A family affair. Four generations of Sabellas pull together to run one of San Francisco's most famous seafood restaurants
San Francisco — Diminutive as a sparrow, 83-year-old Angelina Sabella perches on a stool in the kitchen of A. Sabella's restaurant on San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf every day. Wearing a mischievous grin, she eagle-eyes each dish on its way out. Angelina, known as ``Nana,'' is the matriarch of an Italian family that has presided over A. Sabella's for five generations.
Through lean times and boom times, the Sabellas have worked together to build a unique tradition. The family pulls together in every area of the business, from the dining room and kitchen to the smallest details.
Today, Angelina's son, three of her grandchildren - and now even a great-grandchild, 14-year-old Kevin - work in the restaurant, too.
The Sabellas started in the 1920s with carhop service from a little stand that sold raw fish for Friday dinner. Today, A. Sabella's is one of the most famous restaurants on the wharf.
Its elegant dining room with crystal and linen service looks over San Francisco Bay to Sausalito. Blending Italian and continental cuisine, the menu lists over 100 seafood dishes and 12 kinds of fresh fish daily, many flown in from Chile or Australia.
For Angelina and her family, the restaurant has held a special lure they couldn't resist. Angelina never worked anywhere else, and loves every minute spent there. It was Angelina's father-in-law, a poor Sicilian fisherman, who started the fish market in 1920.
Married at 16, Angelina started working a 14-hour-day, picking crabs, peeling shrimps, cutting fish, feeding the stoves with wood, and making gallons of chowder.
Even after she had four children, she kept working in the restaurant and then went home to cook and clean for her family, often serving them dinner at 11 at night. When her husband died in 1948, the restaurant helped keep her going.
Her son Lucien, 55, now semiretired, was brought up in the business, working in the kitchen from the time he was a small boy. He and his three sisters were all working in the restaurant during World War II.
``When the war broke, the business went crazy,'' he says. ``With three young ladies there, the sailors flocked there.''
The business rapidly grew from a fish market into a restaurant with 56 tables. After a 1964 fire leveled the restaurant, Lucien rebuilt it. ``We opened up with just enough change to put cash in the registers,'' he says.
Lucien's son Antone, 35, says, ``I never thought of doing anything else.'' Early on, he decided to train at Cornell University's School of Hotel and Restaurant Management. He worked for a time at a Seattle restaurant, but came back to San Francisco, feeling the grass on the other side was no greener.
``I realized that to make money for strangers was foolish,'' he says. ``When you're younger, you don't appreciate your family that much.''
Recently, Antone, along with his brother Michael and sister, Laureen, bought the restaurant from their father, who continues to help manage the business. Another brother, 27-year-old Michael, also realized early that he wanted to work at the restaurant.
``The night before my eighth birthday, my dad asked me what I wanted. I said a job.'' Michael never looked back, then went on to train at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.
Lucien's daughter, Laureen, 34, a petite, dark-haired woman, likes the closeness and security of working in a family business with deep roots. ``It's emotionally satisfying, and a stable environment for me,'' she says.
In the crush of a busy day, lunchtime tourists jam the dining room and bar. Laureen stands duty at the front desk, staying calm and poised no matter how hectic it gets. In her job as operations manager, Laureen schedules the staff, and hires and fires personnel. Because she is such a perfectionist, the family calls her ``Little Nana,'' after her grandmother.
Gliding along as if he had wheels instead of feet, the handsome Antone, now general manager, goes from table to table, asking diners, ``How's everything?'' Antone says that when he started in the restaurant at age 12, his father ``stood me on a box in front of a giant caldron of shrimp to peel.'' There were 200 pounds of shrimp.
Behind the scenes in the kitchen, Angelina is on her stool. This isn't working, she says, ``just looking around.'' Michael, the head chef, slices up a 30-pound halibut with the precision and grace of a violinist bowing through an cadenza. Today is such a busy one, he pitched in to wash dishes. He cooks all day himself and supervises the other chefs. Michael started his day at 3:30 a.m., haggling with fish brokers, receiving fresh fish and other foods, and planning the day's menus.
Lucien, an inspired cook, constantly experiments with new recipes. The Sabellas create all their recipes. Many dishes are named after family members, such as ``Crab Legs alla Mama'' and a dish called simply ``Antone'' - swordfish in wine butter. Any addition to the menu must pass a family vote. ``A lot of regular customers help us decide, too,'' Michael says.
At the same time, ``We can't throw away the old items, because we have a lot of people in their 60s and 70s who expect them,'' Antone comments.
Many customers become a kind of extended family to the Sabellas. Some have come to A. Sabella's for decades. One, who calls herself Marie Antoinette, has been coming for more than 50 years. A 103-year-old woman has been celebrating her birthday there every year.
Outside the restaurant business the Sabellas spend a lot of time together. Family dinners are still important events.
``We always had to have the traditional Sunday dinner,'' Lucien says. ``My mother would cook all day, making Chicken Cacciatore, Spaghetti and Meatballs, sausages, bread, chocolate cakes.'' When Lucien was raising his family, he worked split shifts, so he could have dinner with them. Now Michael, who has two young sons, goes home for lunch.
At the restaurant, it is dinnertime. The dining room buzzes with the cheerful hum of conversation.
Come sunset, the lights of Sausalito twinkle across the bay. The big fisherman's wheel, the symbol of the wharf, glows yellow beneath the dining room windows.
Diners are bent over their seafood - with four generations of Sabellas in attendance.