As much as I love the craft cocktail scene in The City, I'm just as impressed with an old-school, no-frills bartender.
Ana Handelman, who's been behind the stick at the famous Sodini's in North Beach for the past 17 years, is a neighborhood fixture at the restaurant on the corner of Grant Avenue and Green Street. She is original San Francisco, with family as far back as they come. Handelman says her ancestors came west in 1848 from Genoa, Italy — long before other travelers dropped anchor in the Bay and rushed to the golden hills. I guess timeliness runs in the family.
“We came just a little bit before the Gold Rush,” Ana says. “Because my family, we always come early.”
And it's tough to be late for work when you live next door to your employer.
In a neighborhood where it seems that everybody is from somewhere else and came looking for some kind of gold of their own, Ana's roots are firmly planted here. Her mother and father live near Coit Tower, where her grandmother Filomena's mural graces an inside wall of the tower. And all the former bars, restaurants and hotspots that long ago faded away — like her wild nights — remain fresh in her memory.
Like that time she was on “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?” and won $16,000, but not without the help of all her lifelines.
“I took one of my friends to Puerto Vallarta for a week and went all out. She was one of my lifelines,” Ana says. “Hotels on the beach, sunbathing all day, you name it.”
But besides going on vacation once in a while, her feet stay planted in San Francisco's Little Italy, where she grew up near the former Old Spaghetti Factory, a popular place her parents ran. Robin Williams and other big acts found an early stage presence there. The space is now known as Bocce Cafe, where the inlay stayed mostly intact. Ana's baby photo still hangs on the wall.
I sat down at Sodini's for some bruschetta and a Negroni, reminiscing and thankful for places where this warm charm still exists. It was almost like being in the middle of Ana's living room.
I was surrounded by regulars, like the taxi drivers who make their last pickup a Manhattan over at Sodini's, and officers patrolling the neighborhood who stopped by for an iced tea and a chance to say hello to North Beach's leading lady.
All the while, Ana shook martinis and chatted up everyone, giving guests an Italian pour of wine — the kind that hits the rim. A couple of Ana's old friends who moved out of the neighborhood sat next to me. They brought her a potted herb garden.
“I love you Italians!” Ana said, fingers raised and puckered like a clove of garlic. “Always come bearing gifts.”
After my Negroni, she whipped up a Liz Taylor. It's a violet Cosmopolitan in which the cranberry juice and blue curacao do for the drink what the Golden Age actress's eyes did for the screen. When Ana first landed the gig at Sodini's, her gals would dress up and take over the bar for “Liz Taylor Night.”
“We were all still single and had no kids — now those were the days,” Ana says.
All her friends have long since married, moved out of town and had children, but she is here in the same neighborhood she has always called home. Still the first one you see when you first open the doors to the Rat Pack-themed bar and restaurant — the type who makes you smile every time.
When in North Beach …