Francesco’s Serves Its Last Italian Feast

The green-white-and-red Hegenberger Road fixture populated by labor leaders and sports greats shuts for good.


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An era ended in March

Photo by D. Ross Cameron

One last bite of ravioli, a sip of Chianti, a few tears, and just like that—a slice of Oakland’s Italian heritage slipped into the past.

Francesco’s restaurant, a green-white-and-red fixture on Hegenberger Road since 1968, closed in March after 48 rollicking years. The building is for sale, the leather booths and wrought-iron chandeliers will be auctioned, and the staff of 35 will be out of work.

“The hardest part of this whole thing is that for so many people, this has been a home away from home,” said owner Theresa Bargiacchi Erwin, whose grandparents started the restaurant. She has worked there since she was 18. “For family, for friends, for us … it’s been a comfort. But it was time to move on.”

Francesco’s was a flagship of Oakland’s Italian community, a lively subculture that was once one of the biggest of its kind in the state. It gave us the Colombo Club, Ratto’s Deli, Toscana and Colombo bakeries, Genova Deli, Ultra and Lucca delis, and of course Bertola’s, where every teenager in Oakland learned to drink. The Colombo Club and Ratto’s remain, but Ultra and Lucca have morphed into the A.G. Ferrari chain (except for a holdout in Castro Valley), Bertola’s is no more, the bakeries were bought by Wonder Bread, and Genova is under threat of losing its lease.

For many, Francesco’s was a throwback to the way restaurants used to be: big portions, waitresses who call you “honey,” tables big enough to seat a small crowd, and a straight-forward menu that offers petrale sole and shrimp cocktail.

“San Francisco tries to have restaurants like this, but there’s always that hipster vibe,” said Hollis Kelley, who recently moved to Oakland from across the bay and was enjoying a respite at Francesco’s on a recent afternoon. “This is the real thing. The food is great, but I think it’s really because of the staff—they’re very good, and they don’t leave.”

Most of Francesco’s cooks and waiters have been there for decades. One cook, Mike Erwin, is Erwin’s ex-husband. The bartender, Dino Keres, has worked been pouring vodka tonics there for 26 years. Lisa Mendoza, 76, has waited tables there since the early 1970s.

“Why am I still here? I love my customers,” Mendoza said. “The regulars, especially the older ones. All I want is for them to enjoy their food, have a good time, and keep coming back as long as they can. I don’t care if they have money to tip me or not. Everyone deserves great service, no matter how much money they can pay. That’s what’s kept me here—getting to see my customers every day.”

Mendoza doesn’t know what she’ll do when Francesco’s closes.

“Maybe I’ll take a little rest,” she said. “But I’ll miss this place so much. I could cry but it won’t make any difference.”

Erwin’s grandparents, immigrants from Lucca, Italy, in the 1920s, had a long history in Oakland’s restaurant business before they opened Francesco’s. They previously had owned the North Pole Club and Villa de la Paix and were eager to branch out to East Oakland to capitalize on crowds from the newly built Oakland Coliseum and the rapidly expanding Oakland airport.

For decades, it was a winning formula. All the Raiders, A’s, and Warriors greats hung out there. Al Davis had his own booth. Billy Martin was a regular. Don Nelson met his coaching staff there. Fred Biletnikoff “liked vodka. Ketel One,” Keres said. Tourists, visiting sports teams and fans, concert-goers, and airport employees also joined the crowd.

But these days the regulars are mostly retired, and the restaurant hosts more memorials than wild sports parties. On a recent rainy afternoon, one older man sipped a glass of red wine at the bar and, when asked his thoughts about Francesco’s closing, gave a long sad sigh.

“This is a part of Oakland’s history. You could find influential people from all fields here,” he said. “Sports, criminal justice, aviation, the union halls. A lot of good people came through here. … A lot of those people have passed on. Time goes on, I suppose. But will I miss it? Very much so.”

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