fishing for words

(and tossing out random thoughts)


3 Comments

winter walkabout, part three – Disney and the best pizza

The afternoon that late January Saturday was devoted to the Walt Disney story and pizza. We wended our way through traffic, stoplights and pedestrians, the three-and-a-half-mile drive from Corona Heights to The Walt Disney Family Museum dragging out to 30 minutes. Entered the shelter of the Presidio, former Army post but now a haven of history and nature and part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Found a parking spot nearly in front of the museum.

The stroll from the car to the museum offered views of the parade grounds and, because of the slight incline on this stretch of Montgomery Street, a perfect view past the barracks, the main Post Office, across Chrissy Field March and out to the Bay. Colors seemed more vivid thanks to the rain-cleansed sky. The grass was greener. The mortar between the red bricks of the buildings made more visible. The waves of San Francisco Bay glimmered atop that deep, dark blue only seen in brilliant sunlight.

The Walt Disney Family Museum occupies three historic buildings facing the Presidio parade grounds, filling 42,000 square feet. The Walt Disney Family Museum isn’t formally associated with The Walt Disney Company, and less than half of the exhibits are devoted to the entertainment empire built by Disney. It opened Oct. 1, 2009, as a non-profit established by Disney’s heirs to share the heritage and life experiences that molded Walt Disney, his ideas and ideals. Like any Disney entertainment, whether a film or ride, it tells a story.

Extensive galleries cover his early years in a fashion that is almost too leisurely. Extensive galleries cover his early years on the family farm in Marceline, Mo., and his time in the Midwest and France. The lobby alone contains 248 awards – some obscure – that Disney won during his career. While a gentleness pervades the museum, the detailed backstory may bring clarity to even the most cynical view of the man.

A Multiplane Camera, which that simultaneously shoots several levels of cells and backgrounds to give depth to Disney films.

A Multiplane Camera, which simultaneously shoots several levels of cells and backgrounds to give depth to Disney films.

Unfortunately, without knowing the scope of the museum, we hadn’t set aside time enough. I was only halfway through the exhibits, about where Disneyland was becoming a reality, when it was time to leave.

I’d like to have stayed, but we were leaving for pizza. Tony’s Pizza Napoletana to be precise; owned by a guy who’s an 11-time World Pizza Champion. A guy who believes in having the right tool for the job, his restaurant has seven different ovens. Each is matched to a particular style of pizza: a wood-burning oven heating up to 900°F, a coal oven reaching a scorching 1000°F, and various gas and electric ovens that start at 520°F. The right-tool-for-the-job mantra extends to the use of the proper ingredients: imported 00-flour for Neapolitan crusts, Pendleton flour for American-style pies, different cheeses and tomato sauces for each of the dozen discrete styles of pizza offered.

A wait is inevitable at Tony’s; no reservations are accepted and there’s no guarantee that all menu items will be available all day. Instead of just cooling our heels, we walked around San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood, with a stop at Mara’s Italian Pastry, a hole in the wall filled with sugary pleasures.

tonny-menuFinally seated at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana, nearly elbow to elbow with other guests, we unfolded a menu with three pages of pizza and another of pasta and Italian specialties. Two words stood out: Coal Fired. Below it was a pizza that sounded too good to pass up.

The New Yorker, touted as a gold medal winner at the 2013 International Pizza Challenge in Las Vegas. When it arrived at the table I could feel the heat still rising from it. Visually, no single topping – mozzarella, hand crushed tomato sauce, natural casing pepperoni, sliced Italian fennel sausage, Calabrese sausage, ricotta, chopped garlic, and oregano – overpowers the other. We let it cool before picking up a thin, droopy slice.

The almost fluffy crust gives way to a sweet red sauce and seasoning, generous pieces of sausage and globs of ricotta. The intense heat from the coal gave the crust a little char, offering an occasional bitterness. The pepperoni and sausages are counterbalanced by the sweetness and creaminess of the ricotta. It’s astounding and forces me to live in that moment, to savor every bite. It’s clear why owner Tony Gemignani was the first American and non-Neopolitan to win Best Pizza Margherita at the World Pizza Cup in Naples and so many other awards.

Mind and body satisfied, we ended our day. But while writing this I’m trying to figure out when we can get back, if only to try a different pizza.

Tony Menu


6 Comments

National Parks Week and appreciating a high-country home

Centennial-Logo-W-Find-Your-Park-LogoOur days were measured by trout caught, bears seen and miles hiked; nights by stars and the embers of a campfire. During those summers we’d rarely see a familiar face, but the place seemed unchanging. We grew a lot during those short visits, climbing granite domes, hiking trails commonly rising 1,000 feet in less than five miles, floating in a river that only a few miles earlier was born of snowmelt.

I was reminded that Tuolumne Meadows was our vacation “home” last week when I posted a photo of my brother and me with a trophy high-country trout, back when our fishing was more about self-sufficiency and every fish ended up in a pan surrounded by bacon. Mornings my brother, sister and I would hike to Soda Springs to capture the naturally carbonated water – and bits of minerals I’m sure – our mother would gently blend with pancake mix to make some of the puffiest pancakes in the world.

Our visits to Tuolumne Meadows were more adventure than vacation. Stories of our exploits of those summers come up frequently: The poor decision to slide down the granite face of Lembert Dome as the sun set. The bear that followed us back to camp after a long day hike. My sister’s discovery that fish were living beings while ironically still fishing but refusing to eat our catch. On tougher hikes, mom’s constant encouragement to discover what might be around the next bend.

TM-Mark and meIt wouldn’t be out of place to say that Tuolumne Meadows, a less visited part of Yosemite National Park, helped form the person I am today. I’ve since returned to Tuolumne Meadows, one time fishing there with my sons, another time hiking up Lembert Dome with my brother and one son. Nature seems to ignore us humans; the changes over the last three decades are entirely ours.

I’ve been lucky enough to have visited Death Valley, Sequoia & Kings Canyon, Lassen, Redwood and Mt. St. Helen national parks. Many national monuments, recreation areas and historic sites as well: Alcatraz Island, John Muir National Historic Site, Point Reyes National Seashore, Muir Woods National Monument, Cabrillo National Monument, Fort Point National Historic Site and Golden Gate Recreation Area.

The national park system is America’s Best Idea. Next week is National Park Week. Every national park will offer free admission from April 16th through the 24th. If you can, get to one and #FindYourPark.

“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity”
― John Muir, Our National Parks


Leave a comment

winter walkabout, part two – finding secret places

The real streets of San Francisco are those devoid of tourists or commuters slogging through the city. They have names not widely known. Ord, Saturn, Douglass and Levant.

These are the streets laid down after the California Gold Rush of 1848-1855. Now lined by multi-million dollar homes, before the mid-1800s even downtown streets became so muddy that horses couldn’t be ridden from one end of the city to the other, much less up a hill. Often these hills were covered with the ramshackle homes of low-income workers. But after the particularly difficult winter of 1849-1850, a concerted effort began to grade streets and build planking, and many of the homes lining these narrow ribbons of asphalt were built in the 1890s.

Irish engineer Jasper O’Farrell was the stepfather of San Francisco’s street layout. He was given the task of implementing the grid designed by Swiss surveyor Jean-Jacques Vioget, who had proposed a simple north-south and east-west design. O’Farrell suggested terracing the hillside to allow for curved roads, but property owners demanded that existing property lines remain intact.

Some hills were so steep that building a road was unfeasible; hence stairways. It’s estimated that 300 stairways pepper the city, connecting streets and offering shortcuts. There are the better known stairways – the Filbert and Greenwich Street staircases leading to Coit Tower, the Lyon Street stairs stretching from Pacific Heights to the Palace of Fine Arts or the 16th Avenue Tiled Steps.

We were looking for Saturn Street Steps, a stairway normally used by locals and off the beaten track. Tucked next to a four-story hillside home is a small sign welcoming one to the stairway, with admonishments that decades before would have been common courtesy.

It was still chilly. Sunlight, only now beginning to seep through low-hanging clouds, filtered through tree branches and leaves. Dew coated the railings that separate the concrete stairways from lush plantings. The personality and preferences of the locals who maintain the green space become apparent upon closer inspection. Cacti are mixed among butterfly bushes. Redwoods shadow succulents. A petite multi-tier pagoda is hidden among palms.

2016.01.30.San Francisco Stairs.03 Stairs

Looking down on the Saturn Street Steps.

The three flights of the Saturn Street Steps connect Saturn and Ord streets. A landing between each flight invites lingering. A dirt path offers an alternative path, leading to a rustic and uneven stairway constructed of four-by-fours. Trees, bushes, groundcover and flowers abound, some plants are so green it hurts the eyes. I’ve spent plenty of time in wild places but have never seen such a defiant explosion of plant life within an overwhelming urban setting.

I took to the stairs like a kid, pausing to wonder at plants I didn’t recognize. Karen was ahead of me, appeared to appreciate not only that we found this place but that it was more wonderful than imagined. A few locals passed by, one with a dog out for a walk. This was a regular jaunt for the dog; he stopped to lap up water from dog bowls placed just off the dirt path.

The Saturn Street Steps dumped us out on Ord Street, itself a short quarter mile road off the high end of Market Street. Gentrification has hit Ord Street. Scattered among Victorian homes built in the early 1900s are others that went up in the 1930s, showing an early art-deco influence. Many appear recently refreshed; we saw at least one that’s in the early stages of a total restoration, including excavation under the foundation for a garage. It’s a sleepy street, all the more quiet this early morning.

The Vulcan Steps are just half a block down Ord Street from the Saturn Street Stairs. While the openness of the Saturn Street Stairs offers a chance to meander and inspire lingering, the Vulcan Steps are bordered by an urban forest on one side, by bungalows and cottages with well-tended gardens and patios on the other. Flowers and leaves sparkled with droplets of recent rain. They fall when I brush against a plant.

2016.01.30.San Francisco Stairs.08 Chinese Tulip CloseupThough not long, Vulcan Steps are secluded, secreted away from the usual neighborhood noise. The narrow stairs climb the steep hillside, squeezed between picket fences and mature trees before ending at Levant Street. Apparently nearly all of the homes here are accessible only by foot. The fact that all supplies must be carried in harken back to the pioneer spirit that built this city. The lushness of the plant life is surprising, trees, bushes, succulents and flowers sharing space, soil and sun. Resident caretakers have clearly been busy taming wild branches, tilling dirt.

We took our time climbing Vulcan Steps, then reversed course. I stopped to look, take photos, growing more aware of our surroundings with each close up.

I was more in the moment this day, maybe Karen was too. We both breathed in everything around us; the plants, the houses, the history. This awareness slowly spread, stretching to the city beyond and below Saturn Street Steps. That’s how we caught a glimpse of another set of stairs, just to the north.

What we had seen were the Corona Heights Park trails. It’s not much of a park and more of an ugly peak of dirt and rocks. We picked our way around puddles and up a hillside trail that wound the south side and ended up on the eastern slope. The recently washed air was clear. The eastern horizon, across the bay, was starkly outlined against wisps of clouds. Sutro Tower stood silently behind us. The Transamerica Pyramid rises out of downtown, only its shape distinct. It is now overshadowed by newer and taller high-rises.

But this is a park in the city. A hipster sits on a rock, the highest point, talking on his cell phone louder than necessary. Car noises fade in and out. But Corona Heights Park is about the nearly 360-degree view. It stretches from the Presido to the Marina District and Russian Hill, across downtown and Nob Hill, and south to the Mission and Noe Valley.

2016.01.30.Corona Heights.01 Pano

The view from Corona Heights Park.

But I’m glad we’re here. Glad for the reminder that nature can be found everywhere, glad for this small piece of where we live.

Read about how this day started with doughnuts (winter walkabout, part one – fueled by doughnuts).