IN GOOD TASTE:
Pernicano's Family Restaurant has been in Pacific Beach at 711 Turquoise St. — well, before Pacific Beach was even Pacific Beach as we know it. When the restaurant opened in 1947, there were only seven other restaurants on the entire thoroughfare. Pacific Beach literally grew up around Pernicano's Restaurant, and it's still standing on solid ground 70 years later.
That longevity is due primarily to the work of owner Johnny Pernicano, who was there from Day One, and who is still there today. Pernicano has been called the "Heart of Pacific Beach," and is as close to a living-legend restaurateur as you'll find in these parts. Johnny whispers his secret to living a long life of 90 years: "Never retire. That's why I'm still around. Never say 'I quit' or 'I'm going to just watch the tube or play golf all the time.' That's a waste of time."
Johnny said he started his career working at Pernicano's Casa di Baffi restaurant in Hillcrest , alongside his brother, George. "I'm the guy who made everybody's first pizza in San Diego," he boasts.
"People didn't know what pizza was. We brought it in from Detroit in 1946."
After that, the Pernicano family opened nine other restaurants throughout San Diego County, including the one in Pacific Beach — one restaurant for each of the 10 brothers.
The Hillcrest site has been closed for 30 years and has become quite an eyesore in the busy business district. The property has fallen out of escrow several times as developers try for approval to build a high-rise condo in its place.
Back then, the price of a pizza was $1.25. Johnny says that's when he made all his money. "I bought so much stuff because I never kept money in a bank, see? It turned into gold; California is gold. That's when the dollar was worth something. Today, it's not worth anything."
Johnny has four children who work at the restaurant, and he provides the nightly entertainment, playing the piano, marimba or accordion. "That's what keeps me alive," he says. "The music is No. 1. My wife used to be No. 1, but now she's No. 2."
Back in the day, celebrities from Los Angeles and Las Vegas visited the restaurant regularly. Johnny has their autographed photos lining the wall behind his piano — Katharine Hepburn, Jimmy Durante, Roy Rogers, Lawrence Welk and Frankie Laine, to namedrop a few.
But those relationships were also the reason for a tragic event that changed his life forever, he said. Johnny survived a plane crash.
"We crashed in the desert coming home from Las Vegas because we had to go see the Rat Pack (popular entertainers in the 1950s and '60s that included Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin , Sammy Davis, Jr., Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop) and all my friends. We were in communication with the entertainers because they came to Pernicano's, so we'd go back and forth. My wife and brother saved me in the crash. I've never complained, not one day in my life after that, because I was spared. I thought, 'from now on, my life is going to be so good' and it has been ever since."
It's not unusual for the restaurant to be filled with three generations of customers. Johnny says some of his seniors have been coming to dine for 60 years! Through the years, their children have come in, and eventually, they bring in their own children.
The menu is classic, tried-and true Italian, and hasn't changed much over the years, just like the decor. The antipasto salad comes in two sizes and is a visually appealing combination of peppers, olives, salami, pepperoni and cheese. The restaurant offers 17 different types of pizzas, and a couple of signature pizzas — the Handle Bar pizza is named after George Pernicano's signature mustache, and the Gondola Pizza, for the large gondola that sits smack-dab in the middle of the restaurant. It was built by Johnny and his buddies in the 1950s, and was sail-worthy then, when Johnny would give rides in Mission Bay during the summers to children, family and friends. The restaurant has become the gondola's resting place — and is still a magnet for kids.
Customer Mike McGowan sat down in a booth with his wife and three daughters. He said he's been coming to Pernicano's most of his life. "I was born in the Bird Rock area and grew up here. It's safe to say I've been dining here 30-plus years. It's great taking comfort in the things that don't change. The family-style atmosphere is really nice — and they make a very solid pizza."
• Pernicano's Family Restaurant, 711 Turquoise St. in Pacific Beach/San Diego, is open 5-10 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday. Closed Monday, Tuesday. Pizza prices range from $12 to $15.75. For reservations, call (858) 488-2900.