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[whitespace] Joe DiMaggio
Franklin Avery

The Quiet Man

By Dan Pulcrano

TABLE 10, A SIX-TOP in the inside corner of the old Paolo's at 12th and Santa Clara, was where Joe DiMaggio came to eat some of his favorite dishes: comice pears, pasta with marinara sauce and the toasted heels of what his friend Jack Allen called "Mafia bread."

Jack, a loquacious East Coast Italian who operated San Jose's first great restaurant, always spoke in an agitated, high-pitched, gravelly scream. Joe was as cool as the Crenshaw melon he ate with ricotta cheese, a man of few words who didn't care much for foul language.

"Get your ass down here," Jack yelled into the phone. "Joe's coming for lunch."

I had been up all night working on the paper and hadn't been home to shower or shave. It was not a good day to meet a guy whose tie was triangulated as neatly as a folded military flag. Jack, though, wasn't one to take no for an answer.

We could bring a photographer. "Just don't ask about Marilyn," Jack warned. "I was on a plane to New York with him one time when one of those stars' shows was playing on the monitor, and they screened a clip of him and Marilyn coming out of their hotel on their honeymoon. He smashed the monitor so hard with his fist he put a crack in it, and didn't say a word the rest of the flight."

Joe arrived at the restaurant with a stack of mail and a sidekick, as neat, proper and gentlemanly as every description I've ever read. Not knowing much about baseball and unable to ask about the one subject everyone wants to know about, we talked about other things, like the benefit he had done for a police charity at San Jose Municipal Stadium, his Mr. Coffee contract and his frequent flyer miles.

Between courses, Joe excused himself to the men's room and on the way spotted our photographer in the bar, who had been invited to pop a simple shot but was getting carried away setting up strobes and backdrops. The ever-gracious icon hadn't been warned about the photo op. Nonetheless, he turned to Franklin Avery and asked, "Where do you want me to sit?" He posed silently while Franklin popped off six frames, then asked his friend to collect his mail from the dining room. "Tell Mr. Allen we are leaving," he said, then signed a few baseballs for us and left.

"Fuck him," Jack said when he heard that his buddy of a half-century had stormed out without saying goodbye. "He'll be back."

Avery and the photographer's assistant scarfed down the butterflied coho salmon plates that had been meticulously prepared for DiMaggio and his friend.

OF COURSE, the temperamental Italian-American hero returned. Jalil Samavarchian, Allen's son-in-law, estimates that DiMaggio dined at the original Paolo's 200 times, and at the new location near Adobe's downtown headquarters on about 10 occasions. He tipped well, pressing bills into the palms of busboys, and never refused to give an autograph. Today's celebrities, who sell signed baseballs--and tell-all books about their bed partners (remember Rodman's stories about Madonna?)--give new depth to the lyric "Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?" The line that left Joe scratching his head.

I stopped by Paolo's Monday, after I heard the news about Joe. Samavarchian recalled a time that Joe dined with Allen and a Mercury News reporter interviewed the restaurateur, who proudly expounded on his menu of fresh valley produce and family recipes. When the scribe asked why Allen hadn't contributed anything to the nouvelle culinary trends sweeping California, Allen begged to differ, explaining that he had just created a new dish with Mexican iguana testicles and pâté of alligator's tits marinated in squid ink.

I must have heard Allen set this story up a dozen times, and apparently so had Joltin' Joe, because he excused himself before the punch line and walked away.

"What did it taste like?" the food writer anxiously queried.

Leaning forward in his chair, he looked her in the eye and answered, "Like shit!"

ALLEN, WHO HAS ALZHEIMER'S NOW, no longer holds court at Paolo's, but his stories still echo from the walls. The odd couple's other half spoke with his eyes. He communicated volumes with what he chose not to say or do, like walking away from the game when the time was right and not engaging in stupid celebrity behavior, as well as through simple gestures, like leaving roses on a grave.

Franklin Avery's 1988 portrait, published here for the first time, eloquently captures the grace and dignity of one of America's last heroes.

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From the March 11-17, 1999 issue of Metro.

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