Noe Valley Voice May 2009

Noe Valley Remembers Paolo Dominici

By Steve Steinberg

A spearfishing accident in Hawaii last month tragically claimed the life of Paolo Dominici, owner of Bacco Ristorante, the popular Italian restaurant at 737 Diamond Street. Dominici, 49, was on a family vacation with his wife, Shari, and 10-year-old daughter Isabella at the time.

Although Bacco remained open following the news of Dominici's death, friends, employees, and restaurant patrons mourned his passing.

"Noe Valley has lost a great restaurateur," said Gene Ginsberg, owner of PastaGina, an Italian food store located next door to Bacco. Ginsberg had been friends with Dominici and his wife for over 16 years.

"He was very kind, generous.... He had a certain honesty you don't find with other people," Ginsberg said. He and Dominici would often share a glass of wine after work and talk about their respective businesses. "We could depend on each other," Ginsberg added. "We did things for one another. He could come over and borrow five pounds of sugar, and we never worried about getting it back. When my wife was recovering from an illness, Paolo cooked a special meal for her at his restaurant and wouldn't let us pay for it."

Luca Zanet, the manager of Bacco, said Dominici's death was a total shock. "I couldn't believe it; it was unreal." Zanet had worked for Dominici for 14 years and viewed him more as a friend than a boss. "Our kids played together, we had family barbeques together," he said. He termed Dominici, who lived in the Sunset District, "a very nice man to work for. He was soft-mannered and hardly ever got upset."

According to Zanet, Dominici took his family to Hawaii every spring for a vacation and always went spearfishing. "[Spearfishing] was one of the loves of his life," Zanet said.

Vincenzo Cucco, co-owner of Bacco, said his partner was "an expert spearfisher," who did not take chances with his sport. "He was very careful in the water," Cucco said.

Boat May Have Caused Accident

Dominici was first reported missing about 10:45 a.m. April 11, after he failed to return from an early-morning fishing expedition with a friend.

A search by the Hawaii Fire Department off the waters of Kailua-Kona on the island of Hawaii initially turned up some of Dominici's diving gear. Later, the Hawaii Police Department, using DNA testing, identified a bone fragment found in the water as Dominici's.

Police reported that an examination of some of Dominici's equipment indicated he might have been hit by a boat. According to police, witnesses described seeing a boat in the area where Dominici was spearfishing. Police were still continuing their investigation and were asking the public's help in obtaining information about any boats that might have been cruising near where Dominici was diving.

Though the restaurant staff was shaken by the loss of its popular co-owner, Bacco will continue to operate. "Bacco will be okay," Cucco said. "There are good people working there."

Zanet noted that many people have come by to drop off cards and flowers, or jerseys inscribed with the names of Dominici's favorite soccer teams. Many longtime customers, Zanet said, have continued to dine at Bacco as a gesture of support.

A Gracious and Warm Host

Gail and Herman Papa, West of Twin Peaks residents, were doing just that one evening last month. The couple have been coming to Bacco for years and were devastated to hear of Dominici's death. The Papas called him "a very special guy," who had a wonderful ability to make you feel like more than a customer. "We enjoyed seeing [Dominici] as much as we enjoyed the food," said Herman Papa.

Also dining at Bacco last month were Grand View Avenue residents Laura Prager and Cheryl Jennings. The two said they had been eating at Bacco for the last dozen or so years and had celebrated many special events at the restaurant.

Prager said she was "in shock" when she learned of Dominici's death. Jennings called the restaurant owner one of the "sweetest, kindest, handsomest, most gracious, and charismatic men" she'd ever known. She added that Bacco was like a second home, thanks to Dominici. "It's the most family-style restaurant in Noe Valley," Jennings said. The two also said their hearts went out to Dominici's wife and daughter.

Dominici was born in Rome, Italy, in 1960. According to Cucco, he attended an Italian business school and then immigrated to the United States when he was in his early 20s. His elderly mother, Isabella Dominici, still lives in Rome. For a while, Dominici worked for his older brother, Luigi Dominici, who owned a restaurant in Russian Hill.

In 1993, Paolo Dominici and Cucco opened Bacco, with Dominici acting as host and Cucco doing the cooking. The two would later open a second Italian restaurant in Belmont, called Divino. Eventually, the two partners decided to divide up management duties, with Cucco running Divino and Dominici staying in Noe Valley to manage Bacco.

A clearly saddened Cucco called Dominici "a loyal friend, a solid, solid guy, who loved his wife and daughter and would be there for you."

A memorial service was held May 1 at Saint Anne of the Sunset Catholic Church in San Francisco's Sunset District.