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The Real & Imagined History of Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store Cafe

Updated: Mar 15, 2023 17:51
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There are no cigars there. Not anymore, at Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Cafe Store.

North Beach, that righteous, riotous and literarily relevant San Francisco neighborhood of great charm has long become a tourist destination. Arguably, it is now a neighborhood primarily cultivated and sustained through tourism. It’s where all the sailors go during Fleet Week. It’s where burgeoning poets go to connect with the beat ghosts of writerly renown. It is also where I bring the French family whenever they come to visit. I married a handsome French fencing instructor quite some time ago and as a result, I have been graced with members of his family coming to visit every year since. Though we live in the wonderful wilds of West Oakland, I yet, always bring them to Mario’s.

Unlike some of the more conspicuous establishments catering to a romantic representation of the neighborhood’s Italian immigrant history – replete with chianti bottles hung in straw baskets or the famous neon lit strip clubs that beckon saucily from blocks away – Mario’s is a modest, unobtrusive, truly local little joint.

Photo by Russell Mondy

The joint however, has a bona fide Italian immigrant history, in origin and also potentially, incidentally, in baseball fame. Triangled on a corner of Columbus Avenue and Union Street, overlooking Washington Square Park and Saints Peter and Paul Church – where Marylin Monroe and Joe DiMaggio had their wedding photographed in 1954 – Mario’s is a perfect spot to sit in the afternoon and watch the neighborhood go by. Or entertain visiting guests and regal them with tidbits of neighborhood lore. Or read a book of literary greatness as Jafar Lusso, a past employee whose parents moved the family to San Francisco from New Zealand when he was 11 years old, once did. “I loved Mario’s the most when the weather was a bit gloomy and I was in the clutches of a great book. I remember finishing Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot sitting in the corner on a rainy day with an americano”.

Photo by Jafar Lusso

But let’s talk about cigars. Or rather the history of a place that was once so known for selling cigars that the current owners kept it as part of the name.

Built in 1909, the flatiron building was first home to a shoemaker, a certain Raffaele LaCava but it was soon bought by saloon keepers TJ Irwin and George William Ringen. They ran the place until prohibition commenced in 1919 when they sold it to Albert Puccetti who, in a move of what could be considered savvy capitalism ala American immigrant style, created a store selling tobacco and, of course, cigars. As my favorite researcher of city records, Robby Virus from Project Pimento, continued to discover, from 1927-1946 the cigar store was run by Giuseppi Martini who likely sold bootleg liquor or at least cigars to bootleggers.

Though the Volstead Act that had federally outlawed alcohol sales was repealed in 1933, the city and particularly North Beach had already long rebelled against the law in secret as well as bold, outright resistance.

Yes, I am talking about organized crime and the Mafia.

Scene of slaying of gangster Luigi Malvese. Auto in place where Malvese was shot. Lewis Packing Corp. Ltd., 720 Columbus. May 19, 1932. Photo Courtesy of Dick Boyd.

According to the essay by Dick Boyd, “In 1928 Gerri Ferri, the ‘Don Juan of North Beach,’ was the man in charge. He was later found filled with bullets in his bathroom at 490 Lombard. Ferri’s murder set off a four-year power struggle. He was soon followed in power and death by ‘Genaro the Magnificent’ Broccolo, Mario Filippi, Alfred Scariso and Frank Bosch, ‘the strong man of the Sicilians,’ all of whom had brief reigns. The bloodbath ended with the murder of the self proclaimed ‘King of North Beach Crooks,’ Luigi Malvese of 1495 Grant Ave. At one time or another Malvese had been charged for bootlegging, hijacking, extortion and gunrunning (including a plot to smuggle guns into Folsom Prison).

He met his demise just before 6pm on May 19, 1932 in Al Capone style while double-parked in front of the Del Monte Barber Shop at 720 Columbus Ave”. Malvese met his end just a block up from where Mario’s now is.

In 1948, there was a new owner and the name changed to the Bohemian Cigar Store and then became known as a place where, “all the Italian’s in the neighborhood would come to have their espresso and spend hours playing card games and filling the entire establishment up with their cigar smoke”. In 1971, Mario Crismani, a retired police inspector from Trieste bought the business and his wife Lilliana began making paninis to feed those hungry, card playing and smoking customers.

The offerings at that little corner spot have gone through many changes in the ensuing decades. They stopped selling cigars and tobacco when it became illegal to smoke indoors in 1992. Those sandwiches, originally created by Lilliana, now made with fresh focaccia from the local Liguria bakery have become, in large part, the reason why people go there, myself included. Their grandchildren Dario and Daniella Crismani, in a wonderful family continuation, are now in charge and they often hire poets, musicians or as in the case of Lusso, creators of groovy, stylish, clothing companies (Lusso and his business partner Rodney Parker even made Stuart’s wedding suit). But the cigar humidor once used still exists behind the bar counter as a recognition of what used to be.

Photo of one of the famous sandwiches from Mario’s FB Page

Were you wondering when I was finally going to start talking about Mario’s possible connection to baseball greatness? Well, here you go.

Joe DiMaggio known as “Joltin’ Joe” and “The Yankee Clipper” was born in Martinez, CA in 1914, and was also a heavy smoker. I have no proof but considering that DiMaggio was raised in an apartment on Taylor street in North Beach starting in 1917 by his Italian immigrant parents, I suspect that he may have often gone to the cigar store. Perhaps not at age 17 when he failed out of classes at Galileo High School and decided to instead, work at odd jobs hustling newspapers, loading boxes in a warehouse and working at an orange juice plant rather than be a fisherman like his father. But then again, that was a different time and a teenager smoking wasn’t illegal nor was it considered shocking.

DiMaggio started playing baseball in the local sandlot at ten and in 1933, as a member of the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League he was scouted to play for the New York Yankees. And thus baseball history was made. A history that also brought him back to his home neighborhood when he fell in love with a certain golden goddess of the silver screen, otherwise known as Marylin Monroe.

They were married in a civil ceremony at San Francisco City Hall in 1954 as the Catholic church would not allow him to marry for a second time as he had already married another lovely actress by the name of Dorothy Arnold and though they had officially divorced, the church wouldn’t recognize his second marriage without an annulment. But being the Catholic that he was, he still wanted to be married in a church. Or at least to be Seen being married in a church. So they, these very famous folks of the time and in their prime, staged a moment on the church steps for the press.

Again, considering that the church was right across the park from the Bohemian Cigar Store might DiMaggio have bought his celebratory cigars there? We can only speculate.

Monroe divorced him less than a year later citing mental cruelty which oddly and amazingly for the era, he recognized as legitimate, quit drinking and even went to a therapist. That is a whole different story but he never married again, tried to reconcile right before her untimely passing and delivered roses to her grave until he died of lung cancer in 1999.

Despite the sad result of their particular union, Saints Peter and Paul Church still has many regular non-catholic visitors eager to bask in the resonance of a moment in America’s mid-century history where an immigrant’s son rose to great fame and married a movie star.

One who was then photographed in front of a beautiful church rising resplendently across the park and easily viewed while sitting at an outside table at Mario’s.

A table that we sat at before an entirely different wedding.

My French husband’s brother asked us to organize his wedding. His soon to be wife wanted to be married here rather than in Bourdeaux. They came alone without all of the family and, like DiMaggio and Monroe, were married in a civil ceremony at the courthouse. But they wanted the honoring ceremony to be in North Beach. They wanted to be near where countless people strove for new possibilities. They wanted to be where great and wild poets had walked and talked. They wanted to be amongst the resonance of a place that, though, may cater much to tourism these days, still holds the palpable fervor of everyone who has ever made their way in it.

It was a very gloomy day. That day. Just as I was offering a literary style honoring of their union in the park, the rain began to pour down. We all huddled under an umbrella and with glasses gifted sweetly from Mario’s for the champagne, we toasted to the happy couple and indeed, to the great and wonderful neighborhood of North Beach.

Afterwards, of course, we then went to Vesuvios


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Ginger Murray

Ginger Murray

Ginger Murray is a writer, storyteller and performer. A once SF Weekly columnist, published poet and founder of a feminist magazine, she recently graduated from Mills College with a degree in History because that is what she loves. Ginger currently lives in West Oakland where the lemon trees grow.