OAKLAND TRIBUNE: September 29, 2011
Three smartly dressed women stroll through the handsome brick dining room past the warm wood bar, smiling as they say “arrivederci” to a gentleman nearby.
“Arrivederci” the dapper man answers, letting the r-r-r-r roll off his tongue in a rich, Italian accent that can only belong to a native speaker.
Umberto Gibin is the gregarious owner of one of San Francisco’s most popular restaurants, Perbacco, at 230 California St.
His home in Montclair reflects his love for his Italian roots. It’s a terra cotta villa that he and his wife fell in love with when they were first looking for a place here.
“I love coming home,” he says of the Oakland hills. “When I get off the freeway and see the huge trees, it makes me — ahhhhhhh — so relaxed.”
Not that Gibin is home all that much. He works six days a week at Perbacco and his trattoria next door, Barbacco Eno. From 8 in the morning till 9 or 10 at night, he greets guests and spreads his Old World charm. Everyone, it seems, “wants a piece of him.”
Born in Venice and raised in Italy’s Piedmont region, Gibin remembers the comfort foods his mother would make with tomatoes and zucchini from the family garden. “One of the things I learned from her was how to make a meal with very little,” he says, remembering some of his favorite family dishes such as gnocchi.
Gibin, himself, learned the hospitality trade at some of Europe’s most celebrated restaurants and hotels, including The Palacein St. Moritz and The Caprice in London. He came to San Francisco in 1979, bringing his European flair to the popular Ernie’s and then learning a more casual style of dining at Ciao.
But Gibin really made his mark on the California restaurant scene as one of the founding team members of Il Fornaio. “It was a fantastic time,” he recalls, “because the company had a mission of presenting the most fantastic food and Italian breads.”
Today, as Perbacco approaches its fifth anniversary, Gibin oversees the elegantly appointed room like a proud papa.
“I greet every person who enters the restaurant as if they were family or friends,” he says, trying to remember as much as he can about his customers. “Sometimes I may need a little hint from them,” he admits, acknowledging the challenge of greeting literally hundreds of people a week, many of them regular customers.
No doubt, Gibin stays in shape by running back and forth between the more upscale Perbacco and its casual cousin Barbacco next door.
He jokes about wearing a clip-on tie at Perbacco and taking it off at Barbacco.
Meanwhile, back home, he does something he says he’s “not allowed” to do at his restaurant — cook. He loves going to the Montclair Farmers Market and cooks every day but Thanksgiving, when he says his wife takes over the kitchen.
The couple’s two small dogs and 28-year-old daughter, who lives nearby, round out their rich life at home.
Would the renowned restaurateur consider opening a place in the East Bay? Maybe Rockridge or Berkeley, he says, but “Montclair Village is too sleepy of a town.”
A sleepy town sounds perfect for a man who spends most of his waking hours making other people happy.