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The Anti-Snob of the San Francisco Food Scene

In a city defined by heady restaurants and their devotees, Adriano Paganini presents a convincing counterargument.

IT'S 6 P.M. ON A WEDNESDAY, and Beretta is just warming up. The bartenders are doing their part for the mixology movement—brandishing shakers of egg whites and carefully measuring out bitters. As more customers arrive, the noise level rises and the restaurant crackles with energy. Within 30 minutes, the cozy, dimly lit space is packed with people eating pizza, and more are sitting outside anxiously waiting for their names to be checked off the wait list. It’s pretty much been this way since the day Beretta opened in 2008 and took hold of this corner of Valencia Street.

Amid the chaos, Milan-born restaurateur Adriano Paganini sits at the bar with the calm air of a man who’s doing well for himself. Though he has partners in his businesses, he functions as the principal—the true guiding light. After opening Beretta, he followed up quickly with Delarosa in the Marina, Starbelly in the Castro, Lolinda in the Mission, and five-and-counting Super Duper burger joints—every one of them a hit. By no means are his establishments being swooned over by critics (though Beretta did earn three stars from Michael Bauer), but it’s fair to say that most chefs here would give their best Japanese knife to have their restaurant be as busy as one of Paganini’s.

On any given night, almost every one of the 1,160 seats in his string of restaurants is occupied. Taken together, his nine locations make up a mini-empire of the sort that hasn’t been seen in this town since the days of Reed Hearon (who opened Lulu, Rose Pistola, and Rose’s Café in the ’90s) and Pat Kuleto (who opened Waterbar, Epic Roasthouse, Farallon, and Jardinière).

Paganini’s blatant refusal to partake in San Francisco’s culinary posturing has worked well for him. His establishments aren’t fronted by name-brand chefs, and he’s not deeply invested in food politics or sustainability. Instead, he has perfected an unapologetic formula: Stylish design plus reasonable prices plus deafening acoustics plus good-enough food equals insta-mega-success. “There are a lot of people in San Francisco who are very serious about coffee, about beer, about everything,” he says on a sunny day at Cafe Flore, a stone’s throw from his two Castro locations (Starbelly and the original Super Duper) and not far from his home in Dolores Heights. “A customer gets exhausted about all the seriousness—there’s a fatigue. Our restaurants are successful because we don’t make it hard for our guests.” Most people, he believes, just want to order dinner and a drink without thinking too hard about it.

Paganini himself is a study in self-presentation. An Italian lilt accents his words, and his slender frame is clad in a Rag & Bone button-down, jeans cuffed just so, and polished lace-up boots. And his attention to appearance clearly extends to his branding. Take Delarosa, for instance. “We created it specifically for the Marina. It is almost too perfect,” he laughs. The sleek, hot-orange and gray design, he says, has been described by SF Weekly as the D&G of cafeterias—a comparison he takes as a compliment. “It’s a little obvious,” he says. “No offense [to the neighborhood].”

But if you’ve heard of Pasta Pomodoro, you might know that Paganini’s touch has not always been so golden. After moving to San Francisco with an Italian culinary degree, he launched the pasta-centric chain on Chestnut Street in 1994. He was only 29 then, but with the help of capital investment, he ultimately opened a total of 42 Pomodoros, branching out as far as Arizona. As the CEO, he was in charge of 1,600 employees.

The fairy tale didn’t end well: Paganini describes his Pasta Pomodoro experience as the most expensive business school ever. “Operationally, it was a nightmare,” he says. “It couldn’t have been any more wrong. We started as fast-casual and then became casual dining, but we were never special enough to be casual, so we ended up in the middle of the road.” A year after opening Beretta with his partners, Paganini threw in the Pomodoro towel. “At one point, my percentage was supposed to be worth $18 million,” he says. “But when I sold the company in 2010, I made $395,000.”

Even Beretta was the product of a false start: Initially purchased as the Last Supper Club, it too was a failure. Coming right after the Pasta Pomodoro debacle, it gave Paganini’s confidence a drubbing. “But,” he says cheerfully, “we reopened it as Beretta—right before the recession—and watched [our sales] triple and quadruple.”

Today, Paganini is off to scout locations for more Super Dupers. In fact, he thinks there’s plenty of room for more casual restaurants in San Francisco: Spanish, French (“like Pastis” in New York), even pizza. More pizza—really? “Every neighborhood needs a good pizza spot,” he says with absolute assuredness, confidence restored.

Originally published in the December 2012 issue of San Francisco.

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