SAN FRANCISCO – When you join one of Avital Ungar’s California food experiences, you’ll find an important, added ingredient: storytelling.
It’s what the San Francisco native describes as tours that “embrace quirky.” In other words, people joining these experiences not only discover new tastes, but also the colorful owners and chefs of the restaurants where they sit down for a meal, be it in San Francisco or Southern California.
“It’s really about being part of the neighborhood,” says the enthusiastic Ungar, “being curious about what’s going on in the neighborhood and the community.”
What could be a better example of this approach than Tommaso’s, an intimate Italian restaurant in the city’s North Beach neighborhood with the first wood-fired, brick pizza oven on the West Coast, circa 1935.
I met Ungar, who was dressed casually in a white blouse and a pair of jeans, one morning in front of the legendary Italian eatery on Kearny Street, just up the way from Columbus Avenue, long identified as the city’s slice of Italy and later with the Beat Generation and the City Lights book store, which opened in 1953.
And while we’re at it, bustling Chinatown is nearby.
But what really makes this area of San Francisco so important historically is its connection to the Barbary Coast, what Ungar calls “the most notorious neighborhood in America during the 1848 Gold Rush,” a place dotted with gambling halls, saloons and brothels, all making for a “really debaucherous history.” Into this mix came many of San Francisco’s early Italian fishermen, who needed to be near the coastal waters to ply their trade.
Inside Tommaso’s, intimate booths fill both sides of the room, which makes the restaurant one of Ungar’s favorite date spots for a night out. In between the booths is one long communal table. The walls next to the booths are decorated with paintings of Italian scenes done years ago by a “starving” artist who was paid with spaghetti and meatballs.
Tommaso’s original owners, the Cantolupo family, had come to America from Naples and named their restaurant Lupo’s. In 1971, they retired and sold the place to their chef, Tommy Chin, who changed the name to Tommaso’s.
Some years later the restaurant was sold again, this time to the current owner, Agostino Crotti, who was working at Caffé Trieste – another iconic North Beach institution – and serving Francis Ford Coppola cappuccinos while he wrote the script for The Godfather on his Olivetti typewriter.
The Crotti family carries on Tommaso’s great tradition to this day, cooking and meeting their guests.
“To me,” says Ungar, pointing to a poster on the wall signed to Agostino by Coppola himself, “that’s the type of stories that bring (the restaurants) alive.”
Another aspect of Tommaso’s that brings it all alive is its wood-burning stove and the idea that “pizza on the West Coast really started here.”
“When you go to Tommaso’s,” Ungar says, “Agostino is not only going to show you the inside of his pizza oven… but he’ll talk to you about how he sources his wood, and the recipe, and also tell the stories of the neighborhood.”
He may even tell you about Alice Waters of Chez Panisse fame in Berkeley, California, sending her bricklayer to find out how the restaurant’s oven was constructed.
“To me that’s the back side, the story that you’re getting (when you go) a little bit off the beaten path,” says Ungar.
Ungar discovered how to go “a little bit off the beaten path” while sitting in the cafes of Paris. After studying art history, Mandarin and French at UCLA, she traveled to France after college and then bought a “one-way ticket to China.”
“I found that by living abroad, you have this intense curiosity,” she says, “and at the same when you’re traveling, you’re always asking questions, you’re willing to try new things.”
When she returned to San Francisco in 2008, Ungar remembered some of her favorite moments while living abroad and thought, why not build something for the locals of her generation “to basically explore their own city in the way that a traveler explores it with all that curiosity.”
“I wanted to build something that was an experience,” she says, “because I’m a millennial and as you’ve probably heard, millennials really care about the experiences.
They’re not necessarily always buying ‘things’… they’re buying experiences.”
Ungar stresses that what she offers is not a “tour” in the accepted sense of the word, but more like something locals can do on a date night.
As she soon discovered, many people may have lived in a neighborhood like North Beach for many years, but they never actually have visited the restaurants they’ve heard about because they “get into a routine where they live.”
Of course, her tours also appeal to travelers who may hunger for a chance to mix with the locals, so everything seems to strike a nice balance for locals and visitors alike.
Like her tours, Avital’s name is also somewhat off the beaten path. As she explains, her parents – including her father who is a rabbi – “were very involved in bringing Soviet Jews to the United States in the 1980s.”
On one occasion, her parents went to hear Avital Sharansky, who was leading the international effort to free her husband, Natan Sharansky, from Soviet imprisonment.
“My parents thought that Avital Sharansky was brave and courageous,” Ungar says. “They loved the name, and they wanted a daughter to emulate her… so they decided to name me after Avital Sharansky.”
Ungar’s tours accommodate up to 12 participants and feature fourcourse, progressive meals at four different restaurants. One can choose between San Francisco’s Mission District, North Beach, or Union Square, the latter being a two-hour cocktail experience, including a tasting of Pisco Punch, a local invention.
She also offers food experiences in recently-gentrified downtown Los Angeles, as well as Southern California’s beachside Venice neighborhood.
No matter which experience one selects, her goal is always to tell “a bigger story.”(For more information, visit www.avitaltours.com).