Center of the Universe (33)
I used to call him Julius, the stone-faced dude who presides over Table 10. Later, for reasons now obscure, I decided he was Augustus — Caesar’s adopted son and successor, according to my distracted, two-minute scan of Wikipedia — and immediately I started to draft a post titled Pax Romana. Which I thought would be quite the worldly move for a folksy little blog about a mom-and-pop restaurant in Fairfax — a reference to the first Roman emperor, 2,000 years ago. Positively erudite.
Of course, the statue is neither. And the blog really isn’t either. And I’m certainly not. And Augustus’s Pax Romana was the dawn of fascism, which we’re fixing to learn more about in this country, end of week.
It’s David, said Sonia.
Soy and Sonia started their careers at a red-sauce joint in North Beach called Michelangelo’s. And part of what made that place more than another crass — and un-erudite — grab for the coattails of history’s most famous Italian was the padrone’s obsession with Michelangelo’s art. Even today, a decade after the original owner sold out, a Google search for Michelangelo’s Cafe in San Francisco returns this:
“Copies of Renaissance art decorate this family-owned eatery that turns out classic Italian dishes.”
And when I say obsession, I don’t mean that, for a limited time, he really liked the stuff. I mean, as Sonia recounts, he spent hundreds of thousands of dollars, maybe millions, over several decades, recreating it. Sonia’s old boss got on a plane to Europe, found a starving young sculptor and paid him to copy, sometimes at actual size, the statues of David, Bacchus, Cupid, the Pieta and many others. And then he shipped the finished pieces to the States, each time flying the kid over to properly install them. And when the guy finally cashed in his little goldmine (and quarry) on Columbus Avenue and bought a retirement retreat in Brazil, he put the kid to work filling up that pleasuredome with simulated Michelangelo, some of it in actual Carrara.
Which begs the freakin’ question: how much can you make from a tourist trap? Much of the answer, I suspect, boils down to two simple words: cash only.
Anyway, their old boss had so many Michelangeloid pieces that when his longtime servers, those sweet Korean-Brazilian sisters, left to open their own ristorante in Marin, he not only gave them a ton of sage counsel — the free, post-prandial gummy bears and animal crackers come from his playbook, as does the wheel of parmagian your server enticingly chunks onto your butter plate, free of charge, at the start of every Sorellas meal — he tossed in a giant marble head of David.
Oh, and, what the hell, the near-lifesize bathing maiden by the front door.
And the handsome head on the piano that Wendy puts her hat on? I asked.
No, Sonia says, that’s a weird one.
I knew there was a story behind the other statuary, David and the maiden — in fact, Sonia had told it to me. But the bottomless bottle of Nero d’Avola the sisters always “forget” to charge me for seems to have gummed up that memory slot. Still, I swear on the head of Fake Bacchus I had never heard the tale of Agrippa.
We’re in the middle of dinner service on a crowded night, a rainy night, says Sonia, as her sister watches with a bemused smile, and an older woman double-parks by the front door, flashers on, and runs in. I ate dinner here last week, she says, and noticed you had a bust in the corner. How would you like another? My husband recently passed, and it was his. If you send someone out to carry it from my car, you can have it right now.
A bust? Sonia says to the woman. I’m sorry — I just don’t… What’s a bust?
After the woman explains it’s a sculpture, a head, like David, Sonia tries, gently, as is her way, to get the lady to come back when they’re not so busy, and it’s not raining. But the widow’s dead set. She really, really wants to get rid of her husband’s head. Finally, desperate, she confides in a kindly stranger, telling Sonia the sculpture so much resembles her late mate that every time she looks around she sees him. And with that, busy or no, rain or no, baby sister Kang mercy-missions a busser to retrieve from a trunk a bust.
And that — says Sonia, indicating with her do-ragged head the scowling noggin atop the piano — is Agrippa.
But who is Agrippa? I ask, not actually being erudite.
The sisters, as one, shrug.
And Hoffman — who pivots now to more closely examine this overlooked artwork overlooking the back room and who once named her pet labrador after the esteemed actor — volunteers that he looks exactly like Spencer Tracy.
Later, being fully erudite about Mr. Tracy — his movies, as well as his long affair with Katherine Hepburn — I turn again to the trusty internet to learn, in an absent, multitasking fashion, the crowd-sourced truth about Agrippa. But, as far as I was concerned, the greater mystery had already been solved.