Alioto's Restaurant Celebrates 90 Years of San Francisco Fisherman's Wharf History





            Alioto's Restaurant, a San Francisco landmark located on Fisherman's Wharf, has long been part of San Francisco's rich history.  The Alioto family, in addition to contributing one of the oldest eating establishments to the City, has given the city a two-term mayor, Joe Alioto, and a former San Francisco Supervisor, cousin Angela Alioto.  It's no wonder the name Alioto is one that is closely associated with the City of San Francisco itself.


            Led by the family's fourth generation, Alioto's Restaurant is reviving its past by returning to its rich Sicilian heritage.  Along with San Francisco favorites on the menu, including steamed crab and crab cakes, Alioto’s serves Sicilian family recipes including their Nonna Rose’s Crab Cioppino and Swordfish Involtini, baked swordfish stuffed with crab and served with pasta.


In paying homage to its culinary roots, the family is also fondly recognizing a history that was built on tireless struggles and breathtaking successes.  That history is proudly displayed in the "Wall of History" exhibit—photographs, menus and ephemera from their seven decades on the Wharf. The exhibit, displayed in the restaurant’s entryway, chronicles the growth of the Wharf from a sleepy fishing village to an international tourist destination.


            What grew to become an institution in San Francisco dining actually began as a fresh fish stall, founded in 1925 by Nunzio Alioto, Sr., a Sicilian immigrant.  At the time, the Wharf consisted of an enormous lumber yard, train tracks, a union hall, canning plants and wholesale fisheries.  At Stall #8, Nunzio sold lunchtime provisions to the Italian laborers.  By 1928 he began selling simple luncheon items.  Proving exceptionally popular were steamed crab, and shrimp and crab cocktails, which would be served on trays that could be attached to car windows--one of the earliest attempts at drive-in eating.


            Business grew steadily as Nunzio catered to hungry shoppers at the Wharf.  What eventually became known as "Alioto's innovation" was the conversion from old wood burning crab pots to gas burners.  In 1932, he constructed the first building on Fisherman's Wharf--combining the fish stand with a seafood bar specializing in crab and shrimp cocktails, and steamed crab.


            The plans Nunzio Alioto foresaw for his seafood enterprise on the Wharf came to an abrupt halt the following year.  After suffering a bout of double pneumonia, Nunzio died suddenly at the age of 41, leaving behind a wife, Rose and three children.  Strapped for a way to support her family, Rose took over the business becoming the first woman to work on the Wharf.  Initially she was ostracized by her male neighbors, who refused to sell her fish.  Luckily, the fish was procured by Phil Rubino, who had formerly worked with her husband.


            Rose's children accompanied her to work everyday, and tended to every aspect of the business.  This tradition continues today as the Alioto children begin their restaurant apprenticeship in their early teens.


            A number of historical events contributed to the restaurant's phenomenal growth and the eventual establishment of Fisherman's Wharf.  With the completion of both the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges in 1937, San Francisco was quickly becoming the urban center of Northern California.


            By 1938, Rose installed a kitchen--the first on the Wharf--and opened a restaurant, serving cracked crab, salads, and crab and shrimp cocktails, and seafood specialties.  It was here that Rose Alioto created a shellfish stew called Cioppino which became a San Francisco culinary legend.  To help make ends meet, daughter Antoinette, the eldest of Rose's three children, worked the graveyard shift at Bank of America after completing her daytime duties as waitress, part-time cook, and bookkeeper at the restaurant.


            In 1939, the San Francisco Exposition and World's Fair brought tourists from around the world to the City.  The restaurant flourished, yet it wasn't until the onset of America's participation in World War II that its reputation became firmly established.  Fisherman's Wharf became one of the Ports of Embarkation for sailors, who were often accompanied by their families.  While Rose's sons, Frank and Mario, were called off to serve in the armed forces, Rose and her daughter Antoinette were kept busy serving fresh seafood and hearty clam chowder to these men and their families--and word about Alioto's Restaurant's food quickly spread.


            The restaurant continued to expand as public demand grew for Alioto's delicious seafood.  By 1950, Rose enlarged her restaurant by purchasing her neighbor's stall, Castagnola's #7.  She built a one-story, $130,000 brick building.  Alioto's Restaurant underwent a second major facelift in 1957, when a $200,000 second story was added, making it the tallest building on the Wharf.


            A disastrous fire gutted Alioto's Restaurant that same year.  Undeterred, the family, led by Rose, rebuilt the restaurant from scratch on the same site.  Fortunately, rescued from the devastating fire was a wall composed entirely of thousands of clam shells saved from diners' meals through the years.


            During these years, Rose's son Frank assumed the operation of the restaurant.  Daughter Antoinette married, and she and her husband, a distant Alioto cousin, worked in the restaurant sharing various responsibilities.  Rose's third child, Mario, became a singer with the San Francisco Opera Company.  Frank's son Nunzio and Antoinette's son Joe took over management responsibilities in 1971.  Rose, the matriarch of the Alioto clan, continued to work at the restaurant until she passed away in 1970, at the age of 74.


            As the Restaurant was re-establishing itself, the Alioto family name was receiving local and national recognition for another reason:  Joe Alioto, Rose's nephew, was elected the 33rd Mayor of San Francisco in 1968 and served for an eight-year term.  During this period, Alioto's became a popular hangout for San Francisco's Democrat power base.


           Today, Alioto’s restaurant keeps up with the times and recently remodeled its dining room and private dining rooms, which accommodate between 10 and 50 guests. Also, in the late 90s they opened Alioto’s Waterside Café on its ground floor.  The Waterside Café offers indoor and outdoor dining, and the same great views of the Bay. 


            Binding the large Alioto family together today is a lifetime fondness for Fisherman's Wharf and a concern that it continue as a vital part of San Francisco.  One of the annual events the Alioto's were instrumental in founding was Festa Italiana, a Wharf-wide event taking place each October which contributes $50,000 to local charities.  The family also helped establish the multi-denominational Fishermen's and Seamen's Memorial Chapel. Many other San Francisco charities, including the Save the Cable Car Fund, the Ronald McDonald House, Salesian Boys & Girls Club, Little Sisters of the Poor, and the St. Ignatius High School have benefited from the generosity and civic pride shown by the Alioto’s.

About Alioto’s Restaurant

Founded in 1925 as a fresh fish stall, Alioto’s restaurant is still run by the Alioto family. Alioto’s Restaurant is open daily from 11am until 11pm, and offers two-hours free parking from 11am-6pm, and three-hours free parking from 6pm-11pm. Alioto’s Waterside Café serves breakfast from 9am-11am, and serves lunch and dinner from 11am until 11pm daily. For more information, 415-673-0183,