What do you remember from your days at Sacred Heart?

First of all, the camaraderie and friendships I created at SH are still very alive today. Anytime my classmates and I get together it feels as if we have not missed a beat! Our friendships are lasting. That, I believe, says who we are!

My success has come from the Christian Brothers at St. Mary’s College and Sacred Heart. My senior year at St. Mary’s, I did an independent study with Brother Jerome West about buying, building and creating a restaurant from A to Z. He helped establish that idea in me. Brother Arnold, Brother Thomas Rowan and Brother Warren Ash of SH and Brother Mel Anderson, Brother Martin Ash and especially Brother Jerome West of St. Mary’s College were influential in setting the groundwork for my success in life. They instilled in me the values of hard work, persistency and belief in our Catholic roots—and the faith that these things bring success in life. My friendships carry on to this day.

When did you start collecting cars?

I have been interested in cars of all kinds—classic, muscle and vintage—since I had my first toy trucks and cars. My dad, a car collector, would always bring me to shows, the debut of the new automobiles on Van Ness, the Concours d'Elegance, and the Harrah’s swap meets in Reno. I was hooked at a very early age. I started collecting cars while in college.

Azzolino's 1956 Thunderbird Azzolino's 1956 Thunderbird

While at St. Mary’s College I had a ’56 Thunderbird, which I still have. I am currently rebuilding a duplicate of my high school car, a green, 1960 Impala. It definitely brings back good memories of my high school days. I also have five Packards, my favorite classics. Right now, I have a dozen automobiles which my wife, Laura (Presentation High School Class of 1969), enjoys during the warmer months. My interest in cars and my collection has allowed me to meet many notable people such as former LA Times publisher, Otis Chandler, and Bill Harrah.

Tell us about the history of Sotto Mare Oysteria & Seafood Restaurant.

The building that Sotto Mare is located in was built in 1919 and restored in 2003 to its original plan and configuration. During prohibition, it was a winery and cigar store. Then it became the Isle of Capri Italian Family Restaurant, and the second floor was the banquet room. In 1956, the restaurant became the Montclair Italian Family Restaurant. In 1978, it was sold to legendary USF baseball Coach Dante Benedetti. In 2003, Gigi Fiorucci ’64 purchased the building. Aaron Peskin was the supervisor at the time and they found the blueprints of the original building. It was rebuilt as two side by side restaurants along with a banquet room downstairs. On October 1, 2014, my family (Laura, Vito ’99, Ria ’04) and I purchased the restaurant from my longtime friend Gigi Fiorucci. I told my wife she was no longer retired and would be working in the restaurant. Thankfully, it was always a dream of hers because her father was in the business. My daughter, Ria, started working here nine months after Gigi opened up. She received her North Beach education under Gigi. My wife and I were both born and raised in North Beach, San Francisco’s “Little Italy.” We want Sotto Mare to be a place where our friends, neighbors and worldwide visitors can congregate for the best, freshest seafood and wine that can be offered, and share a good laugh and stories with one another!

We have been fortunate to be featured on television and in magazines—Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern on the Travel Channel, and Paradise Foods on the Food Channel. Most recently, we were featured in Where Magazine. We are lucky to have a wonderful following from all corners of the world, but most fortunate to see our lifelong friends.

The menu was created to be as close to authentic Italian food as possible—cooked just like they do in Italy. We are famous for “The Best Damn Crab Cioppino.” We have tried new menu items, such as the Crab Diavolo, and we are always thinking of what our customers might enjoy. I see it as a place where people can congregate with food and drinks, have fresh fish and enjoy traditional Italian seafood. My hope is that one day my children will take over. My Dad was in the restaurant business, I started in this business and I want to end my career in this business.

What advice can you give to alumni trying to break into the restaurant industry?

I have a long storied history with San Francisco restaurants Caesar’s, Jovanello’s, Maye’s Oyster House, and I enjoy teaching others this exciting trade. I also taught and ran three restaurants at the California Culinary Academy and was able to mentor kids from the Salesian Boys & Girls Club and Sacred Heart Cathedral about the restaurant industry! You have to be open to long days, giving up some holidays and learning from the back of the house (kitchen) to the front of the house (with people), and you must have some patience. I always say that If you love food and love people, I encourage you to be in the restaurant industry—it is challenging but rewarding.

Bon Appetito!

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