Noe Valley Voice April 2007

The Erricos: Aging Bountifully on Dolores Street

By Jeff Kaliss

In 1962, when Nick Errico first examined the building he now owns, he found himself looking ahead to how he and his wife Jo would spend their retirement years. Now 86, Nick is finding his wise plans bearing fruit, as they do each spring all over his spacious back yard in the southernmost block of Dolores Street.

"There are lots of trees, with all kinds of blooms," he points out modestly during a brief sun-blessed tour. The menagerie includes lemon, cherry, nectarine, peach, fig, loquat, breadfruit, and Santa Rosa plum trees. Cacti, bearing delectable pears, loom overhead. And there's much more, closer to the ground.

"I've got two different kinds of escarole, and over here is the green radicchio," Nick continues. "I cook them, I steam them or boil them just a little bit, then I fry some garlic in a little bit of oil and simmer." Green onions are sprouting, and in pots, watercress and red and green lettuce.

A bounty of colors, from roses and both outdoor and indoor orchids (in a little greenhouse), complement the flavors with which both Nick and Jo enhance their meals. "It's mostly Italian food," says Jo, "and sometimes I put my own touch in it. The boys think I'm a real good cook."

The "boys" are their two sons--Mario, 64, and Greg, 58--both of whom live in the North Bay, close enough to drop in on their parents on breaks from their own families and gigs in the music business. Mario is a valued assistant to reclusive rock legend Sly Stone, who lives in a rented mansion in the hills of Napa County. Greg, the original drummer in Sly's hit-making '60s band the Family Stone, works as both a producer and a performer from his home near Petaluma. "If I invite a few of their friends and do a dinner party, they love it," says their mom.

The family's musical and culinary tendencies extend back to their roots in the Italian region of Calabria. There, in the town of Verbicaro, near the "sole" of Italy's boot, "my father was a drummer," Jo points out. "He played with the town band, for funerals and saints' days and whatever." Jo was born in North Beach, after her father emigrated.

Nick's father also came to North Beach early in the 20th century, but his mother remained behind in Verbicaro, where Nick was born. She worked in the rural environs while her son attended school. "She had taught me how to do things, and when I came home from school, I was about nine, ten years old, I would cook," says Nick, who retains some Italian spice in his accent. "And when she got home, everything was ready."

Schooling in Verbicaro continued only to the fifth grade, and Nick recalls that his father, communicating from San Francisco, wanted him to get agricultural work. "So I wrote the letter, 'You either send me a ticket or send me to a school, because I'm not gonna work on a farm.' And the next letter that came from him was the tickets for my mother, my sister, and I."

Nick's father (and Jo's as well) had secured shoe-related work in San Francisco, but Nick didn't want to follow in his dad's footsteps. Instead, he enrolled in school part-time and was referred by one of his fellow students to an Italian restaurant, where he gradually acquired skills in both waiting tables and conversing in English. Since his mother and Jo's mother had been friends in Verbicaro, Nick got to know Jo, who was three years his junior, particularly after his mother died in childbirth, in 1937, when he was just 16.

"He used to come over to our house, he was like one of the family," Jo remembers. "We used to argue, because he was just learning English and didn't know a lot of things, but my mother would say, 'We have to help him out.' We just kind of grew on each other, I guess."

Jo and Nick were married in October of 1941, and Mario was born the next year. Then Nick was recruited into the Second World War on a Navy aircraft carrier. He returned to his career as a waiter after the war, and served at some of the city's most prestigious restaurants, hotels, and clubs. In 1948, he and Jo welcomed their second son, Greg. While still a toddler, the future drummer was making his own way through his father's collection of 78 rpm recordings of Italian popular songs and opera.

The boys grew up as eager members of the first generation of rock 'n' roll. Mario left high school to join the Air Force. Before Greg graduated from Balboa High, he was earning money drumming for Freddie Stewart, Sly Stone's younger brother, at a club in the Excelsior. Greg was summoned in the late fall of 1966 to a meeting at the Stewart family home on Urbano Drive (near Ocean Avenue), where the talented elements of what would become Sly & the Family Stone were fused. It was an exciting sound, challenging to listeners of all ages.

"I said to Greg, 'I don't understand this,'" Jo remembers. "And he said, 'Mom, you just wait. One day, you're gonna hear things I've played on the radio, and you're gonna maybe see me on television.' And we did! You have to give it to him: he pursued his dream."

The dream was rewarded with an array of Top 40 hits and successful albums for Sly & the Family Stone in the late '60s and early '70s, culminating in mobbed live performances, including at Woodstock in 1969. Before and after Greg quit the band, in 1972, his brother Mario was an enthusiastic supporter, running occasional errands for the mercurial and demanding Sly.

Jo and Nick, transported by limousine to gigs at the Fillmore Auditorium and the Oakland Coliseum, sometimes hosted Italian feasts for the group. Sly would "make little remarks to Greg like, 'Your mom's no dummy,'" says Jo, "and I let him know that I wasn't a dummy. After all, my young son was traveling with him."

Over the decades, Jo and Nick relocated several times, from Russian Hill to the Outer Mission to Daly City. After becoming landlords of the Dolores Street property in 1962, they waited 23 years, until they'd both stopped working, to remodel the building and move in themselves.

They've since availed themselves of Noe Valley's expanding and varied collection of fine Italian eateries, and Nick has kept himself moving along a daily walking route, with a cappuccino stop at Martha & Bros. He had to shorten the route four years ago after finding himself winded on the Church Street incline. A doctor's examination led to Nick's first surgery, a four-way heart bypass, from which he has recovered nicely. Jo's arthritis prompted the installation of an elevator chair, running from the front door up to their second-floor flat. But "the money we save by not having a car right now, it would pay for that in two years," Nick reasons. Another motivation to stay mobile is the couple's biennial journeys back to their Italian homeland, where they own property within a short walk of the sea.

Closer to home, Mario has offered to someday drive his parents up to visit Sly Stone in Napa, where the rolling hills and grape orchards are evocative of the Mediterranean countryside. The former bandleader turned 64 last month and seems ready to revive his career, celebrated with the rerelease by Sony this month of his first seven albums.

The elder Erricos have fond memories of Sly's parents, K.C. and Alpha Stewart, both of whom passed away in the past few years. Mrs. Stewart "was a lovely woman," says Jo, "and I know Sly misses her terribly. He tells Mario, 'Be nice to your mom, because it's awful when she's gone.'"

Veteran Voice writer Jeff Kaliss is writing Family Affair, a biography of Sly & the Family Stone, for Hal Leonard Books.