Italian American's Legacy In Early L.A. Includes a Sip of Winemaking History

Demateis Winery at N. Alameda near Olvera Street I Courtesy of Italian American Museum of Los Angeles

Nesting at a desk on a 3rd floor office at the Biscailuz Building in El Pueblo, Marianna Gatto has spent the last few months taking and making calls for Vintage!, a fundraiser that will benefit the Italian American Museum of Los Angeles.

She is now the Executive Director for the non-profit raising money for a fledging museum that will someday be housed in Italian Hall on Olvera Street, a role she was offered after her position as history and education curator for El Pueblo was axed during City of Los Angeles budget cuts a year ago.

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Fortunately for Italian Americans in Los Angeles, Gatto is not a lost resource. As a volunteer, she spent ten years in assisting with plans to open a center that tell the stories of Italian American's impact in early Los Angeles, as well as authored books on the subject. In between calls preparing for the June 11 event, she is able to run down an early period of Los Angeles history.

It goes back to the days when the pueblo's main water source was the Los Angeles River and the rich soil sifted into a basin with Mediterranean climate, an attractive environment for relocated Italians to grow vineyards. By 1869, wine production reached four million gallons of wine annually, making Los Angeles the wine capital of California, says Gatto.

Many Angelenos know about San Antonio Winery being founded in 1917 by Santo Cambianica, how it was passed it on to his nephew Stefano Riboli in 1956, and that the Riboli family expanded operations through the years keeping the original Los Angeles site still operating as a wine making facility. That winery and restaurant, plus wine storefronts in Ontario and Paso Robles, are a living link to Los Angeles' first major industry.

Wine Street in Plaza in 1873 map by Los Angeles surveyor A.G. Ruxton.

Then there are names not so well known. The early vineyards and wineries, from prominent Italians like Giuseppe Gazza and Giovanni Covacicci, had so much economic influence, Olvera Street was originally named Calle de las Vigna, or Wine Street. (In 1877, Los Angeles City Council renamed the street after Agustin Olvera, the first judge of the County of Los Angeles who had owned a home on north end of El Pueblo's Plaza in the 1850s.)

The migration of Italians to Los Angeles continued, and many made their name as vintners, says Gatto.

In 1853, Antonio Pelanconi arrived from northern region of Lombardy, Italy, and learned his trade from established Los Angeles winemakers. Pelanconi later purchased a building that still bears his name--the Pelanconi House on Olvera Street--which is the oldest existing brick building in Los Angeles and now houses the restaurant, La Golondrina.

And Secondo Guasti, who arrived in 1878, ran a boarding house and restaurant with Rosa Morelli in the Avila Adobe called Hotel Italia Unita. In 1883, he founded the Italian Vineyard Company to sell shares and finance potential vineyards in Cucamonga, leading a movement inland that, before prohibition, had up to 200,000 acres in San Bernardino County dedicated to winemaking.

Meanwhile, back at the El Pueblo's plaza, Giuseppe Pagliano managed the Pico House and remained the owner until 1953, when the State of California purchased the property, continues Gatto. On the corner of Main and Commercial Streets, Giovanni Sanguinetti and Giorgio A. Vignolo, who served as city assessor from 1882-84, operated La Esperanza Store and supplied the Pico House with groceries and wines.

Then there was Lorenzo Pelanconi, she says, who worked as a clerk in the family winery before marrying the daughter of a Southern California Spanish family, Martina Yorba (after whom the Orange County city of Yorba Linda is named). In 1914, he built a portion of what is now known as the Old Winery at 845 N. Alameda Street. Today, it is one part El Paseo Inn, another Olvera Street restaurant in a building shared with occasional art space operated by the City of Los Angeles. Pelanconi remained the owner of the winery until 1877, when he sold the business to Antonio Valla and Giacomo Tononi in order to dedicate more time to his ranch in Tropico, which is today named Glendale. A public park and street memorializes his name.

With such a presence, how did Los Angeles ever not have an official Little Italy enclave like San Francisco, Boston, or New York? There was, says Gatto. "The first neighborhood was the Plaza, around Olvera Street, where a third of the buildings were owned or occupied by Italians by the late 1800s. The North Broadway Chinatown/Sonoratown neighborhood came later and was not shared until Old Chinatown (where Union Station now stands) was demolished, and new Chinatown was built."

There was a high density of Italian American's living what was once named Castelar Street, which is now an extension of Hill. The local elementary school under principal Isabel Vignolo was nicknamed "the Italian School." The neighborhood was once referred to "Little Italy" or "the Italian colony" in archived articles from the Los Angeles Times, says Gatto, adding that Sicilian-born Frank Capra first settled in the area as a child, and referred to it as "Little Sicily" in his published reminiscences.

Even into the mid-20th Century, as Italian Americans had migrated to other neighborhoods, there was still a strong Italian Americans in the city' original core, says Gatto. "Think Eastside Market, Columbus Pharmacy, Dario's, Little Joes, and dozens of Italian shops, organizations, newspapers, and restaurants."

Or think St. Peter's Italian Church, which was first founded in 1904 on North Spring as a parish dedicated solely to Italian American Catholics. It was relocated to 1039 North Broadway in 1915, and rebuilt in 1946-47. It still serves Italian-American parishioners to this day.

"It is really important to go beyond the stereotypes of Italians," says Gatto speaking about the June fundraiser that encourages attendees to wear fashion from the early 1900's, sip on classic cocktails and San Antonio Wines, dine on cross cultural fare, listen to big band music by Big Lucky, and watch 1920's inspired dance company Atomic Cherry Bombs.

Italian Americans may have a buried identity without a "Little Italy"-style enclave, so hopefully it is revived through a museum that documents a vintage Southern California legacy.

About the Author

Ed Fuentes is an arts journalist, photographer, graphic designer, and digital muralist who covers a variety of topics and geographies in Southern California for KCET.
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