Mark Guerra arrived in America as a 17-year-old in 1946, fleeing war-torn Italy. He came first to Cow Hollow, where a man from his hometown in Lucca had set up Puccini Meats, a now-closed chain of markets that became a gateway of sorts for Italian immigrants. Mark started on the floor and moved his way up to become a partner in the businesses by 1950. “We have customers who say they knew my father before he spoke English,” his son Robert Guerra laughs.
Mark went on to open his own business Guerra Quality Meats in 1954 and raised his sons to take the reins. In 1992 his youngest son Robert joined older brothers Bill and Paul in running their dad’s shop on Taraval Street and 15th Avenue. Bill and Paul have both since retired, but the three brothers launched the butcher shop into the 21st century. The pandemic took a toll on the market — Mark estimates business is down about 35 to 40 percent from 2019 — with the most recent bit of dismay coming from ongoing construction on Taraval Street.
In mid-2022 the brothers sold portions of their shares to longtime employees Mark Sherman and Danny Doyle, and in March 2023 the business was added to the city’s Legacy Business Registry. The family wants to make sure the 69 years of tight-knit ownership keeps going after they’re gone. “My twin daughters in Sebastopol don’t want to take this over,” Robert says. “My father got the chance in 1954 to be a partner in Puccini. We’re carrying that on.”
The black and gold shop perfumes the air of the avenues with the rich smells of fish and veal. Tremendous windows on exterior walls give the sun a chance to paint the counters of to-go salads and meats, rows of fresh pasta and focaccia, and strung-up salami dangling above. Many Guera Quality Meats customers are third- and fourth-generation Italian Americans, some of whom have been coming to the shop since they were children.
Following the same teachings Mark learned from Puccini all those years ago, the butchers at Guerra are classically trained. The shop offers specialty orders and will cut the meat any way a customer would like, plus provide recipes. Bill says that’s a rarity in 2023’s big box, supermarket world of meat-buying. He’s retired but continues to cut meat on Saturdays to teach new butchers in his spare time. He says being a butcher is about being a font of knowledge for the community. “It’s like Cheers,” Robert adds. “We know everyone who comes in here.” The roots run deep at Guerra and the generational knowledge shows up every day.
But it’s tough to keep the family business going strong year after year. The brothers have gotten older, they moved out of the city to raise their kids. Robert owns a farm in Sebastopol where he and his family grow their own food. His day, and commute to the shop, begins around a quarter to 5 in the morning. Bill lives in Burlingame now, and his daughter has moved to Kirkland, Washington. He shrugs and says family moving away from home is just a sign of the times.
As new moneyed residents come to the neighborhood to buy homes valued at a median rate of $1.5 million dollars, the shop has evolved. More people come for the prepared foods, for Doordash and Caviar deliveries, and catering, since they don’t have the time to cook. “We’re also one of the last unioned shops in the city,” Robert says. “There used to be so many small shops.”
Still, the Guerras see the business staying steadfast. In 10 years it’ll be the same shop, Bill says. The shop pivoted during the pandemic to build out a larger production space behind the shop, shipping in Italian pasta machines and cranking out pasts from the smaller region Garfagnana, located within Tuscany, such as tortellini. They’ve launched an entire risotto menu, too, including pre-prepared artichoke and fish flavors for customers to finish at home.
Looking down Taraval, where the brothers say nine butcher shops used to dole out veal and lamb before closing over the last few decades, this corner store feels like its own character, with its own body and its own heart. The type of character who holds the door open for 91-year-old Italians in their wheelchairs coming in to buy sausages for the Super Bowl. The door chimes open and the whirr of the saw and meaty smells tumble onto the sidewalk.
The Guerra brothers say that on weekend mornings after the opening work is done, they cook eggs and bacon and make coffee. Then they sit together to talk about their lives, make sure each is doing alright, and refill each other’s plates. They’re as much a part of the decor as the countless jars of sauces and a veritable library of meats, from salmon heads to apricot Korean short ribs.
The Lucca region of Italy, where the Guerras are from, is an important region to the country’s cuisine and culture. It lies in a portion of Italy where the denizens are referred to as “polenta-eaters.” Robert took a trip there in spring 2023 to oversee the restoration of the home where his father grew up, a building that’s about 1,000 years old. It seems like bringing a bit of that energy to San Francisco, stuffing each ravioli like a letter to a loved one overseas, is what keeps the family’s culture bridged across the years and the miles. Do the Guerra brothers get to bring their culture to their homes these days? “My daughters and I make ravioli and tortellini,” Robert smiles. “We’re an Italian shop making everything hand-made. That’s what sets us apart.”
Correction: August 25, 2023, 3:03 p.m. This article was corrected to show that Guerra Quality Meats is located in the Golden Gate Heights neighborhood, near Parkside.