Opening night at Via Veneto

FIRST PERSON | Andre Bolaffi

It was a Friday night in January 1990, exactly 20 years ago. We had been in our new home on Bush Street for five years. My wife Janice suggested we walk up Fillmore to the Clay Theatre to see a French film, “Claudine-Claudel,” about Rodin, his work and his mistress. We went to the 7 o’clock show with plans to have dinner afterward.

The movie was sold out, but we managed to excuse and pardon our way to the remaining two empty seats in the dead center of a front row. After half an hour, I said to Janice — quietly, I’m sure, despite the shushes from nearby theatergoers — “If something doesn’t develop soon, I’m going to leave.”

“You can’t leave,” she said.

An hour into the film, having endured enough, I decided to leave.

“You can’t leave,” Janice said again. “You’ll disturb all these people.”

“Watch me,” I responded, and I excused and pardoned my way down the row and out of the theater.

Across the street, a new restaurant called Via Veneto looked lively, full of people and all lit up. I decided to check it out while the movie dragged on.
As I opened the door and stepped inside, I was met with a celebratory crowd of fashionably dressed people in jackets and ties and dresses and heels. I noticed the restaurant had no chairs and its tables were up against the walls and filled with delectable looking antipasta.

Before I could think much about it, a waiter offered a glass of red wine. Wow, what a great new restaurant. I began to enjoy myself, while keeping
an eye on the Clay across the street. The clientele was jovial and friendly. A smartly dressed man approached me and asked, “And how do you
know Salvatore?”

“Salvatore? Well, you know…”

Before I could embarrass myself, he saved me by asking, “From North Beach?”

“Yes, of course, from North Beach,” I cheerfully agreed.

I was continuing to enjoy the wine, the food and the company when a statuesque brunette approached.

“Hi,” she said, “and how do you know Massimo?”

Now I knew Salvatore was from North Beach, but who in the world
was Massimo? Think fast.

“Well,” I responded, “you know, Salvatore is …”

“But of course,” she said, “Massimo and Salvatore both worked in…”

“ . . . North Beach,” I chimed in.

Again the conversation was interrupted by the jostling crowd. I noticed that “Claudine-Claudel” must have finally — mercifully — ended, since people were exiting the theatre. I made my way toward the door to tell Janice about this wonderfully friendly new restaurant. Just as I opened the door and was about to step outside, a fellow grabbed my arm.

“Leaving so soon?” he asked warmly.

“No,” I said, “I’m just going across the street to bring my wife back.”

“Wonderful!” he said.

Filled with wine and bravado by now, I turned and asked him confidently, “And how do you know Massimo?”

He looked at me and responded: “I am Massimo!”

Later I found out: That was Via Veneto’s opening night celebration, by invitation only. And we’ve been crashing this wonderful neighborhood restaurant ever since.