If you've ever been through the heart of Hillcrest, there's a good chance that you've noticed the eyesore that sits next to City Deli. Two old, shut down restaurants and an adjoining parking lot sit unattended, the bane of many commercial businesses in the area. There's also a good chance that, unless you're one of those nearby businesses, you haven't given a second thought to why these restaurants closed or why they've sat abandoned for so long. I bumped into the answer, and its ties to San Diego Chargers history, completely by accident.
The man who owns Pernicano's and Casa di Baffi is Geroge Pernicano. Mr. Pernicano is both the oldest Owner of the San Diego Chargers (95 years young) and the longest-tenured Owner. Today, he owns just 3% of the team, but he owned 7% when he helped bring the team to San Diego from Los Angeles in 1961. For his efforts, Mr. Pernicano was inducted into the Chargers Hall of Fame in 1996 as just the 3rd non-player inducted behind Sid Gillman and Don Coryell.
In the 60s and 70s, George Pernicano was very well known around San Diego. He was famous for a few things: his restaurants (famous for their veal cutlets and pork chops), his mustache (Casa di Biffi literally translates to "House of the Mustache", just look at the door handles), his love of cigars (he still enjoys handing them out to Chargers players after a win) and his fandom. It would be difficult to find a bigger Chargers fan than Pernicano, who has attended all but 2 Chargers games (both home and away) since 1961.
Despite owning a chain of pizza restaurants, Pernicano's crown jewel was the Casa di Baffi location in Hillcrest. In its heyday, you could walk in on any night and see half of the Chargers' roster eating dinner or enjoying drinks there along with players from whatever team was in town that week to match up against the Bolts. Of course, this wasn't by accident.
"The first month Casa di Baffi opened, he let the players eat for half price," Ron Mix said. "But he forgot to say it was just for the players, and all the guys would bring in their guests. I lived with (ex-Chargers quarterback) Jack Kemp on Fifth Avenue in Hillcrest and I must have eaten there five times a week."
Shocking? Yeah, that Mix was somewhere else the week's other two days.
But Pernicano didn't just feed the Chargers. Whenever a visiting team came through San Diego, they would exit with a Pernicano care package. Once, Pernicano ran out on the Lindbergh Field tarmac and halted the New York Jets' plane. Seems Joe Namath wouldn't leave without Pernicano's unique veal cutlet sandwiches.
"Those veal cutlet sandwiches were so good they tasted like dessert," Mix recalled.
Today, the Hillcrest location sits as a dusty, vandalized reminder of Pernicano living his dream as Owner of his favorite sports franchise and Owner of the choice restaurant of the stars. George still attends every Chargers game, sharing a luxury box with his former co-owner Barron Hilton.
With just 3% ownership of the team, Pernicano undoubtedly has very little say in the day-to-day operations of the team. However, to know that one of the team's most die-hard fans has a direct line to Dean Spanos or A.J. Smith gives the rest of us hope. Maybe, one day, we can own a part of our favorite sports team and live the dream that George Penicano was able to live.