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The Last Suppers: Pizza to Go
By Richard Dodds
A trip to the Noe Valley Pizza Restaurant has always been about more than pizza and pasta. For 18 years, the couple who owned the restaurant at 24th and Sanchez streets made customers feel like a part of the family. Now that family has left the neighborhood.
Dino and Maria Farmas served their last meal as owners of Noe Valley Pizza on Jan. 31, and though the new owners plan to keep the restaurant's name, look, and menu, the history and loyalties that come with 18 years cannot be easily duplicated.
"I know people who were dating when they first started coming here, and now their kids are going to college," Maria said one evening last month at the restaurant. "Our customers have been the nicest people to deal with. I hope that the new owners appreciate these nice people."
Dennis Vozaites was due to become the new proprietor on Feb. 1, and no interruption in service was expected. "I know a lot of the customers like it as it is," said Vozaites, whose father owns the building. "I hope to keep everybody happy."
Meanwhile, Dino and Maria Farmas will be focusing full-time on Bambino's, an Italian restaurant they opened five years ago in Cole Valley. They started Bambino's, they said, in anticipation that the Vozaites would eventually reclaim the Noe Valley Pizza space. "I had a feeling this was coming," Dino said.
Even so, the Farmases had hoped to stay in Noe Valley by moving the restaurant to a building they own on Church and 24th streets. They say they were stopped because of a moratorium designed to keep in check the number of restaurants in Noe Valley. "We tried to stay around," Maria said with a smile and a shrug. "It didn't work out. What can you do?"
Since Bambino's opened, Dino has spent most of his time in the new restaurant. He sat in a booth one overcast Monday, speaking wistfully about his and Maria's pending departure from Noe Valley. "I'm leaving part of my life there. It was my first restaurant and it was very successful," he said. "And our customers are beautiful people. I'm going to miss them."
While the Cole Street place has a more contemporary decor than its Noe Valley counterpart, the two restaurants share similar menus featuring such old standbys as linguini with clams, eggplant parmigiana, and spaghetti and meatballs. They also make some concessions to contemporary tastes, with dishes like grilled salmon, angel-hair pasta with chicken, and fettucine with roasted bell peppers. Of course, there's the pizza. And home delivery has always been a big part of Maria and Dino's business.
A few days later, on a soggy Friday night, the phone at Noe Valley Pizza was ringing steadily with pizza orders. The rain had kept some regulars at home, but most of the tables were filled as Maria greeted customers by name while keeping benign control over the busy wait staff, cooks, and pizza delivery crew. It was a typical night, but an air of resignation mingled with the aromas emanating from the kitchen.
"We're sad they're leaving," said customer Debi Anaya, who was sitting in one of the worn red leather booths with her husband, Jim, and the youngest of their three children. "She's a good reason why we come here," Jim said of Maria, who had been merrily chatting with the Anayas moments before.
The Anayas have been regulars ever since they moved to the neighborhood 11 years ago, and each of their children -- ages 8, 6, and 4 -- has been introduced to dining out at Noe Valley Pizza. "It's an easy place to come to with the kids," Debi said. "It's good for 24th Street because it's such a family area."
Bob and Kathleen Hohalek are 12-year veterans of the restaurant, and Friday is their regular night. They were having a pre-dinner glass of wine at the small bar being tended by their daughter Xanthe. "When we first started coming, they'd give her things to color," Kathleen said to emphasize their long run at the restaurant. "The food is predictable, but what separated this place from the others is customer service. This one won out because of the family feel."
Another disappointed patron is Bernie Ward, the KGO radio talk show host, who has used his program to lament the change. Ward first became a fan of the restaurant when he held an on-air contest to pick the best pizza in the city. Dino and Maria's took first place. "Now when my kids talk about pizza," Ward said, "they want Noe Valley Pizza."
Ward has been a Noe Valley resident for six years. "It's just not good for the area for them to be leaving," he said. "Here is an example where a good idea [the moratorium on restaurants] hurts the neighborhood."
Even with the moratorium, the Farmases thought the rule would still let them open a restaurant in their Church Street building if their landlord promised the city that another restaurant wouldn't replace Noe Valley Pizza. But Tony Vozaites, the landlord, said that guarantee had not been a possibility.
"The history is that there has been a restaurant here for 30 years," said Vozaites, who owns the two adjoining buildings as well. Besides, he said, the reason he wanted the space was to help fulfill his son's wishes to get back into the restaurant business.
Vozaites bought the building in 1965, and moved his family into the upstairs apartment when his son, Dennis, was 2. The downstairs business was a baby furniture store, he said, but was soon replaced by Linder's Restaurant.
"When they closed after seven years, I was going to open up a restaurant," Vozaites said, "but the kids were small." He eventually did open the Geneva Pizza Restaurant on Geneva Avenue near Mission Street, where Dennis got his first taste of the restaurant business. "But I didn't like the area," Dennis said.
More recently, Dennis has worked as a manager of a produce market in the Sunset. "I needed a change," he said. "To tell you the truth, I got tired of getting up at the crack of dawn. I wasn't a morning person."
In recent weeks, Dennis, who lives with his wife and their children near his parents in Millbrae, has been spending his days at Noe Valley Pizza, observing and learning the routines. "There are no bad vibes," he said. "Everything is great. I've known Dino for years."
In fact, there is a family connection: Dennis' wife is Dino's first cousin's daughter. Both families are Greek, and both are veterans of the Italian restaurant business. With the closing last year of Panos, the Greek-flavored restaurant on 24th Street, Dennis said he might try out a few Greek dishes on the menu.
For Dino, who was reared in Argos, Greece, it was never an option. "If you tell me to cook something Greek," he said, "I wouldn't know how."
When Dino and Maria moved to the United States in 1972, they were trading poverty for uncertainty. "I never dreamed in my life that I was going to be in the restaurant business," he said. But he got a start as a dishwasher, and learned about restaurants from Italian owners. Before he opened Noe Valley Pizza, he had worked across the street at Haystack Pizza Restaurant.
Dino and Maria now live in Hillsborough with their three daughters. "I don't think they like the restaurant business," he said of his offspring.
Since it doesn't look as if Dino and Maria will be passing on the family business, they will reevaluate their future as restaurateurs once college tuitions are out of the way, Dino said. "The restaurant business is very tough, and I wish good luck to anybody who wants to get into it."
Meanwhile, his Cole Valley restaurant seems to be doing well, and he hopes some of his Noe Valley regulars will come over the hill for a visit. But he knows it won't be the same. It won't be in Noe Valley.
"I like that neighborhood best," Dino acknowledged. "It might be cloudy when I leave home, but then you get to Noe Valley and all that sunshine. It changes your mood."