Maria Rosa, Joseph, and Maria Rosa’s Mother Erodile.

Joseph, circa late 1930s.

Joseph, oboist, (and his instructor) circa late 1930s.

Robairs Restaurant: Joseph opened Robairs Restaurant in La Brea, California in 1952, a partnership with Robert Robair.

Corsican Restaurant in Hollywood, California, circa 1955.

Rosemary: Rosemary Rizzo, Secretary of the Corsican Restaurant, circa 1955. 

Pallanza Lago Maggiore Italy. The Rizzo family moved back to their summer home in Pallanza, Italy in 1970s.

Via Veneto, 1975-1979. Joseph opened an Italian restaurant in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Café Roma,1980. Joseph opens Cafe Roma restaurant inside the Park Hotel in 1980.

The calendar Maria Rosa found inside Park Hotel where Café Roma was to be established in 1980.

Café Roma, 1980.

New Location of Café Roma. The Rizzo family invests in new location near the Park Hotel to build Café Roma. The location was within the area close to the railroad station, where a burned-out coffee shop stood.

Saro Rizzo with sons Joe and Gianmarco & wife Lisa Rizzo, Maria Rosa Rizzo (center), Denis Rizzo, Vanessa & Marco Rizzo with daughters Alessandra, Olivia, Julia, 2019.

On September 9, 2019, we gathered at Café Roma to learn about the Rizzo family who shared the history of their Italian roots, family food, and wine favorites, and how they came to bring their authentic Italian flavors to the Central Coast.

The Family: How it all Began

The story of Café Roma begins with Maria Rosa’s mother, Erodile, who passed down traditional family recipes. During and after World War II, the family grew up very poor in the small northern Italian mountain town of Varzo, located in the Piedmont region close to the Swiss border. They cooked whatever could be grown in their vegetable garden to produce a meal. Meat was only served once a week and in very small portions for the adults.

Maria’s grandparents had migrated from the Abruzzi Region to help build the Simplon Tunnel railway that connects Brig, Switzerland and Domodossola, Italy, through the Alps. It was built in multiple phases between 1871 and 1912.

Joseph Rizzo was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts. His parents came from Cerda, Sicily which is dubbed the artichoke capital of Europe. Joseph was disabled by polio as a young boy. As he grew up, he put all his energy and passion into classical music as an oboist. After attending the New England Conservatory, he began traveling the world in his twenties playing the oboe. Joseph would become a world-famous concert oboist where he performed with a slate of legendary musical conductors such as Toscanini, Fiedler, and Bernstein. He was celebrated as one of the leading oboists of the twentieth century. During WWII, Joseph served in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) for the United States government, which would later become the CIA. Because he was fluent in French and Italian, he was recruited along with many other college students from eastern Europe to be placed in war areas. Joseph was sent to North Africa and served in Tunisia. While in Tunis, Joseph met the Robaire family, who had French restaurants in the city. After WWII, Joseph moved to Los Angeles and worked as a musician and recording artist for some of the big film studios on their musical scores. Joseph stayed in contact with the Robaire family and they expressed their interest in coming to the United States. Joseph Rizzo sponsored them and together with Robert Robair he opened Robaire’s Restaurant on La Brea Avenue in 1952. It was one of the first notable French restaurants in Los Angeles. After several years in the partnership, Joseph left Robaire’s and opened The Corsican restaurant in 1955.

It was around this time when Joseph met Maria Rosa in Switzerland. He was traveling from India back to the United States and they met at the hotel Maria was working at outside of Geneva. Immediately taken by the young Italian woman who came to mend his suit, Joseph requested personal date for afternoon tea. Maria was not able to accept because he was a guest of the hotel where she worked so the clever gentleman moved to the hotel across the street. Joseph proposed to Maria Rosa eleven days after they first met. While they were both of Italian decent, they did not have their native tongue in common. Joseph spoke in a Sicilian dialect and Maria Rosa spoke Northern Italian. She didn’t yet know English. Their only language in common was French – the international language of diplomacy and love. Joseph needed to travel back to the United States and promised Maria Rosa and her family that in four months he would come back to take her hand in marriage. Maria Rosa had never traveled far from her country so you can imagine her surprise when she found out she was going to move to Hollywood! They were married in Varzo’s old Catholic church in 1961. The priest was very weary, and continued to ask Maria Rosa during the ceremony, “are you sure you want to go to Hollywood and marry this man?” The priest kept them at the alter for two-and-a-half hours. Joseph brought his two best friends from the U.S. to be his best men for the marriage. They were Jewish. When they signed the wedding registry, the priest looked at the names and said, “I’m not sure about these names, these don’t look like Catholic names to me.” Joseph told the priest that they were “Old Testament” Catholics.

Once married, Joseph, now with Maria Rosa as his wife, returned to Hollywood. Joseph was operating The Corsican restaurant at this time, which he would run until 1974. It was a large French restaurant on North La Brea Avenue, next door to A&M Records recording studio. Many recording artists and bands including Frank Sinatra and the Rolling Stones would come in for lunch. It was an institution.

The couple bore three sons in the 1960s while the family lived in the Hollywood Hills. The boys, Denis, Marco and Saro, sent Sundays at the restaurant while Dad Joseph worked on the books with his sister, Rosemary.

The early 1970s were turbulent times and Los Angeles was not immune. Joseph and Maria decided they didn’t want to raise their kids in that environment, so they decided to move from Los Angeles back to Italy. They settled into their lakeside villa in Verbania, Italy on Lago Maggiore, just west of Lake Como. During this time the Rizzo sons attended Italian elementary schools. They learned how to catch trout in the local lakes and search for porcini mushrooms in the summer. Italy in the early 1970’s also had its fair share of civil unrest. The Red Brigades, a left-wing terrorist organization, was responsible for numerous violent incidents, including assassinations, kidnapping and robberies during what was called the “Years of Lead.” It was also a difficult time to try to open a business since there was an economic crisis emerging. Given this, Joseph and Maria decided to return to the U.S. where they were invested in a restaurant in Las Vegas, Via Veneto, (named after a famous street in Rome). They ran it from 1975-1979.

Both Maria Rosa and Joseph were not happy in Las Vegas and didn’t want to raise the family there either. In trying to determine where to move next, they decided to call Joseph’s old musician friend Gerald Caylor, who lived in San Luis Obispo with his wife Florence and owned Premiere Music. Gerry was a famous clarinet player and Florence had a musicology degree from USC. Gerry and Joseph had worked together for many years in the music industry in Los Angeles. Joseph and Maria visited the Caylors in September of 1979, fell in love with the city, and moved the family to San Luis Obispo a month later. They found a small restaurant for sale in the old Park Hotel next to the railroad. Originally this location started as the Whistle Stop and served railroad workers in the early 1900s. Some say, it is the oldest continuous food establishment in San Luis Obispo. While visiting the restaurant with a real estate agent, Maria Rosa saw a religious calendar on the floor in one of the back rooms. The calendar printed for San Luis Grocery was opened to the month of September 1938, which was the exact month Maria was born. How could it be? The calendar was forty-one years old. Maria asked if she could keep it. While Maria was not impressed with Joseph’s idea of a restaurant site, she took the finding as a sign from above. With only faith on their side, Joseph and Maria immediately decided to buy the business. They believed the sign would bring their family good luck in the future.

After an extensive remodel they opened the new restaurant in May of 1980 and Maria named it Café Roma. It was a compromise since Maria was from one of the most northern points of Italy and Joseph was from the furthest south. The Italian capital of Rome was halfway between. Joseph and Maria taught their three sons a lot about the restaurant industry. The first day they opened the restaurant, both Saro and Denis were working as busboys while Marco worked in the kitchen. Maria Rosa was running the kitchen and cooking while Joseph worked the dining room. Maria Rosa brought recipes from her homeland in Italy, which was combined with Lombard, Tuscan, and Roman specialties. The restaurant soon grew and in 1984 it was expanded in the Park Hotel to fit the popularity of the restaurant.

The boys worked alongside Maria Rosa and Joseph and took on more of the business responsibilities as Joseph suffered several disabling strokes. Marco had earned master’s degree in business administration from Cal Poly, and Saro was a political science major. He graduated from Cal Poly in 1983, then went on to law school at Santa Clara University.

Joseph passed away in 1990, leaving the sons and Maria Rosa to continue the family restaurant operations. The brothers decided to grow the family business, and in 1997, they purchased a vacant lot just across the street. The location was within the area close to the railroad station, where a burned-out coffee shop stood. The family utilized some of the materials from the original building into the new design of Café Roma. This updated, newly-built restaurant included a downstairs banquet facility and two kitchens. The new, larger restaurant gave new life in the small neighboring community now known as the Historic Railroad District.

To this day, Marco and Saro alongside Maria Rosa carry on the family’s restaurant legacy. Joseph’s vision was to celebrate the best of Italian culture, wine and cuisine. Café Roma is a family tradition for many locals and tourists alike. In May of 2020, the family will celebrate 40 years since the opening of Café Roma in San Luis Obispo. This is a triumph in the restaurant industry. The Rizzo family continues to support local farmers and wineries through purchasing locally-sourced produce.

The Food & Community: What was Italian food like back in the 1970s?

“It was a lot of spaghetti and meatballs, fettuccine Alfredo, and chicken parmigiana, it’s not the Italian food you see nowadays,” says Saro Rizzo. “It was definitely more Americanized, as you didn’t have spaghetti and meatballs in Italy. Growing up in Italy, food was always something I enjoyed as a kid, and I have been a perfectionist with food ever since. I love the flavors and the presentation. The drive was to have something successful. I constantly worked to improve different dishes and gain the knowledge of how to perfect those dishes. It’s a learning process.”

At Café Roma, Saro spent most of his time in the kitchen, reading cookbooks and educating himself on Italian food history. A family friend, Angelo Pellegrini, was a famous food writer in Seattle, Washington and was a Professor Emeritus in the English department at the University of Seattle. He wrote several books about the philosophy of food and family which Saro enjoys and greatly recommends.

There are unique differences in cuisine between northern and southern Italian food. The physical dividing line is considered to be the Apennine mountain range between Bologna and Florence. In the north, there is more flat grazing land, which lends itself to more butter, milk, and cheeses made with cow’s milk. In the south, it is much drier and rockier, with less land to graze, and there is more sheep milk products. There are also olive and citrus trees in the south, with many more vegetables. Here is how cuisine differed between the regions:

  • Northern-Piemonte/Lombardia/Emilia-Romagna regions: Parmesan cheese (cow’s milk), prosciutto, fresh pasta (like ravioli, tortellini, lasagna), mushrooms, potatoes, rice dishes, polenta, veal, soft cheeses, meat sauce, pears and apples, and mostly fresh water fish with butter and creams being used more in cooking than olive oil.
  • Southern-/Lazio/Campania/Sicily regions: Pecorino cheese (sheep’s milk), olive oil, seafood, tomatoes, olives, capers, eggplant, lamb, mozzarella, dry pasta (like spaghetti, penne, paccheri), anchovies, pizza, peppers, citrus, ricotta, and stone fruit.

Maria Rosa was from the north and Joseph’s family was from the south, enabling the family to combine the recipes and flavors from both regions of Italy to create a variety of traditional Italian dishes.

In 1980, it was difficult to get certain ingredients and fresh food to make Italian cuisine; it just didn’t exist. There was only dried basil, parsley, and rosemary. Anyone with knowledge of food knew you couldn’t make true Italian cuisine without fresh ingredients. Joseph would ask local farmers if they could grow fresh herbs, and new partnerships emerged at the local farmers markets as the Rizzo family would purchase fresh food for the restaurant each week. The family introduced radicchio to San Luis Obispo and worked with local farmer Leroy Saruwatari in Arroyo Grande to plant it. The idea of a red lettuce that was bitter was a new concept for locals, and it rarely existed in the U.S. When they first introduced it to restaurant goers, one person sent it back saying, “there’s rotten red bitter lettuce in my salad”. It was through this education that expanded the local palette to experience new flavors and foods new to SLO County. Pesto sauce was another new addition to Italian cuisine, which originates from Genoa, Italy. Maria Rosa’s family made a lot of pesto in the summer when basil grows well in the north, and they were the first Italian restaurant in town to serve spaghetti al pesto. Also introduced to the Central Coast was sautéed veal chops, ossobuco Milanese with saffron risotto, butternut squash ravioli “tortelli de zucca”, cotechino sausage, baked cod livornese, stewed octopus luciana, and apple strudel. The first Christmas in 1981, tortelli de zucca dish was introduced at Cafe Roma. Escargot, a French dish, has been served at the restaurant since it first opened to feature Joseph’s French connection to the restaurants he had opened in Los Angeles.

Connection to the Local Wine Industry

When the family moved to the central coast in 1979, there were only a handful of wine producers. In the Edna Valley, Joseph met Norm Goss, owner of Chamisal Vineyards, who was one of the first to establish vineyards in the Edna Valley. Norm Goss was a fellow restaurateur and owner the Stuffed Shirt in Los Angeles. Other wineries that were producing wine in the Edna Valley included Edna Valley, Saucelito Canyon, Lawrence Winery, and Piedra Creek. Margaret and Romeo Zuech would visit the restaurant and bring their Piedra Creek wines, made from fruit from MacGregor Vineyards.

From Paso Robles, there was Dr. Hoffman of HMR, who planted some of the first vineyards in Paso Robles and was a frequent customer at Café Roma. There was also Eberle, Tobias Vineyards, Brander, Lucas and Lewellen, Pesenti, Mastuano, and Santa Barbara Winery. Café Roma attracted winemakers from the north and south, and the family carried local wines from the very beginning.

In the late 1980s, Cliff Giacobine from Estrella approached the Rizzo’s with a deal: Estrella had produced 200 cases of wine for local hotel that went bankrupt. It was a 1986 Cabernet Sauvignon made by Gary Eberle, but it was still labeled with the hotel’s name. The family purchased the wine for $2 a bottle, scrubbed the old labels off, and added new Café Roma label to the wine. “It was a phenomenal wine that we carried on our wine list for 2 years,” said Marco Rizzo.

In 1990, the Niven family which owned Seven Peaks at the time (later to be renamed to Baileyana), also had additional Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The family worked with Emile Norman from Big Sur, a famous pop-artist from the 1960s, who designed a wine label for Café Roma, and Bruno D’Alfonso made the wine.

“The wine bug bit us at that time, and I ended up planting a small vineyard at my mother’s home in San Luis Obispo,” said Marco. The vineyard was planted with 450 vines of Pinot Noir. Marco called Romeo “Meo” Zuech from Piedra Creek and told him he had grapes to harvest, but no idea how to produce them. Meo and grandson TJ de Jony showed up with a small crew to harvest the first vintage from the backyard, Argo Vineyard, in 1996. They produced the wine at Piedra Creek winery and involved the entire family in the winemaking process.

Eventually, Marco would bring on a partner, Craig Shannon, who was a Cal Poly Grad with a long history in agriculture. They took over La Linda Vineyard, and planted 15 acres of Chardonnay in the Edna Valley, and began producing Per Bacco wine out of the Filipponi Ranch facility. They also purchased Pinot Noir from Laetitia Vineyards in Arroyo Grande and ran the winery for about 13 years. Having both the restaurant and the winery was a huge undertaking, so both partners decided to scale back the winemaking venture, but they still maintain Per Bacco. Today they make a Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir from the Spanish Springs Vineyard near Pismo Beach, just a mile from the ocean. Jeremy Leffort now produces the wines for Cafe Roma, and they have been making wine for the restaurant for 23 years.