santo, a recent Italian immigrant who took over the business two years ago. Over a meal of homemade lasagna, followed by panna cotta and finished with a real cappuccino, Santo tells me how Giorgio Cavalli started the business in 1890, eventually passing it on to his sister and her husband.

The story is not well known in San Francisco, but that was about to change as Santo had been asked to talk about the business’s history on KGO radio the following day. Santo says he intends to compliment his menu with a wide range of Italian-language books to bring more Italian culture back to the city. It was nice to see that Cavalli’s spirit is being revived.

5 thoughts on “San Francisco – a revival of Italian culture?

  1. Pretty amazing how you dug the Ticinesi stories out by just strolling around North Beach. Takes a sharp eye and a reporter’s well trained nose! Fascinating stuff, and hope more to come.

  2. There was once–perhaps still–a Swiss Chalet bar on Broadway in San Francisco. As a child my father Luigi (Louis) Bisi would take us there and he would go inside and visit with Charlie Corda, his good friend. Charlie was from the same village in Ticino-Gordemo/Vale Verzasca as my dad and they were good friends. Charlie owned/ran the bar for many years and lived in San Francisco all his life after he emigrated from Ticino.

  3. Your
    coverage of San Francisco North Beach and especially Cavalli’s book
    store really brings things close to home for me. I just sent
    Professor Giorgio Cheda a copy of my great grandfather Lorenzo
    Martinelli’s obituary that appeared in the Swiss Colony Newspaper
    April 4, 1893, the eulogy was given by Mr. G. F. Cavalli. It is in
    Italian but has been translated to English. I am very glad to hear
    Cavalli’s book store is being revitalized. I have visited there a few
    times and was always a little afraid it might disappear.
    I have made contact with Professor Cheda
    who I was surprised to see has ancestors from Maggia like I do and
    even has a maternal grandfather with the same surname as I have:
    I had heard of Prof. Cheda’s studies and books back in 1994 when
    the Point Reyes Light Newspaper ran a series of articles about the
    Swiss Italian immigration to West Marin, in which my great
    grandfather was mentioned. So you can understand I was happy to be
    able to make contact with Professor Cheda thru this Swiss Info website at this time.

    I especially liked the videos of London and St. Martin in The Fields
    Church, that was decorated by Swiss Italian artisans. I visited there
    in 2006 since my English great grandparents were married there ,
    listened to a concert there, but little did I know at that time that
    the ceiling was created by Ticinese.

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