3354 Hancock Street, Midway District
The president came by the other day, to chat.
“He was so nice, so natural,” says Mario. “I couldn’t believe my eyes. We talked about music, jazz, health care, and when he left, I wondered what a man like him was doing in a place like this.”
This is so Mario. Haven’t seen the guy in 11 years, and it’s like yesterday. I’ve just walked lonely Hancock Street through this little old industrial area north of Les Girls and The Body Shop. Lonely. Dark.
Then, suddenly, you’re in this island of light around a big bright Christmas tree, red booths, three garden benches, a couple of rickety café tables, and an old surfboard that says “Café.” And then the big black and white sign: “Hancock Street Café. Live Jazz & Blues.”
Still here! The restaurant at the end of the universe!
This is a kind of pilgrimage for me. Mario the musician and health freak (he has walked clear across the United States) turned this unlikely spot into an Italian food and sandwich joint and musicians’ hangout. His dream was always to make this the #1 jazz spot in the country. Or at least the county.
And here was the kicker: He always kept a piano out back in the hope that one day Herbie Hancock, the famed jazz pianist, would come and jam here on, well, Hancock Street with his biggest fan. Ever since Herbie finally did come to San Diego (in 2011), I had to know if Mario’s dream had come true.
I’m also hoping he’s still got some food going — I am hungry! I remember Mario’s Polish hot dogs, the thin-crust pizzas he’d make, the hot polska kielbasa sandwiches. His potato pancakes. And heck, his endless coffees. You needed that because no way you could hurry in and hurry out of this place.
Kinda surprised that he’s even open. This is a Monday night. Inside, jazz music’s on the system. Hats and black vinyl records compete for space on the ceiling. Hand-painted food specials line the upper walls. “Hot pastrami sandwich, $5.99.” “Chili, large bowl, $4.99.” “Gyro sandwich, $5.99.” “Breakfast calzone with two eggs, cheese, sausage, onions, and spinach, $4.99.”
Three gents are standing around talking. Then from behind the counter, this big ball of dough rises. A ball of dough with a voice. “My God! Eleven years!” it says.
Mario. Totally amazing that he even remembers. “Guess who we had come through that door last week?” he says, and tells me about the president’s visit, like we’d just left off talking a week ago.
“The next morning, Mr. Obama comes back, and he has this poster. He signs it ‘Reggie Brown.’ The comedian! A poster imposter! Reggie’s the guy who impersonates Obama. He was incredible. I couldn’t see the difference. But I still don’t know why he came.”
I do. Mario always seems to have people like that coming. They hear about him on the circuit. Hey, one of T. Rex’s latest line-up was in the other day. “We jammed for hours. Beat Farmers, too. But you’re hungry, right?”
Maybe he saw my eyes climbing down the bunch of wall menus. Polish deals like the Breakfast Plate of potato pancakes, a two-egg omelet, and veggies for $8. Or a two-egg omelet stuffed with bacon, cheese, veggies, or sausage. For lunch he has just about any “thick or thin personal pizza ($7 with one topping. Choices go from goat cheese to eggplant to cactus to anchovies to meatballs).” Hot sandwiches are all $7. Hot dogs go for $3, and potato pancakes are $6.50.
We’re all hungry. So Mario says, “Okay. I make a pizza. Simple like in Napoli or Roma. Don’t worry. Talk with these guys.”
“People love or hate this place,” says Joe S. “Their lives just seem to cross here. Joe has just seen his daughter for the first time in 13 years. Half hour ago. Right here! Mario just has that vibe.”
The other Joe says he’s a musician, and half Lakota. He’s just telling me the Lakota word for “man” (“wicasa,” pronounced “wichasha”), when Joe #1 comes out wearing a marching-band cap, followed by Mario in a British bobby’s helmet with a whistle in his mouth and carrying our steaming $7 pizza. He lays it down right in front of a Christmas crèche scene. (He’s Polish Catholic. He has a photo on the wall of him meeting Pope John Paul II.) The pizza has large halves of pepperoni circling on top of the melted mozzarella and provolone cheese base. They look like Pac-Man faces chasing each other.
He puts down a bottle of hot sauce labeled “Mario Gringo Salsa.”
“This has a spicy cayenne and turmeric mix, with honey,” he says. “Very healthy.”
I splot some on my slice. So good. Heat, yes, but a kind of sweet orange, gingery heart. Really adds to the pizza. And so does the Mexican Jarritos mandarin orange soda I get ($2).
It doesn’t take us long to scoff this baby down.
“But this is nothing,” says Joe the Lakota. “Every Sunday, Mario has a pizza brunch, $9.99. Six different pizzas. I’m from Chicago and some are like from home, almost like quiches.”
“Next Sunday I’m doing a thin crust, shredded apple, sliced banana, cinnamon, chocolate,” Mario says. “I’m still working it out, but it will be a dessert pizza.”
Oh, and Mario is doing a free day-long New Year’s Eve buffet where you just leave a tip. And I’ll bet he has a dozen musician friends drop by to make noise.
Who knows, maybe even the president himself will turn up this time. Or Herbie Hancock.
“Did you see him when he came?”
“I missed him. He’s not interested in me. He’s too big.”
- Prices: Breakfast Plate (potato pancakes, omelet, veggies), $8; breakfast sandwich, $5; bagel, cream cheese, $2.50; personal pizzas, $7 with one topping; any hot sandwich, $7; hot dog, $3; calzone, $5; lamb gyro, $7; chili, large bowl, $4.99; hot pastrami, $5.99
- Hours: 8:00 a.m.–10:00 p.m.; Sunday, 11:00 a.m.–2:00 p.m.
- Buses: 8, 28, 35
- Nearest bus stop: Rosecrans at Moore Street (one block east of Hancock Street)
- Trolley: Green Line
- Nearest Trolley stop: Old Town