The question, as presented in a Reddit Ask Me Anything forum, seemed simple. Innocuous, even. Actor Nicolas Cage was answering questions from Reddit users during a press junket for The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent. Along with the typical movie and acting queries came this nonsequitur: “What’s your favourite pasta shape?”
“I once went to an Italian restaurant in San Francisco about 25 years ago with Charlie Sheen because they had square tube pasta and he was very interested in trying square tube pasta and we did and we loved it so much we went back the next day to try it again,” Cage replied.
For media covering the AMA, Cage’s answer was just a kooky one-off. But for the food-obsessed and San Francisco locals, the answer set off a fun, low-stakes round of internet sleuthing. It presented a two-part mystery: What pasta shape is a “square tube”? And what San Francisco restaurant serves, or served, a dish the actors loved so much they ate it twice in two days?
If you’re looking for the tl;dr, here it is:
The pasta? Paccheri.
The place? Cafe Tiramisu on Belden Place, circa 1997-ish.
If you’re interested in the long version, however, it’s a fun one. Attempting to figure out the restaurant became a trip back in time for San Francisco locals, who tried to recall restaurants from that era. It also posed a pre-internet mystery, something not easily solved by a quick Google search. Marcia Gagliardi, the food columnist known as Tablehopper, has been covering the local food scene for 16 years. But when presented with the quote, she was at a loss. “That is absolutely bizarre!” she wrote. “How funny and weird. Nothing is ringing a bell…I’m wondering if they were calamarata?”
The next option was to take the question to Twitter. The guesses came pouring in fast, a who’s-who of late ‘90s restaurants: Rose Pistola, Tosca, Rubicon, Aqua, Original Joe’s, Scala’s, Mona Lisa, Buca Giovanni, Tommaso’s, Caffè Macaroni. Former Eater SF and San Francisco Chronicle editor Paolo Lucchesi solicited answers from friends and local chefs on Instagram. Along with the above restaurants, more theories were floated, in a virtual trip down memory lane: Ciao, Globe, Prego, Blue Fox, and Postrio were named. An internet sleuth shared an Interview article, which detailed a flight Cage and Sheen took together to San Francisco, to further seal the likelihood of the story. As for pasta shapes, those guesses came in abundance, too: chitarra, mezze maniche, tonnarelli, paccheri, garganelli, and, yep, ravioli.
San Francisco, I need your help. In a recent AMA, Nicolas Cage was asked what his favorite pasta shape is, and not only is his favorite a square tube pasta, but it is something he was served in a local restaurant c. 1997: pic.twitter.com/cE2PiZ07La— Dianne de Guzman (@diannedeguzman) April 18, 2022
Rose Pistola was a top guess, seeing as how it was a modern, buzzy Italian restaurant at the time, but owner Laurie Thomas, reached via email, didn’t have any answers either. Thomas didn’t have all of the restaurant menus to search through, she told Eater SF, and a look through the Rose Pistola cookbook for a garganelli dish (her guess on the pasta) turned up nothing. Another dead end.
Rubicon was another restaurant name mentioned, but this time with a Cage connection: Francis Ford Coppola, famously known for directing The Godfather among a legion of other movies, is also Cage’s uncle and an investor in the now-shuttered, but well-remembered, restaurant. Stuart Brioza, who now runs State Bird Provisions, once worked at Rubicon but picked up the chef helm around 2004. He did confirm he was never handed down any square tube pasta dish from chefs before him. Still, he was game to throw out some potential restaurant names. “The question is, is this a classic dish? Or is this kind of an interpreted [dish and] somebody came up with some phenomenal find,” Brioza mused. “And if that’s the case, I mean, you have restaurants like Cypress Club at the time. I’m trying to think of the more modern California cooking that was happening.”
Looking for an injection of more restaurants to contact, I reached out to the prolific Facebook group, San Francisco Remembered. Within a few minutes, group member Mark Kohtz confidently replied: “Cafe Tiramisu. You’re welcome. I actually saw him there twice.” Intrigued by the confidence, a quick search revealed that to this day the restaurant serves a “square spaghetti carbonara” and opened in 1992.
Co-owners Pino Spinoso and Giuseppe Scoppetto were both present and eager to take a call Tuesday afternoon. When asked if Nicolas Cage ever visited Cafe Tiramisu, Spinoso said yes, and mentioned Cage also visited his other restaurant, Little City, then stopped — “He’s the nephew of Francis Ford Coppola, right?” Indeed. “I’m from the same town of his uncle’s, you know, Francis’s parents in Basilicata [Italy],” Pino shared. “When Francis used to come to one of my restaurants before, he used to take Nicolas when he was young and Francis came to this restaurant a couple of times.”
When asked what the “square tube pasta” dish could have been, Spinoso began describing a ravioli dish — then presented a different answer. “The other one was called paccheri,” Spinoso said. “It was a pasta [dish] with an oxtail ragu. They are the size of a half candle, and then when you cook it, they get flat a little bit. Almost like a rigatoni, but wider, larger.”
Last, but not least, did Francis’s nephew ever show up with Charlie Sheen? Yes, confirmed both Spinoso and Scopetto. “It was when Sharon Stone used to live right across the street from Tiramisu,” Spinoso said, naming the building. “Sharon was a good customer of Cafe Tiramisu, at the time she was married to Phil Bronstein.”
The checkable parts of Spinosa and Scopetto’s story do fit the timeline: Spinosa mentioned Basilicata, and Coppola’s grandparents (not parents) are noted as being from that region. Stone was married to Bronstein from 1998 to 2004. That was enough for me, case solved. But hey, Nicolas, if this story ever reaches you and you want to confirm or deny, reach out. I’d love to chat.