Photo Essay: San Francisco & Crockett, CA
A bit of Gemignani history
When I first met Joe, it took me about three months before I was comfortable saying his last name out loud in front of him. Being Joe, he patiently explained that the “gn” in the center was pronounced without the “g” sound, as in gnocchi. Mm, Jewish girl reply: what’s gnocchi?
Second attempt: Jem-in-yanni, as in Jim and Johnny.
So when we initially attempted getting a url/domain name for his first website back around 1999 and gemignani dot com was taken, I was floored. Really? Not even Joe knew of another Gemignani, other than Francisco Gemignani, a classical composer pre-Mozart.
But thanks to the internet, we learned of many. And the most interesting discovery was that almost all of them were in the creative arts, and many were quite famous: visual artists, musicians, opera singers, actors, and of course, one exceptional photographer. Gemignani was the name of creative people (and we found one attorney, but that’s a creative profession in a way too).
The url we were seeking belonged to an Italian restaurant. But by far the most famous Italian chef in the modern world with Joe’s last name is Tony Gemignani, with a record 13 wins at the World Pizza Championships. With many other distinguishing titles to his credit, including being the first and only Triple Crown winner for pizza baking at the International Pizza Championships in Leece, Italy, Forbes Magazine reported that his restaurant, Tony’s Pizza Napoletana, just might be the best pizza restaurant in the world.
And it’s located in San Francisco, CA.
Again, thanks to the internet, Joe began connecting with and being contacted by Gemignanis all over the world. We started to call them “cousins.” Cousin Rhoda, Alexander, Tony, Paul, etc. One day, Joe got a call from a woman in San Francisco with his last name, although spelled slightly differently. She was in real estate, but also an artist.
“Do you know Tony Gemignani and have you eaten his pizza?” Joe asked. “Oh yes!” she replied. “Many times. I get seated there right away when I tell them my last name!”
They became fast friends, and many conversations about art ensued over the years. Of course, meeting with her and going for pizza was at the top of our list for our visit to San Francisco.
But Joe had another family-related interest in the area. His father, born to Italian parents, but raised in Marseilles, France, came to the United States in the early 1900s and took up residence in Crockett, CA, about 30 miles northeast of San Francisco. He worked at the C&H Sugar Refinery, which is still in operation today. That’s about as much as Joe knew about his father’s past as a young man.
Sometime in the 1980s and long after his father had passed, Joe had an assignment in San Francisco and booked an extra day to visit Crockett. He planned to go to the Crockett Museum to see if he could learn more, but the museum was closed the day he went. More than a little frustrated, Joe took to the phone directory (remember phone books?), found a listing for a Gemignani, and called.
The woman who answered was a Gemignani by marriage and her husband had passed. She didn’t know of any living relatives in the area, but did fill him in with what she knew.
There were quite a few Gemignanis emigrating to the area at the turn of the century. In fact, there were so many, one of them opened a boarding house so all the relatives coming from Europe would have a place to stay when they arrived. But, much to Joe’s dismay, none seemed to remain there by the end of the century.
Fast forward to 2018. Being a researcher by trade, I discovered the Crockett Museum is open once a week for several hours. So at least we avoided Joe’s mistake the first time and planned our visit around operating hours.
Despite the limited time open to the public and a fairly robust selection of artifacts and historical information, I suspect the museum gets few visitors. The delightful and knowledgeable docent who was on duty during our visit was very happy to see us and did an amazing job of trying to find answers for the many questions Joe had.
The computers were slow and access to the “main database” was quirky that day, so the docent took our address and promised to continue his research and send anything else he found. And he did…a short article from the newspaper dated in the 1920s that mentioned the Gemignani boarding house.
Although we left with little more information than when we arrived, Joe seemed satisfied that he had done his best to learn about his father’s early days in the States. We spent the rest of the afternoon driving around, exploring Crockett.
From what I can discern from Joe’s massive photo library, most of the images he took that day remain in raw form, which means he didn’t get around to working on them or perhaps none of them struck his fancy. Here’s the only other one that he converted worthy of sharing:
Oh, and seen in a Crockett storefront window:
We met with Joe’s local “cousin” twice during our stay in the area, and she was a treasure trove of information about San Francisco. On our first meeting, she drove us through many neighborhoods and took us to lunch at Tony Gemignani’s famous pizzeria. It was a lovely summer day and we enjoyed the delicious pizza outside, where Joe noticed a second sign.
We were fortunate to spend another day with her, this time filled with visits to several of SF’s many art museums and lunch in Chinatown. Family takes many forms, and I have no doubt that she and Joe were truly distantly related, but surely connected by heritage and love of art. Lunga vita, famiglia Gemignani!