Fisherman's Wharf is a wonderfully rich neighborhood, alive with energy and layered with history. "When you come to Fisherman's Wharf, you get to use all your senses. You get to smell, you get to see, you get to feel, you get to taste. It all happens here," says Al Baccari Jr. It's world famous, and has become a "can't miss" stop for many visitors to the city. Frank D'Amata says, They come here, they enjoy themselves, hey, that's what San Francisco's all about, there's a little bit for everybody here." But what most tourists miss, and what many of us who live here often overlook, is the "real" Fisherman's Wharf hidden in plain sight.
Tarantino's and Alioto's are well known restaurants gathered around the famous inner lagoon at San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf. People come from all over the world to see this, atmospheric spot. But for those of us who live here, it's all together too easy to miss.
Alessandro Baccari is a San Francisco native and has been part of the Italian fishing community since he was a boy in the 1930's. Al has a deep love and respect for Fisherman's Wharf and has even authored a book, San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf, that chronicles its complex history. "When I come here and I can still see the boats, knowing that the fishing boats are there, and what we have, I'm excited…" Al says.
Al has offered to guide us through his beloved neighborhood, and show us the real "working wharf." For Al, the Fisherman's Wharf of his childhood is still here, and he remembers it fondly.
"You know how they notified each other, they didn't have radios and all that… by singing, oh it was unbelievable, it was fun and everyone knew who everyone was…" It was a tight knit community, and it still is. "These are people that you just don't shake hands, you have to hug, you have to kiss, the men expect it. If you don't they want to know, what the hell's wrong with you."
One of Al's longtime friends is Frank D'Amata, a cornerstone of the fishing community since 1947. "It was so lively, there were nets stretched out all over the docs, guys sowing, mending their nets, all different type of fish being caught and brought in here. Right there, right at the docks, people would come down after having their dinner, and they'd smell the fishermen with their barbecue stoves back there in the boats, and the smell, you could smell it all the way up to Broadway street from here, and they’d say "Let us have some of those fish," Frank recalls.
To get a feel for the life of a fisherman, Frank offers to take us out for a trip on the bay. It is a journey he has made thousands of times, and a trip this community has made for many decades. And as we head out on the water, all the hustle and bustle of the city simply fades away.
Frank loves being a fisherman. "You could almost say it's the freedom of the thing. It's like you're your own boss. It's just a way of life that the freedom that you have. You go when you please, you do what you want, you work as late as you want, and that’s the big thing," says Frank.
When their limits are caught and their holds are full, it's back to the wharf where fishermen unload their boats and sell their catch. Each year, thousands of tons of fish and crab are processed at Fisherman’s Wharf, making it one of the largest suppliers of seafood on the west coast. One of the longest running wholesalers is the Alioto-Lazio Fish Company. Sisters Annette Traverso and Angela Cincotta each bring their own personalities to the business.
"Annette's the cutest sister, she's the one who works the hardest, she doesn't mind cutting the rock cod. When the rock cod starts bleeding, I'm white," says Angela. Annette adds, "She's the politically correct one. I'm not. I like to cut 'em up, she does not."
The sisters run every aspect of the business from receiving and cleaning the fish, to distributing it near and far. Their family has been in the fish business for over 100 years.
Annette saiys, "My grandfather started it and it was based on quality and freshness." In their grandfather's era, wives would sometimes help their husbands, but mostly women weren't accepted into what was then a male dominated industry. But times have changed, and today it's the daughters who carry on this family's legacy.
It's lunchtime, and a long time fixture in the neighborhood is just a short stroll away. Scoma's is one of the many restaurants on Fisherman's Wharf that receives locally caught fish in the back, and serves them up in the front. It's one of the original eateries, and has been a favorite among locals and tourists for many years.
After a delicious lunch… we're on the move again… and Al leads us to a place very dear to him, the Fisherman’s Memorial Chapel. Just a stone's throw from the busy tourist attractions, this touching tribute to San Francisco's fishermen is easy to miss.Here we cross paths with a couple of travelers who have stepped off the main thoroughfare and found a piece of the real Fisherman's wharf. Working to build this chapel was a labor of love for Al. It's a tribute to San Francisco’s seafaring traditions, and will be a gathering place for years to come.
There's more to Fisherman's Wharf than many of us expect. For hidden among the souvenir shops and crowds, is a thriving community, continuing traditions that have captured the world's imagination. And we can all experience it if we just slow down and take a look.