Chef Salvatore DiGrande on any given day can be found presiding over the back stoves at Bechelli’s Flower Market Cafe, tending to sauces he has perfected over a half century of working in and running kitchens around San Francisco.
Just don’t ask for his secret recipes, he says with a smile, brandishing a large kitchen knife to make his point.
He’s joking, but not entirely.
Considered by many as one of The City’s most experienced master chefs, DiGrande, 80, has served all manner of dishes and perfected his famous sauces over the decades, drawing on his upbringing around kitchens in his native Sicily. He has cooked for the famous, including Al Pacino, Clint Eastwood and Luciano Pavarotti as some of his patrons. He has also fed the shifting generations of The City, along with all types of North Beach denizens and tourists.
DiGrande is now helping hold down the fort at Bechelli’s — located where Highway 280 meets Brannan Street — after 52 years of dedicated service to food enthusiasts and San Francisco natives. DiGrande has been cooking there for the past 15 years without missing a single day of work. Largely unknown to the masses, his expertise has been spread through word of mouth, and that’s how he likes it.
When it comes to his craft, DiGrande is a do-it-yourself kind of guy who didn’t go to culinary school because he had the best training possible: His family’s home recipes from Sicily. He is best known for his scallopini, butterfly prawns and chicken piccata, just to name a few, but what he really serves is trust.
“I dont like to cut corners because if I can’t eat it, why serve it to people?” DiGrande said. “My food is to be 100 percent when it goes out of the kitchen. If it isn’t 100 percent — I don’t serve it.”
And no one can attest to this better than Mark Bechelli, owner of Bechelli’s and longtime friend of DiGrande, who said he hasn’t stepped foot in the kitchen in the decade and a half since DiGrande came on board.
“This guy here will touch [the food], and he’ll say, ‘Too much water in that meat! That salmon is old or it’s been flash frozen — I dont even want it, get it out of here!’” Bechelli said. “He will only allow me to buy the best stuff.”
Despite radical changes in The City’s food scene over the years, DiGrande has held onto his traditional means and methods.
“I still cut my mushrooms, clean my onions, chop my own parsley. I have to wash the parsley because there’s a lot of sand. I don’t trust anybody,” DiGrande said, “I still overlook things ‘cause I’m an old fish, and I grew up with that kind of mentality.”
DiGrande grew up in Augusta, a small fishing town on the east coast of Sicily. He began working alongside his uncle and grandfather on their fleet of fishing boats at a young age. Like many Italians in the 1950s, he left Italy for the United States to help his family. Although it was hard to leave Sicily at the age of 25, he found a home in North Beach.
“I didn’t know where I was going until I crossed the Bay Bridge,” DiGrande said. “And when I saw San Francisco, my heart just opened.”
DiGrande found his Italian roots had already made their way to North Beach, which was largely an Italian community in 1955.
“I didn’t speak English but everyone spoke Italian,” DiGrande remembered. “Everything was wonderful. I grew up in a time when we used to just walk through North Beach, and back then they used to leave everything behind the door. Wine, bread … all the deliveries were left outside your door before you even showed up for work, and nobody ever touched anything. Things started changing during the Vietnam War and Korean War.”
DiGrande worked at a North Beach restaurant for five years before opening his own place, suitably called Salvatore’s Restaurant, on the corner of Grant and Columbus avenues. This was before, as he said, “Broadway went kinda crazy with drugs and all the hippies in the ’60s and all that.”
“Those days there was a lot of people, they used to call them hippies, they used to eat out of the garbage can,” he said. “I have a bite on my arm from a human being. Because my restaurant was full of people one day and three people came in naked, so I pushed them out, and there were other guys outside that started punching me.”
DiGrande said he fought back, feeling a duty to protect his customers from the disruption. “They come in naked and say, ‘We own everything here,’ and I say, ‘Huh? I worked so hard out of nothing, and you own this?’ So that guy took a bite out of me, and I have the scar right here to prove it,” he said, rolling up his sleeve to show the old wound.
During the Vietnam and Korean wars, DiGrande said, he noticed stark changes to the social fabric of The City.
“So North Beach became very very tough area to survive actually,” DiGrande recalled. “You close the restaurant, you go home and all of a sudden your telephone rings, ‘They broke your front window.’ You get in the car, go to the restaurant, try to patch things up. Things got very very rough in the ’60s and ’70s, so I decided to sell the place, and I went to work for Mama’s on California and Jones, and that’s how my career began more or less.”
He sold his restaurant after 15 years and started cooking for Mama’s — the family run breakfast spot that’s been around for 50 years — where he stayed for another 22 years, eventually becoming head chef. It was at Mama’s in 1977 that DiGrande met Bechelli, when he was hired as the first waiter.
In 1999, Bechelli was starting Bechelli’s Flower Market Cafe, and it wasn’t long before he recruited DiGrande to preside over the kitchen
“So we reunited in 2000 when we did the big remodel, and he’s been here ever since, giving customers the old fashion San Francisco saute, which is a dying art,” Bechelli said. “Nobody does it anymore.”
And Bechelli says the duo work with each other, not for each other. It’s a partnership that surpasses official titles and business formalities.
“Salvatore is more than a chef. He’s a mentor. He’s a philosopher,” Bechelli said. “The greatest warrior of all time.”