The line at Lucca Ravioli Co. at 9:30 this morning wasn’t all that long. But, then again, there wasn’t all that much to buy.
That was jarring on this, Lucca’s 34,439th and final day. Lucca was, for decades, a place of plenty: a menagerie of exotic tins and dried goods; a canopy of salamis dangling from the ceiling; piles of salads and pickled goods and meats behind the display case; a wall of bread; a platoon of workers outfitted in uniforms from a time before style; and a freezer case full of Lucca’s famed raviolis.
Today, though, there was a dessicated-Soviet-department-store feeling here. There were large bare spots on the shelves — shelves you get the feeling had been obscured from customers’ peering eyes by cans and packages since Francesco Stanghellini first opened the doors here on Jan. 15, 1925. And now they’re selling the fixtures. You could walk off with the cash register if you wanted — and had $1,000 to plunk down. (As for the not-quite-actual-size mural of Italy on the ceiling, you’ll have to make an offer: firstname.lastname@example.org).
The Mission has been through any number of iterations, but Lucca remained a constant. It held court at Valencia and 22nd, and even stayed in the same family — current (and final) co-owners Michael Feno and Cathy Immel are Stanghellini’s great-nephew and great-niece — and kept doling out old-world fare to a changing neighborhood.
“When I came to America from Peru when I was six, my dad brought me here. I brought my son here. And my grandson,” said Enrique Barreto, while a store worker quietly slipped a bottle of “cooking oil” he’d left on the counter into his bag. “I’m gonna miss this place. Miss it, miss it, miss it, miss it.”
Jorge Molina first set foot in Lucca in 1966. He was here to see it out on his last day. And he wasn’t alone; he ran into friends he hadn’t hugged for years. Lucca was a centering point for a neighborhood that increasingly has none. “There’s a sense of camaraderie with a place like this,” said Molina, also a Peruvian immigrant. “There’s a sense of connection. To Italy. Or to San Francisco.”
Throughout Lucca’s last day, the counter workers dutifully called out the numbers, cycling from 00 to 99 again and again and again. That’s how it was here every day. Until Feno decided to call his own number and close up shop.
Because this is a gentrification story. In San Francisco, gentrification is a bit like the prosciutto they sold here at Lucca — it gets into everything. But this is not the kind of gentrification story you’d think it is.
Since Lucca was the kind of place where vegetation on a sandwich was considered an extravagance and you had to slather the mustard on the bread yourself, it’d be easy to assume that some dollar-driven landlord decided the highest and best use of this land was not moving boxes of ravioli for nine bucks a pop and gave them the heave-ho.
But that’s not what happened here. The Feno family was prescient. Obtaining property in San Francisco requires a boatload of cash or a time machine, and the Feno family bought this place aeons ago. In fact, they bought a whole complex of buildings in the vicinity, as well as the lot where they proudly offered free parking for customers.
In August, they put that lot on the market for $3 million. By the time they’re done selling its adjacent buildings and the Lucca building itself, the family could pocket upwards of $8.2 million more. Lucca isn’t being chased out of the neighborhood.
For the potential dozens of tenants residing in its properties, however, this is your standard gentrification tale. It would take a special sort of ingrate to bemoan the loss of a parking lot in favor of a five-story housing structure, but three buildings housing a number of tenants are also up for sale here. And the marketing material is unsubtle about what a savvy buyer might have in mind for them: “Staggering upside in residential rents, current rents are approx. 131% below market, portfolio wide.”
There is real sorrow in losing a Mission District institution, and many a San Francisco Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner will, soon, be depleted of its de rigueur ravioli or sausages.
And that’s a shame for everyone who visited today, or anytime during the last 94 years, three months, and 16 days.
But it’s a different thing to have insecurities over whether you’ll have a home in which to prepare those raviolis or sausages.
Michael Feno sat among the bare shelves and empty ravioli boxes in the room adjacent to the last Lucca lunchtime crowd. This is a room that was never empty. But now it was.
“The last time I remember seeing it like this was when The Northern Club” — a bar — “closed in the mid-1960s,” he says. “We didn’t put our money in the bank. We put it in here,” he continues with a sweep of his arm across the former pantry.
It was a poignant moment and a poignant day. But it was time. Feno has been coming here for 53 years. He and his sister Immel are fourth-generation owners. “It was time to remodel the place. And we’d have to do the seismic work and the Americans With Disabilities Act upgrades, and that’d be all my retirement money and I’d be working till I’m 85.”
“It’s sad,” he admits. “But it’s been a long time coming.”
All the while, in the background, numbers were bellowed out — sixty-seven! Sixty-eight! — and customers scrambled to grab what they could. By mid-day the crowds had grown large, and questions about whether any particular items were available were uniformly answered with a polite, but curt, “If you don’t see it, I don’t have it.”
Men and women clambered through the crowd with brown cardboard boxes of goods held over their heads. Flora Campoy struggled to lift a four-foot-tall bottle of chianti (“I always wanted one of these”). Former Giants great Will Clark dropped by for one last shopping trip, as did actor Danny Glover. They took a number and waited with everyone else and were patiently told that “If you don’t see it, I don’t have it.”
At 1:56 p.m., the doors closed one last time. The final patron was John Williams, a 57-year-old city native. As a child, he used to make faces through Lucca’s window to tease the men making the raviolis, and they’d return the favor by flinging raviolis at him. This morning he and his roommate, Dawn Cato, were on a flight out from Vegas to be here; they’ll stock up one once more for good measure and head back tomorrow. “There are a lot of connections here to my inner child,” said Cato with a sigh. “So many Christmas and Easter meals.”
On Wednesday, co-owners Feno and Immel will be far away from Valencia and 22nd. She lives in Santa Cruz and he’s planning to unwind at his small farm in Sebastopol — “I’ve already got three cases of water there.”
Come tomorrow, Lucca will be a memory. If you don’t see it, they don’t have it.