VIVA VIVANDE!

Photograph of Carlo Middione at Vivande by Daniel Bahmani

By CHRISTOPHER BRUNO

“Smell this!”

Carlo Middione said, as he thrust two handfuls of fresh, limp, uncooked spinach fettucine in my face.

I was the newest hire in the spring of 1985 at his gastronomical time machine, Vivande Porte Via, which masqueraded as a restaurant on Fillmore Street. I inhaled deeply and was shocked at the sweet, earthy smell of the uncooked strands. “It smells like…” Dare I say it? Am I crazy? Was this a test? “It smells like…” I looked at Carlo, unable to speak — and he burst out laughing.

He smiled at me with his bristling salt and peppered cheeks. It smelled like that vital life force, that injection of sweetly salted humanity from which all humanity is spun, betraying the true nature of my new place of employment: Vivande comes from the Latin vita, meaning life.

Carlo pulled the pasta away from me and, stepping toward the blue-flamed burners that created a sunflower of flame below the pots that suffered metallurgically throughout the day, thrust the pasta into a cauldron of boiling water.

I had failed this test. And I had passed it. I could not say what I thought. And Carlo could not hide what the gods had created in the food that had become his calling.

The pasta was ready, all the gas jets had been ignited, his thin young chefs in their starched whites stood like soldiers before their burners, the tables had been set, the front door unlocked — and life was to begin again in the enclosed brick alleyway that transported the culinary cognoscenti of San Francisco to the backstreets of Carlo’s Sicilian home.

And I, not yet graduated from Santa Clara University, but having returned from Ireland and seeking to become a novelist, was thrust into the pandemonium of Carlo’s one-man culinary revolution.

Carlo hired me to be his ombudsman — to greet his diners at the door, to help out in his fabled charcuterie, to assist the waiters with their wine orders, to give the busboys a hand during the rush. I had no job description and no real boss. I dove at anyone at the door who looked hungry and upsold them from take-out to “a quiet table in the back.” In fact, there were no quiet tables in the back at Vivande: The clank and clash and verbal and molten eruptions in the open kitchen wafted forward through the restaurants where two dozen tables-for-two kept diners nose-to-nose with their lunch dates and elbow-to-elbow with their neighbors.

The atmosphere was a factory of food. Mere comfort was cast aside in favor of cramming in as many people as possible who sought out Carlo’s signature dishes: Fettucine Carbonara, with pancetta and parmesean; Fettucine Salsiccia, with house-made fennel sausage; Fettucine alle Cozze, with white wine and mussels; Pasta Primavera, with seasonal sauteed vegetables. And my favorite: Straw & Hay — intermingled angel hair pasta made of durum flour (straw) and spinach flour (hay), cooked with olive oil and lightly salted. It was never on the menu, as I recall, but could be whipped up on the spot if I correctly eyed the requisite pasta for the dish and requested one more fix sotto voce.

We were allotted one entree per shift, and I, who had grown up on vaporized zucchini and Hamburger Helper, was immersed in the taste and smells of Southern Italian food so authentic that Carlo’s life’s work would eventually be recognized with the Italian government’s prestigious L’Insegna del Ristorante Italiano award.

Carlo once presented me with my daily meal, a warm oily dish with olives: Pasta Puttanesca, he called it with a smirk. “What does that mean?” I asked him, staring at the glistening steaming strands. Again he flashed that broad grin. “What does the word remind you of: puttanesca?” he asked.

Dare I say it? Am I crazy to make such a connection?

“They served it in the brothels,” he finally informed me, and laughed, as always, turning once more toward his flames. I snuck downstairs and bolted down this new oily dish.

Leslie, a thin, dark-haired, almost waif-like manager — who took her job and my ambition very seriously — grabbed my arm: “You just missed her!” she said.

“Who?”

“Danielle Steel — there,” Leslie said, turning toward the front door, “in the camel coat!”

I rushed through the restaurant, careful not to push Carlo’s patrons, but accelerating as fast I could through a Christmas crowd alternately eyeing the lunch menu and asking for samples of smoked chicken salad and eggplant sandwiches at the charcuterie.

There was no sign of the novelist at the front door, but I ran north, up Fillmore past Browser Books toward where I assumed she lived in Pacific Heights. I had never read any of her books, but she was so successful in mastering the alchemic art of transmuting life into fiction that perhaps just one meeting with her, one gaze into her eyes, or the sensation of her gloved hand in mine, would be enough to transmit her artistic capacity to me.

I ran another block up Fillmore in my zoot-suit black slacks, matching vest with a gold paisley silk backing and the Vivande trademark green-striped apron that I wore when working in the charcuterie. No sign of her.

The famous came and went at Vivande. Carlo, to me, though, was the most famous of them all. I have a soft spot for kind men — and witty — as I was told my father was once just like that. If the measure of a man is how he treats the least of his charges, no employer ever surpassed the manner in which Carlo Middione treated me. It was like I had become family: the son and heir — a co-celebrant in the Liturgy of Linguine.

Vivande Porta Via was a place where the regulars vied for space not at the best table, but at the marble counter as close to the kitchen as possible. For it was there Carlo would come to take a sip of San Pellegrino and chat during whatever lull was afforded to him during the blitzkrieg of the lunch crush.

Evan White, for instance, manned that counter as if it were his anchor desk in the kron studios, broadcasting his order with his “Moscow-in-Flames” baritone as though it were late-breaking news: “Chris, we are going to start with the antipasta and still water, but more to come. Stay tuned!”

I stayed tuned to him every time he dined. As I did to Ray Reddell, the famous rosarian from Petaluma, another counter-dweller, who demonstrated how a quiet man can make a lasting impression across the decades from within a restaurant loud enough to have required shouting at times.

“Leeza!” Patrique shouted once to Carlo’s wife, Lisa — no doubt throwing his ever-present knit scarf around his neck at high velocity for effect. “Leeza! Chreestopher has eaten the Reggiano!”

There was a policy at Vivande that the staff was only to eat the domestic parmesan, but how could I allow Carlo’s angelic offerings to be despoiled by the dandruff flakes of domestic parmesan?

Yes, I ate the Reggiano. I admit it. I ate without concern of cost. I ate it often. Had Carlo asked me himself, I would have told him the truth. But with crazy Pat-treek waving his unfiltered cigarette at me, gesticulating at high volume as he Osterized with his fingers the soundwaves of the vowels he butchered, I lied. Worse, I ate the evidence. Actually, I bolted it down along with the pasta, just as I inhaled all the food Carlo and his chefs made for me. That one free entree per shift. Anything on the menu (within reason).

One of the diners caught my attention: a former classmate who had landed a job as a production editor at the Daily Diary of the American Dream — The Wall Street Journal. She would come in for lunch at Vivande to see me, dressed for work as though she belonged to a secretarial pool in the ’40s. She would sit on a stool by herself at the back counter facing the baking station.

One day she suggested a movie: Kiss of the Spider Woman, which was playing up the street at the Clay. We went a few nights later and witnessed that love scene between William Hurt and Raul Julia, which, anatomically, I wasn’t quite clear on. Afterward, I walked her to her car, parked outside the Del Mateo Apartments near the Marina Green, where I lived in a foghorn echo chamber of a third-floor studio apartment. That first kiss as the 22 made its long, lonesome U-turn at the foot of Fillmore resulted in more than 20 years of marriage and two beautiful children. I surprised them all with exotic tastes of the world I had discovered.

So life truly began for me at Vivande Porta Via — my life — the decisions I would make, the future I sought. It all began in the cacophony of sounds, the explosion of flame, the last secretive dregs with Jerome of wine bought but not drunk, and cigarettes shared with Leslie on the back steps of the restaurant in the dark.

It all started there for me.

Christopher Bruno at Vivande in 1985.

EARLIER: “Vivande was one of a kind