LOCALS | Chris Barnett
For centuries, historians, scholars and food lovers have argued over who invented the pizza. Greeks claim the honor with a round flatbread topped with meat, cheese, fruit and tree leaves that debuted in 1 B.C. Italians insist a baker in Naples was commissioned to create the first real pizza in 1889 to celebrate the visit of Queen Margherita.
Dino Stavrakikis wins either way. He’s half Greek and half Italian and for the past 25 years has been baking both styles of the humble pie in his corner pizza palace at Fillmore and California. During that time, Dino has done his damnedest to ensure its reputation as a fun, friendly, family-minded place to pop in for a slice, a plate of spaghetti and meatballs or a Greek salad. And diners needn’t worry about waiting an hour for a table or a seat at the bar — or being snubbed by a snooty maitre d’.
At Dino’s, the greeter is usually Dino himself or, during the week, his Uncle Nick Nickolas, a retired restaurant mogul as smooth as the silk sportcoats he wears. Indeed, the bigger risk is being schmoozed to death by Dino, Uncle Nick or any of the doughboys who have worked there 10 to 20 or 25 years, who know your name and what you like.
Stavrakikis admits he loves tradition. In a day when chefs measure the grams of virtually everything they put on the plate, Dino’s piles on the food, serving portions that would stuff a lumberjack. His best-selling pizza is called “the Mountain.” Topped with pepperoni, sausage, salami, bell peppers, mushrooms, onions, olives and garlic “on request,” and nearly a foot and a half in diameter, it lives up to its name.
Until now, Dino’s has been anchored to the past in other ways, too. Menu prices haven’t changed in three years, says manager Jesus Cedillos, who started off spinning pizza dough on his fingertips in Dino’s front window a quarter century ago. For most of those years, the place itself has been frozen in time. The decor became dated and the tables, chairs, barstools and countertop were beat up after years of high turnover of loyal customers and tourists looking for a pizza that is homemade and not cooked to the exact specifications of a corporate-owned chain.
But on April 5, a new Dino’s emerged from its month-long construction cocoon.
“Let’s just say I got dragged into the 21st century kicking and screaming,” says Stavrakikis. “And as much as I didn’t really want to change Dino’s and possibly disrupt the magic, I couldn’t afford not to. Fillmore has gotten very, very chi-chi. There’s competition everywhere on the street from a lot of great restaurants. There’s a new wave of people in the Fillmore and more coming every day and they all want to know ‘what’s new, what’s hot, what’s in, what’s out?’ So while this is a family restaurant, it needs to catch up with the neighborhood.”
But then like the theatrical lead in a Greek tragedy, Stavrakikis downplays the drama. “We’re not really going to change very much. The hospitality will remain the same,” he says.
The fact is the corner storefront has just undergone its greatest transformation since 1976 when Waxman’s Pharmacy, a Fillmore Street fixture for more than 30 years, suddenly became the city’s second Golden Peacock pizza joint owned by Peter Stavros, Dino’s first cousin. Stavros’s first Golden Peacock, on Eddy Street in the Tenderloin, was half pizzeria, half Greek restaurant.
The biggest surprise in the renovation is the name change. Dino is being joined on the marquee by his two-year-old son, Santino. Talk about nepotism. The kid’s never had a rolling pin in his tiny hands, never sliced a salami, but he’s quantum leaped into star status on the boulevard along with names like Ralph Lauren and Marc Jacobs.
Then again, it’s not exactly unexpected. Stavrakikis, as everyone who knows him knows, is a lifelong bachelor who’s a family man at heart. And while he talks a good game as the hardcore, don’t-rock-the-boat traditionalist, a couple of years ago he decided to have a child on his own.
Working with a San Francisco fertility specialist, he found an egg donor in Florida and a surrogate mom in Los Angeles. Stavrakikis made his donation and Santino was born eight months later, within eyeshot of the Hollywood sign. A blue baby blanket was unfurled from the upstairs mezzanine proclaiming “It’s a boy.” The official birth announcement was painted on the shop’s front window: “Santino Has Arrived.”
And now the pizzeria is being reborn as “Dino and Santino’s Pizza and Dining.” Stavrakikis was fortunate enough to have the counsel of Uncle Nick Nickolas, who created, built and sold the successful nationwide restaurant chain Nick’s Fishmarket, among others. And he was savvy enough to hire interior designer Rosalyn Brandt of Tiburon and San Francisco contractor Jeff Orza of Able Body Construction — all of whom he met through customers, and who seem to be bringing the job in on schedule and on budget.
Amazingly, it sounds like a lovefest among those involved, a rare event in commercial renovations. Says Brandt: “Dino is a pleasure to work with. He’s open to ideas and can make decisions. Adds Orza: “This was a redesign on the fly.” To be cost-efficient, there were no sketches or renderings to illustrate the ideas. “It was very informal,” explains Brandt. “We just laid everything out on the table and talked it through.”
Even before the doors reopened April 4, some changes were fairly obvious. At Uncle Nick’s suggestion, Orza cut a 6-foot wide by nearly 8-foot tall window in the thick masonry and brick wall facing the California Street side of the restaurant to let the sunshine in and let the customers see out. Six new tables will line the sidewalk along the wall and the awning has been extended to create more al fresco dining, with heat lamps. New tables and benches will replace the old seating outside the front door facing Fillmore Street.
Inside, the redesign is largely cosmetic. A new floor is fashioned out of ceramic tiles that resemble planks. Gray swirled marble tiles run halfway up one wall. The rest of the space is painted charcoal gray and off-white with light blue accents. Brandt claims the color scheme was chosen to recreate a Mediterranean mood, but diplomatically doesn’t say if the sea is off the coast of Greece or Italy.
The old counter has been replaced with a curved one topped in black granite. All the old tables and chairs have been junked and replaced with tables made out of charcoal and gray laminate and black leather chairs finished in satin chrome. The main floor, which can’t be expanded, is quite contemporary but warm.
The upstairs mezzanine was given the most extensive facelift and it’s Stavrakikis’s pride and joy. It’s filled with comfortable black tweed banquettes and has two TVs, in addition to the two downstairs. The proprietor promises it won’t be some deafening sports bar. “I’m calling it Santino’s Clubhouse and it will be available for private parties, meetings or just hanging out with friends,” he says.
Regulars will see a few changes on the menu. Loukoumades, a dessert found locally only at Greek festivals, has been added. Stavrakikis describes it as a “dough ball cooked in olive oil, then smothered in honey, walnut, cinnamon and a little orange peel. It’s to die for. Five of them will be six bucks, but one person couldn’t eat one order.”
Prices will increase, but he insists the amounts will be a non-inflationary 35 cents to 50 cents a dish. “During the month we were closed, I’ve been eating out a lot and I realized we are way, way underpriced when I pay $20 for an omelet and an orange juice,” says Stavrakikis.
Over the years, some prominent names with big appetites have passed through Dino’s front door — including sports heroes Barry Bonds, Joe Montana and Ronnie Lott; former San Francisco mayors Art Agnos, Willie Brown and Gavin Newsom; even former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev.
But the cash flow comes from the neighborhood regulars.
“I love Dino’s because the food is fresh, tasty, reasonably priced — the salads especially — and the staff is friendly and professional,” says Carol Ruggieri, a clinical skin specialist and owner of Crescent Moon upstairs at 2001 Fillmore. “I’m looking forward to the renovation — but frankly I don’t care what it looks like. I go for the food,” she says. “The house salad with a seasoned grilled chicken breast is my favorite. You’re never going to get an old tomato.”
Melissa Harris and Brandon Dole, students at University of the Pacific’s nearby dental school, are passionate about Dino’s pizzas, salads and the way they are treated. “Customer service is amazing and attentive,” says Harris. “There are always people there but the host always finds us a place to sit down. Dino’s feels like family.”
EARLIER: “Dino’s boy”
THE CAST OF CHARACTERS
Every generational, epic family tale has a cast of characters either on stage or behind the scenes. And the backstory of the new Dino and Santino’s is no exception. It’s laced with love, passion, moussaka and short ribs, wheeling and dealing and “uncles” pulled out of thin air, all in quest of the dough.
Dino Stavrakikis: Fillmore’s resident irrepressible impresario of the pizza pie and the Greek salad. Housemade — born in San Francisco as an only child of investment bankers, schooled at Skyline High. A devoted dad who’s already grooming 2-year-old Santino to join the family business.
Koula McCormick: Dino’s mom, who climbed high on the corporate ladder at Union Bank downtown. Kept the books, watched the cash register, double-checked the invoices and paid the bills for her son for a decade or so.
Nicholas Nickolas aka Uncle Nick: Born in Oakland, son of an immigrant produce wholesaler but straight out of central casting as the quint-essential Runyanesque restaurant owner. GQ dresser, charming, well seasoned in the art and science of running profitable dining and drinking spots. Went to Hawaii at 22 with 100 bucks in his jeans, picked pineapples and papayas until his boss teamed up with him to build Nick’s Fishmarkets, 40 fancy restaurants from Honolulu to Miami plus Italian and Mexican eateries. Retired, ran food and beverage at tony Boca Raton Resort and Club, retired again, married his high school love, Judy Steinberg, and now works part-time for his nephew as a maitre d’ and a Greek version of an Italian consigliore. Involved in the renovation, his non-stop smile and droll sense of humor is a major ingredient in keeping the place old world.
Peter Stavros: Original patriarch of the Greek pizza restaurants in the city. Converted Waxman’s Pharmacy at Fillmore/California into the Golden Peacock in ’76. Renamed it Uncle Vito’s Pizzadelli and sold it to his first cousin, Dino, in 1988. Another Uncle Vito’s continues today at 700 Bush.
Merle Kovtun: A one-time carpenter hired by Stavros to do the Waxman Pharmacy conversion, who later managed and then became a partner in 700 Bush. It was his idea to cook up a bogus name because Stavros’ original moniker, The Pizza Place, wasn’t memorable to people in the ’80s who picked their restaurants and takeout food from the Yellow Pages. Kovtun, who sold out his interest, has no Greek blood, but with 28 years in the business is the unofficial historian — and Dino’s mentor.
Jimmy Stavros: Dino’s uncle and mama Koula’s oldest brother. He owned the Golden Peacock in the Tenderloin. Used to cook Greek dishes in his ovens on Eddy and drive them over to the Fillmore and California outpost.
Johnny and Yvonne Stamatakis: Partners with Peter Stavros when he owned the Golden Peacock that became Uncle Vito’s Pizzadelli that later became Dino’s. Yvonne is Jimmy Stavros’s daughter and Dino’s cousin. Johnny, who married into the dynasty, was a hands-on restaurateur and tight with Peter.
Uncle Vito: Fictional uncle, a name dreamed up by a pizza box maker named Joe Denola to give life and personality to Stavros’s mini-chain of four Greek-owned Italian restaurants. Dino’s on Fillmore was an Uncle Vito’s for a while. The name lives on at 700 Bush.
Jesus Cedillos: Manager of Dino and Santino’s. Has been with Dino since day one and has played a big role in the renovation. Calm, polar opposite of his boss in temperament, his welcoming smile gives the place a lot of its family vibe.
David Dubiner: Owns Uncle Vito’s Pizzadelli at 700 Bush. Not in the family, but one of Dino’s biggest cheerleaders.
Spiro Tampouranizis: Infamous former San Francisco saloonlord, owned Lord Jim’s at Broadway and Polk, the original site of America’s first fern bar, Henry Africa’s. Dino worked as a bar back, then bartender at Lord Jim’s and was on duty the night the cops raided the joint looking for cocaine but only found a bar full of outraged lawyers, who sued the city on Spiro’s behalf. Tampouranizis moved back years ago to Greece, where he makes olive oil. Dino visits him every summer.
The cast of characters is probably a lot longer, but who knows. Says Uncle Nick: “The great truth among Greeks is that it doesn’t take blood to be related. Success ‘relates’ you. If you like someone, you’re related. So Dino and I are related because my nephew married his cousin and I became Uncle Nick. That was good enough for us.”
— Chris Barnett