In a city with many beautiful neighborhoods, North Beach is acknowledged to be among the very best. It’s a sentiment I wholeheartedly agree with, although it’s not easy to pin down exactly what it is that’s so special about it. With some notable exceptions (our glorious Saints Peter & Paul Church being one of them), much of our architecture is pretty pedestrian. So what does North Beach have that other neighborhoods don’t?


After all, San Francisco was founded in Portsmouth Square, just a few blocks up Kearny Street. It’s no exaggeration to say the history of North Beach is the history of San Francisco: from the vigilance committees of the 1850’s to the labor struggles of the early 20th Century, from the jazz clubs of the 1950’s to the sexual revolution of the 60’s, North Beach has always been at the center of it all.

So it’s no surprise that we hold our traditions dear––and our festivals are a big part of those traditions. It’s said that the North Beach Festival is the very first American street fair, and that one is still going strong after 67 years. But there’s another festival in North Beach this summer, one that is even more steeped in tradition: the Festa Coloniale Italiana. San Francisco’s only traditional Italian street fair, this year the Festa will be paired with another Italian-themed event that goes back even further: the legendary Statuto Race, now in its 102nd year.

2022’s Festa was literally the biggest in the event’s history, so after last year’s blockbuster success the organizers at the SFIAC Foundation couldn’t resist doubling down (the foundation is the nonprofit arm of the San Francisco Italian Athletic Club). As a result, this is the first time the two events will be held on the same weekend––and the first Festa ever to be extended into a 2-day event. If 2022 was any indication, this one’s going to be a banger indeed.


In addition to showing off his pizza acrobat skills, Tony Gemignani will be filling cannolis at his booth for Giovanni Italian Specialties. | Photo Courtesy of SFIAC

In addition to lots of authentic Italian food, along with wine from Italian producers Capo Isetta and Highway 12, there is a full roster of entertainment in store. Starting on Saturday at 11:00 AM, there will be live Italian music from a host of performers, including Moreno Fruzzetti, Nino Lane Band, Sonamo, Bella Ciao and il Sole featuring Steve Albini. 13-time World Pizza Champion Tony Gemignani will return with his customary pizza acrobatics, just up the block from his legendary Tony’s Pizza Napoletana. (If you still haven’t seen Tony do his thing, I definitely recommend that you check it out.)

The Festa has always been a family-friendly event, and this year is no exception. The children’s corner will have plenty to keep the kids interested, with a traditional Italian marionette show, face painting and crafts––and of course, the dancing of the traditional Italian Tarantella.

And in another first, for this year’s event the Festa is hosting an accordion festival on its second day, what organizer Nick Figone––SFIAC Foundation’s Executive Director––is calling a “festival within a festival.” Of course the accordion has long been closely associated with Italian culture, so it’s a natural fit for the Festa. And the whole thing will culminate Sunday afternoon, with an Accordion Symphony gathering to perform the famous Italian chestnut “That’s Amore.”

To get some background details on the event I spoke with Steve Albini, the renowned Bay Area accordionist and multi-instrumentalist, and the man who came up with the accordion festival concept. In the course of that conversation I would learn more about accordions, and their association with North Beach, than I thought there was to know. Our conversation is below.

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Celebrated accordionist Steve Albini will be performing at next week’s Festa Coloniale Italiana. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

Joe Bonadio: Steve, thanks for taking the time to talk with me. I don’t know a lot about accordions, so I’m going to ask you to start from the beginning.

Steve Albini: Well, the first accordions came about in the mid-1800’s. They were really small button accordions. The first one, I believe, was invented in Austria.

Then it moved over to Italy, and you began to see people producing them there. The first producer in Italy was a guy named Paolo Soprani, and there are two cities in Italy that are famous for accordions; the most famous is Castelfidardo in the Marche region. To this day, that’s where most of the accordions are made in Italy. There’s another spot up north called Stradella where they also make accordions. It was there that they invented the system that we use for the bass notes––it’s called the Stradella System.

So the first accordions were button instruments only, so they had buttons on both sides. And they tended to be diatonic, meaning like a harmonica they change intonation depending on what direction the air is flowing; it’s one note when you blow out, another when you draw in breath. To this day we still have diatonic accordions. When you listen to Mexican music when they’re playing those button accordions, that’s what they are––diatonic accordions. A lot of the bandoneons are diatonic, and the European melodions.

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Tatiana Semichastnaya performs at last year’s Festa Coloniale Italiana. | Photo Courtesy of SFIAC

Anyway, the piano accordion didn’t come out until maybe early 1900. Guido Deiro is considered to be the first guy to play the piano accordion in the United States, and he did reside in San Francisco for some time. In fact, almost all of the well-known early accordion players from the vaudeville era lived in San Francisco at some point.

JB: I guess the Italianate aspect of San Francisco accounted for that? Of course it was also a big music center.

SA: Well, what happened was the Italians started coming here and building factories. So we had a lot of accordion factories in San Francisco back in the day. And we had a lot of accordion schools, and accordion studios.

The first San Francisco Accordion Club formed in 1916, and it’s still going today. It was reformed as the Bay Area Accordion Club back in the Eighties or something, but now it’s called the San Francisco Accordion Club again.

JB: Would you say that San Francisco is the center of accordion music in the United States?

SA: It was at one time. And not just in the United States, even the world at one point.

There were three major cities that were accordion centers: New York, Chicago and San Francisco. Then later on, Seattle too became somewhat of a center. Out of all those, for quite a few years, the most activity was in San Francisco.

JB: So Nick [Figone, SFIAC Director] mentioned that a new restaurant on Columbus Avenue, Lyon & Swan, was once the location of Columbus & Sons. Apparently it’s noted on their menu.

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Lyon and Swan on Columbus Avenue, formerly home to Columbus and Sons Accordions. | Photo: Lyon and Swan/Yelp

SA: That’s fantastic. For a little background, Columbus & Sons was founded by the Piatanesis. There were two brothers, Finau and Colombo Piatanesi. During the Thirties, San Francisco was really the capital of the accordion world, which is amazing. You had all of these schools at the time, with well known teachers. For example there were the Pezzolo brothers: if you look up Accordion House San Francisco, you’ll see pictures of a house that was built like an accordion, and that was one of the Pezzolo brothers’ studios.

There were a lot of studios, though––a lot of them. There was a famous teacher here named Angelo Cagnazzo, who was one of the most sought-after accordion teachers in the world at that time. He taught a very famous accordionist named Dick Contino, who you might have heard of. He was the one who made Lady of Spain famous. He studied with Cagnazzo, who taught so many great players.

Bu the Thirties were kind of the peak. In the Forties, the factories started to die down in San Francisco, and after the war a lot of the production went back to Italy.

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The Theodore School of Music on Union Street in the 1950’s. | Photo Courtesy of Let’s Polka

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These days the former Accordion House is occupied by Corsagna Deli. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

JB: Why do you think that is?

SA: I’m not sure; it might have been cheaper to make them in Italy. But the factories that remained here became more like dealers. And some of the companies had family in Italy, with companies of the same name, for example Guerrini. Eventually it got to the point where accordions were no longer made in San Francisco, and they were all made in Italy.

But the accordion was still huge, and in 1948 it got a big boost. There was a famous radio show at the time, Horace Heidt, it was basically a variety show. They would tour it around, and the performers would compete, and if you stayed to the end you’d win the whole thing.

JB: Kind of like American Idol?

SA: Sort of like that. Anyway, the performers would be voted on by the audience, and everywhere they went Dick Contino would win. He was the rock star of the accordion. I actually got to know him years ago, when they used to have the Italian Festa down at Fisherman’s Wharf in the Eighties; he was there every year. He passed away a number of years ago.

But he was so huge, he became like the Elvis of that era, but on the accordion. Accordion sales skyrocketed. Everyone and their brother wanted to play the accordion––this was before rock ‘n’ roll.

To this day, lots of people have accordions in their closet, because during that time there was always someone in the family who bought one. And all of the manufacturers of sheet music for accordion, it was very big. Then things started to wane. Of course Elvis came on board…

JB: And musical tastes started changing pretty markedly.

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Situated at the center of North Beach, the SFIAC has long been a vital part of San Francisco’s Italian-American community. | Photo Courtesy of SFIAC

SA: Yeah, tastes changed. But Lawrence Welk kept it alive all the way through the Eighties, to a certain degree. Then as you got into the Sixties, you had the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and that kind of thing took over, and the accordion really took a nosedive at that point.

It’s still popular overall though, especially in the Italian community. So even today, when you go to the Italian clubs they’ll have accordion music.

But that period in the Twenties and Thirties was the big era for accordions, and at that point San Francisco was literally the accordion capital of the world. Then In 1992, Tom Torriglia pushed the city to vote the accordion in as the official instrument of San Francisco.

JB: So the official musical instrument of San Francisco is the accordion?

SA: Yep.

JB: Really. I did not know that!

SA: Yes. Tom created a Day of the Accordion event that caught on all over the world. He’ll be performing at the Festa also. Tom had a lot of influence on things. He was more the goofy side of the accordion (Laughter).

So that’s kind of the history in a nutshell.

JB: So you’ve got quite a lineup of players for the Festa.

SA: We do. Performing, we’ve got myself, Tatiana [Semichastnaya], Ron Borelli, Tom Torriglia, Mike Trucco and George Campi. There’s six or seven of us, and the idea is to get all the performers on stage together. Then we’re inviting everyone to bring their own accordions to play along.

Meanwhile, every band playing on Sunday will have an accordion featured in it, and there will be six bands.

JB: As the only Italian street festival in San Francisco, the Festa has to be the perfect place to feature an instrument with such deep ties to Italian and Italian-American culture.

SA: It’s just such a big part of the Italian culture. Accordions and mandolins––that’s the other one that’s big. Next year we’ll do a mandolin festival!


The Festa Coloniale Italiana will be held on Stockton Street between Union and Filbert Streets on Saturday and Sunday, June 3rd and 4th from 11:00 AM—6:00 PM. See you there!