...the place has a character all its own, one which it has never lost. It's a warm, friendly, personal place. It's a family affair, you guess, when you first go there-and you're right. Just how much of a family affair is a story in itself.
When Chinatown's iconic Little Joe's, at 904 North Broadway, finally closed in 1998, it was a megaplex of culinary Italian goodness. Sawdust dusted much of the floor, as it had for decades. Jonathan Gold described the eatery thusly:
...high ceilings and guys in shirt sleeves, leather booths, a zillion different dining rooms with sawdust on the floor and rosy acres of Italian scenes painted on the walls...the giant-screen TV and the place in the mural where the Vatican melts right into the Forum of the Caesars. Two minutes north of the Civic Center, a safe haven among the spicy-sweet smells of Chinatown, Little Joe's sells familiarity and convenience the way Spago sells pizza.
This gargantuan, yet friendly, restaurant had come a long way from its humble origins as the Italian-American Grocery Company on 5th and Hewitt. Opened in 1897, Italian born Charley Viotto sold staples and delicacies from his home nation to fellow immigrants. The store was bought by a man named Robert Nuccio. When the Italian community moved to North Broadway, their grocery store soon followed. In the 1920s, Nuccio sold his store to his friends John Gadeschi and "Little Joe" Vivalda. By 1927, they were on the block of 900 North Broadway, which they would eventually dominate. Their next evolution was only a railroad worker's lunchtime meal away:
Little Joe's might still be a grocery store if it weren't for the Italian sandwiches the owners used to sell to men at noon. These became so much in demand that the ladies accustomed to buying their groceries at the store were scared away. The owners took the hint, rented a back room for $5 a month, and put in some tables. Soon the ladies were back shopping in the store, and the men at the tables were asking for spaghetti, ravioli and other Italian dishes along with the sandwiches. Pretty soon the tail was wagging the dog. The restaurant outgrew the store.
In 1932, a small room was added to serve as a restaurant, which offered more kinds of Northern Italian food, inspired by the cuisine of the Piedmont region. As Little Italy became Chinatown, the restaurant continued to expand as different cultures began to enjoy the comfort of a big bowl of spaghetti and meatballs, coated in the restaurant's signature sauce. It also became a popular place for those in the entertainment industry. It is said the comedian W.C. Fields would often slip over to the restaurant for a quick nip, while attempting to "dry out" at a nearby sanitarium.
The name of the restaurant was changed to "Little Joe's" (in honor of co-owner and maître d' Joe Vivalda) in 1940, to avoid the stigma of being an Italian business during World War II. In a familial stroke of luck, John Gadeschi's only daughter, Marion, married former owner Robert Nuccio's son, Johnny. After Gadeschi's death in 1960, Johnny and Marion took over Little Joe's.
During the '50s and '60s, Little Joe's became a cultural institution known for their huge menu and heaping portions. "When Little Joe's says 'complete dinners,'" one critic joked, "they mean all a starving truck driver could hold." In 1968, one writer reported on the restaurant's staggering sales:
Last year, the cooks at Little Joe's heaped 34,000 pounds of spaghetti onto plates-and that's well over 3000 miles of good eating. Then there's Little Joe's own ravioli factory, where Chef Joseph Bourgogne and his assistant, Herman Corral, turn out 10,000 of the tasty delicacies every day...they do this in two batches and every time they get out the "mixing bowl." This is the recipe they follow: 10 pounds of flour, a dozen eggs, 50 pounds of meat and 10 pounds of spinach-not to mention a quantity of secret spices that make the restaurant's handmade ravioli among the best in the country. Between 1,500 to 1,800 diners sit down in one of the restaurant's five dining rooms (including a banquet facility with a capacity of 80) every day of the week except Sunday.
In 1961, a bar called "The Cellar," which would become a beloved hangout for Dodgers' fans, was added to the restaurant. An annex was added in 1963, and there was another giant renovation in the 1970s. There was still a specialty grocery store as well, featuring delights like a 225-pound wheel of Swiss cheese (which they sliced and sold out of every week). People came for the food- the fried cheese with cocktail sauce, the liquor drenched espresso drinks, and the veal piccata. But they also came for the atmosphere. Lunch was strictly an old school, boy's club affair. "Little Joe's is no place for a kid at noon," one critic advised, "because this is when the businessmen and the judges are making their big decisions over the mahogany with Frank, the bartender." According to another columnist:
Little Joe's is lively, almost boisterous when filled to capacity with business people from the surrounding produce, government and garment district buildings. Families however, will find dinner time more leisurely, less crowded and almost as much fun.
This familial feeling extended to the owners and staff. There was the "smiling and able" owner Johnny, and beloved manager Victor Campanelli. So many of the waitresses, bartenders and hostesses stayed for over 20 years that a tradition was started to honor these old timers. In honor of their twentieth year of service, all employees received a watch with a diamond on each side. Every year thereafter, a diamond was added to the watch.
During the '70s and '80s, Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda frequently held press conferences at Little Joe's. The restaurant had become very much an attraction, with waitresses dressed in "peasant costumes in the colors of the Italian flag." John Nuccio died in 1991, and his sons and wife continued to run the restaurant. By the mid-'90s, Little Joe's (and the surrounding area) had lost its luster. Critics began to claim the food was "rubbery," "overcooked," "decent," and no better than Italian chains like Olive Garden. But regulars still flocked to Little Joe's, because to them, it felt like home.
On December 5th, 1998, Little Joe's closed its carved wooden doors for the last time. It wasn't lack of business that got them in the end-but building codes. They could not afford to retrofit the sprawling building for handicap accessibility, so the Nuccio family decided to call it a day. "We decided to go out with our heads high, while the building still looks good," Bob Nuccio said. "We could have driven until the wheels fell off, but that's not right."
Due to constant construction delays, Little Joe's and its mammoth parking lot sat empty for fifteen years. It was finally torn down in October 2013, to make way for Chinatown's new Blossom Plaza. With it went countless memories of a place where every day was a celebration.