Editor’s note: These stories are the first in an occasional series titled “Where Are They Now?” The stories will look back at the careers of former high-profile members of the business community and answer the question “Where are they now?”
The atmosphere inside a now-closed restaurant in Hillcrest drips with nostaglia. Its owner, George Pernicano, collects a half-century’s worth of memories and quickly brings his self-named eatery back to life.
“We used to stand here,” he says, motioning toward the banks of the pizzeria’s ovens, “and toss dough to one another.
“I’d be out by one of the tables,” he adds, pointing to the rows of empty wooden benches that overflowed with patrons in from the early 1950s until Pernicano closed his restaurant in 1985. “And they’d toss me the dough. Sometimes I’d catch it, but sometimes I’d miss, and it would spill all the drinks on the table. So I’d just buy them another round.”
Those must have been grand days for the people who knew San Diego’s First Man of Pizza. Pernicano’s was the place to bring the family for a big night on the town. And if you wanted to make it a really special night, you’d head next door to his upscale restaurant, Casa de Baffi , Home of the Handlebar.
Pernicano still sports his trademark handlebar mustache; in fact, the door handles to the restaurant are fashioned just like it. And Casa de Baffi was San Diego’s place to be seen.
Raised In The Kitchen
Born in Punxsutawney, Pa., into an Italian family of 11 boys and one girl, they soon moved to Detroit. George, who joined the Army Air Corps during World War II, enjoyed being around the kitchen at an early age.
“I was the baker,” said Pernicano, who will turn 82 in June. “I learned how to make the dough. My mom taught me, and I learned it all by hand.”
Upon his return home from the service, he told his father he was going to California to open a restaurant. He flew to San Diego with his wife Isabel and twin baby sons in August 1946 and opened his first restaurant inside the 20 Club, on the corner opposite where his future restaurant would be built.
“I would give away the pizza at first,” he said. “No one here knew what it was. I had to do a lot of explaining.”
The next year he bought Duffy’s, a Hillcrest beer and wine bar, and opened his first full-fledged restaurant. He also was buying up other nearby properties. In 1949, he started construction on Pernicano’s.
“I was 31, 32 years old, and in 1949 I built that building,” he said, adding that he contracted with local construction legend Bruce Hazard and Melhorn Construction. “I built it with a basement. It’s the only restaurant with a basement in California. We moved in New Year’s Eve of 1949-50.”
A Chain Of Restaurants
Pernicano along with his brothers established restaurants stretching from East County to Oceanside. Four still remain, in El Cajon, La Jolla, Lakeside and Scripps Ranch. Pernicano’s sons, Larry and Gary, own two of the restaurants. His business flourished, and he hosted some of San Diego’s most influential residents and visitors.
“All the movie stars used to come in,” he said. “We’d close down at 2 a.m. and open up for people like (big band leader) Jimmy Dorsey and his crew. Rudy Vallee would come in; his wife used to smoke cigars in there.”
“There were all these people at the meeting when Barron Hilton was seeking partners,” he said. “The only ones who came in with any money were Jim Copley from Copley Press, John Mabee from Big Bear markets, and George Pernicano, a little pizza man.”
Pernicano bought into the Chargers about the same time he opened Casa de Baffi. While the restaurant is now closed, Pernicano still remains a part owner of the Chargers.
“I haven’t missed a game since 1961,” he said, adding he travels to all away games, including this season’s preseason trip to Australia.
His restaurants in Hillcrest, however, didn’t last quite as long. Though a frequent visitor to the restaurants at University and 6th avenues, there was a simple explanation for closing the local landmark.
“My chef retired,” he simply said. “I just closed the doors. A lot of people want to lease it, and some want to buy it and make it a parking lot. I won’t do it; this place is made for entertainment.”
Restaurants remain a passion to this day, but football is his first love.
“Money’s not important; it won’t buy health or happiness,” he said. “I travel all the time with football. Football is what’s kept me going. It’s good to be around young people.”