By Dave Schwab
People have long driven by abandoned Pernicano’s Restaurant in the heart of Hillcrest and wondered, “Why can’t they (the city) do something?”
Now after 25 years, they just might.
A groundswell of local support may finally be spurring the city into finding creative ways — subtle or not — to pressure owners of the extinct pizzeria (the first in San Diego built after World War II) to redevelop the 25,000-square-foot building, or divest themselves of it.
The building takes up one-third of a block on Sixth Avenue between University and Robinson avenues, and includes a fenced-in unused 80-space parking lot. Since its closure, it has drawn the ire of local businesses and residents, who complain about grafitti, vandals and the space the structure is taking up that could be used for parking or new businesses.
Until now, the city has been operating under the assumption that nothing can be done to compel a business owner to operate if, as is the case with George Pernicano, they do the minimal upkeep needed to avoid code violations on the property. But District 3 Councilman Todd Gloria thinks times may have changed. He said he’s willing to carry the torch to see what can be done to redevelop Pernicano’s.
“That restaurant has become a black eye in Hillcrest and it’s been that way for nearly a quarter-century,” Gloria conceded, noting the Pernicano family always maintains they “don’t have any immediate plans” to do anything with the site.
As chair of the City Council’s Land Use and Housing Committee, Gloria has been working with foreclosure properties. “It occurred to me, there might be some parallels with properties like Pernicano’s,” he said. “I’d like to work with the City Attorney to find a way to legally compel the owner to improve this property and put it back to productive use.”
The councilman offered one alternative that might be tried to “resurrect” the historic restaurant site: changing the municipal code to classify structures as a public nuisance if they’ve been vacant for an extended period of time and been subject to other code or tax violations. Said Gloria: “The idea would be to give our city Neighborhood Code Compliance Department an additional tool to work with, with property owners in buildings like Pernicano’s.”
A blight on the landscape today, Pernicano’s and its sister eatery, Casa di Baffi (House of the Mustache) were once the talk of the town. Handlebar-mustachioed restaurant owner George Pernicano, now in his 90s, was nicknamed “Road Warrior” because he never missed a Chargers home game and because of his passion for, and part ownership in, the team (3 percent bought from Chargers founder Barron Hilton in 1961).
Casa di Baffi gained quite a reputation in the early days of the Chargers as a watering hole for team members and a haunt for movie stars and famous athletes who frequented the establishment from 1946 to 1985. Notables like “Hollywood” Joe Namath were honored restaurant guests. The Super Bowl-winning quarterback, the story goes, loved Pernicano’s cuisine so much he referred to the eatery as “Pork Chop Hill.” Pernicano himself is said to have once run out onto the Lindbergh Field tarmac to halt the New York Jets’ quarterback’s plane because Namath “wouldn’t leave without Pernicano’s unique veal cutlet sandwiches.”
But the restaurant’s glory days are just a vision in the rear-view mirror. In 2009, residents, neighbors and visitors see only the shell of the once-proud pizzeria, adequately-tended still, but vacant nonetheless.
Why has George Pernicano been so recalcitrant about hanging onto to the property without doing anything with it for so long? It’s been speculated the notoriously feisty owner doesn’t want his ex-wife to profit from its sale, or that he’s keeping it closed as a sign of his displeasure over how the character of the neighborhood has changed since he opened it in a different era in 1946.
One thing’s for certain: George isn’t talking about it. Nor is he about to, said said his brother John, who, in his 80s, is still active in the family business in Pacific Beach, playing piano for restaurant guests there. “It’s a crime, he’s (George’s) been closed 25 years,” said John Pernicano half-jokingly about his older brother.”It’s looking good — I just passed by it yesterday.”
John noted the city’s been on his brother’s case, but added he’s been living within the rules. “You’ve got to keep the place looking like it’s operating,” John said. “But he’s keepin’ it clean. It looks pretty damned good.”
John Pernicano added that money is not a factor with his sibling. “He’s 92,” John said. “He doesn’t need the money. He just pays the taxes and lets it go.”
John Pernicano admits his brother is stubborn. “He don’t talk to nobody,” he said. “Not for sale, at any price. No one can buy it. His boys inherit it.”
What does John Pernicano think his brother George’s sons Larry and Gary will do with the former restaurant site? “They will dump it, sure,” he said. Larry and Gary Pernicano could not be reached for comment.
Carol Shultz, executive director of Uptown Partnership, said her group would like to see something done about changing Pernicano’s status. “Our board Sept. 3 acted to write a letter to Mr. Pernicano to ask whether we could discuss opening up the existing parking lot on his property as a paid public parking lot,” she said, adding maybe this new partial approach may prove more fruitful. “Previous approaches have been to deal with the whole property,” she added.
The long-dormant Italian restaurant leaves many residents frustrated and the community as a whole feeling disinherited. Some are angry.
“I have a real low tolerance for these people taking advantage of the system, doing spiteful things that don’t benefit the community,” said Erik Hanson, whose wife owns a business two blocks from Pernicano’s. “It’s all about him (the owner) and his memories: He can’t have the memories without the physical object.”
Hanson knows what he’d like to see done with the property. “The city needs to take it away by eminent domain,” he said. “I was inside that place about 1990, after it had been abandoned about five or six years, not the decades it’s been now, and even then the mold was so thick and the place so damp and swampy smelling that you could tell there was no way the place could ever be opened again. Obviously, he has some friends at City Hall that allow this. They could, at least, enforce the ‘abandoned sign structure’ laws. If you don’t run a business for 25-plus years, that defines abandoned to me.”
Hillcrest Business Association executive director Ben Nicholls said it’s a shame that such a valuable property is allowed to lie fallow, which “brings the whole neighborhood down.”
“It’s a wonderful location right in the heart of HIllcrest that should be redeveloped to have a great result like it once did,” he said.”I hear a lot of neighbors talking about how they wish somebody would buy it and redevelop it. I think the whole site would need to be redeveloped.”
“You could do a lot with that parking there and the building — residences up above, office space,” Nicholls said. “It’s an ugly building the way it is. It is a permanent eyesore on the neighborhood. It’s costing us money. It’s certainly an image problem.”
Mike Wright, longtime owner of City Deli near Pernicano’s, agrees that the time has long since passed when something should have been done to compel the Pernicanos to take the old Italian restaurant site out of mothballs. “I personally don’t know George at all,” he admitted. “What I pick up is George has held to his strong Italian obstinacy. It (Pernicano’s) is an empty space that doesn’t attract people to Hillcrest.”
Wright has owned and operated City Deli for 25 years. “As long as George has been closed,” he noted.
Wright said it’s always been a contention of local businesspeople that George could at least allow the community to use his vacant parking lot. “He’s not interested,” Wright said.
Wright appreciates that George Pernicano is personally attached to his restaurant site. Yet he feels it’s unfortunate he doesn’t quite grasp the financial implications to the community of leaving the site unused so long. “He could have moved when property values were high, worked on developing something for the neighborhood,” Wright said. “He’s had many opportunities. My landlord approached him years ago. Many other landlords have tried. He has closed ears.”
Dave Schwab has been a journalist in San Diego County for more than 20 years and has worked on several publications including the San Diego Business Journal and the La Jolla Light. He resides in North Park and may be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.