The Evolutions of Café Tiramisu

Café Tiramisu helped transform Belden Alley, but how will closures transform Café Tiramisu?

Restaurateur and chef Pino Spinoso has traversed thousands of miles, transformed physical space, and invested several years building the legacy of the famous Café Tiramisu. Nestled into the historically french Belden Alley, Tiramisu is about as authentic an Italian experience as travelling to the peninsula itself.

Before restaurants moved in, Belden Alley in the Financial District was merely an alleyway that was full of garbage, frequented only by pigeons.

“It was a dirty street,” Spinoso recalls. “People had made fun of us, ‘there’s so many beautiful, wide streets, why did you choose that alley?’ But I had the vision to do it like they do in Rome.”

After convincing the fire department and local supervisors to allow a permit for seating in the street, Spinoso joined French restaurateurs in serving tables outside in the street, in true al fresco fashion.

Since the early nineties, Café Tiramisu has served delicious hand-made pastas and a myriad of classic Northern Italian fare. Spinoso says Tiramisu is “la cucina mercato,” Italian for “kitchen of the market.” Whatever is in the market informs how they shape their menu, whether it’s fish for a Brazino or beef for a Pappardelle.

One of the more signature dishes at the café is the namesake dessert, tiramisu, a dish Spinoso claims to have served over a million and a half portions of.

One of the café’s tiramisu options

This flexibility is not just limited to the menus. After thirty years of business, Café Tiramisu has changed as the community has changed around it.

“We used to see old Italian professionals, lawyers and stock brokers,” Spinoso explains, “we’re a block away from what used to be the old Pacific stock exchange, and lost them when the facility closed down. Then it was the dot commers, i-tech people. We’ve adapted to new changes. We serve less red meat. Now we’re one-course instead of multiple courses because people bring computers and talk about work. It seems like people are working 24 hours a day, so they don’t have a whole lot of time for three or four courses.”

“The way to be successful in any business is to give the people what they ask for,” Spinoso says proverbially.

Another tiramisu from the café’s diverse selection

Adapting to COVID

Even after a lifetime of being open, Tiramisu was not immune to the mandatory closures ordered by the city of San Francisco. The new landscape of the restaurant industry has leveled the playing field in terms of competition, meaning that Spinoso has had to adapt yet again.

“Every restaurant does takeout, and there’s a huge competition,” he elaborates. “The only people making money right now are the delivery services. Some of our food doesn’t travel very well, so we had to change the menu so that it travels well besides being presentable.”

Apart from adapting to an impacted takeout market, Café Tiramisu is also facing the double task of waiting for the green light to reopen. With that comes the preparation that repoening would require. Spinoso says the constantly-developing directives from local administrations have been nothing if not frustrating.

“We are lucky if we can make projections week by week,” Spinoso explains. “The day before yesterday we were told we could reopen June 1, then two days before we were supposed to open the CDC said we cannot open before July 15. We bought food and braised the meat and fileted the fish, but now we cannot open.”

Adding in the stressors of keeping up with rent and operating expenses complicates things even further.

“We’ve lost three months of business, and when we reopen it will have been four. Our landlords and utilities are still collecting. I don’t know if we can move forward with that.”

It’s not just Tiramisu, or even restaurants in general that are hurt by the closures, a point Spinoso calls attention to. The restaurant industry is the one of the foremost driving forces in California’s economy, and is inextricably connected with farming, fishing, and tourism.

“Fifty percent of restaurants will not reopen,” Spinoso speculates. “That means a lot of people will be out of a job, and not just chefs or waiters, but farmers, fishermen, butchers, and the wine industry. Nobody is talking about that. All cultures around restaurants are going to hurt.”

What this means for the future of Café Tiramisu and Belden Alley is still unclear. In the meantime, assistance from PPP and the restaurant’s GoFundMe campaign are helping Spinoso’s staff weather the storm. Amidst it all, Spinoso remains determined.

“It will be changed, the business,” he foresees. “Not forever, but for a long time.”

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