How L.A.’s Early Italian Pioneers Transformed the City’s Food Scene | KCET
How L.A.’s Early Italian Pioneers Transformed the City’s Food Scene
Today, when Angelinos reflect on Olvera Street in DTLA, they probably think of its rich history as the heart of the Spanish-Mexican pueblo of Los Angeles. What many do not realize is that for a time in the 19th century, the street was known as Wine Street, and was dominated by thriving Italian owned wine cellars. From downtown’s long gone Little Italy to the Valley, L.A.’s early Italian immigrants brought their love of good food and good drinks to Southern California and expanded the region’s palate forever.
L.A.’s first Italian settlers arrived in the dusty pueblo in the 1820s. Like all transplants, they brought their knowledge and skills with them. “When it comes to the early group of settlers, about 60 or 70 percent of the Californian Italian pioneers came to California with agricultural, vinicultural/viticultural or maritime pursuits in mind,” Marianna Gatto, Executive Director of the Italian American Museum of Los Angeles, explains. “So basically, that’s a fancy way of saying that in their home in Italy they had been fishermen, farmers, winemakers.” Settlers found a frontier where opportunities to ply their trades abounded — there was plenty of land, sea and sunshine — and Italians dived right into their new life and their old professions. “The effect that this had on California was incredible in that Italians, after arriving in the early 1800s and there forward, really helped California advance as an agricultural giant,” Gatto says.
Italians coming to the West Coast in the early 19th century encountered a radically different world than those who migrated to the East. California was under Spanish/Mexican control, which meant that they shared with many inhabitants a similar language, a Latin culture and the Catholic religion. Even though many early Italian immigrants were from more temperate Northern Italy, they still found a climate closer to their own, and an agricultural society much like the one they had left at home. “In California, they were in a sense able to continue ways that were more familiar to them, in a climate that was more familiar to them,” Gatto explains. “So, it was a much softer adjustment in many respects.”
These similarities helped Italian settlers jump back into agricultural pursuits with a lot of success. On ranches and farms around the Southland, Italians introduced fruits and vegetables that today we cannot imagine living without. “They introduced many crops to the region,” Gatto says. “Things like eggplant, bell peppers, the blood orange, certain varieties of lemon, the artichoke, broccoli. One of the first commercial crops of broccoli grown in the United States was right here in California. And then it was exported across the country, primarily to the East Coast.”
“The foods that they brought with them, their values, kind of permeated our lives so much to the extent that we don’t even recognize anymore that their roots are something other than American,” Gatto says.
Italian settlers also helped bring Southern California’s already existent wine industry to new heights. The pioneering Giuseppe Covaccichi, originally from northern Italy, established a thriving wine cellar on Olvera Street, along with his partner and countryman Giuseppe Gazzo. In 1853, Piedmont native Antonio Pelanconi, patriarch of the famed SoCal family, settled in Los Angeles. He eventually bought the Covaccichi Winery and married a local Californio woman, Isabel Ramirez. Pelanconi would also establish a successful vineyard and ranch called Tropico, (now the city of Glendale) and help establish some of the earliest Italian charitable organizations in the city.
“You saw the wine industry just blossom, really expand,” Gatto says. “There were at one time approximately 100 wineries in Los Angeles.”
Perhaps the most successful vintner of them all was the larger than life, gruff but kind, Secondo Guasti. Born in Piedmont, he arrived in Los Angeles in 1893 with one dollar in his pocket. He became a cook at the Hotel Italia Unita (now the Avilia Adobe) and allegedly won the boss’s daughter Louisa Anna’s heart on the strength of his spaghetti cooking skills. Guasti took over the family business and eventually convinced partners to buy 5,000 acres in rural Rancho Cucamonga. The ranch eventually became the largest vineyard in the world, and Guasti recruited many of his countrymen to work for him.
In his own little fiefdom of Guasti, he built a school, fire station, bakery, and store for his workers and provided them with English lessons and frequent entertainment. “He was really a man of the people,” Gatto explains. “He recruited many, many Italian families, a lot of whom were from his same region in Italy, as well as some Japanese and Mexican workers, really kind of took care of them as a father.”
According to Gatto, many of Guasti’s employees worked on two or four-year contracts and then went back home to Italy to visit their families. “Some of those families later immigrated here,” Gatto says. “You’ll notice the birth order of their children is every four years — like clockwork, there’s another child.”
Many early Italian immigrants also became grocers, supplying produce to the diverse Los Angeles community. One of these, Genoese native Ambrosio Vignolo, had originally come to Northern California during the Gold Rush with his childhood friend, Domingo Ghirardelli. According to Gatto, the two “worked as miners in the gold field and then they realized that they really weren’t achieving any wealth to speak of, they were barely surviving. So, they found it was more profitable to sell supplies like food to miners.” After the rush, Vignolo migrated to Los Angeles, while Ghirardelli stayed in San Francisco to grow his chocolate empire.
Settling in Los Angeles was a smart move for many pioneering business people during the 19th century. Unlike relatively cosmopolitan San Francisco, it was a town with a lot of demand and an increasing amount of supplies. This fit in perfectly with the Italian immigrant’s ethos. “The Italian mentality at that time is to be your own boss,” Gatto explains. “Not to work for someone else, and to have a business.”
Vignolo and a partner opened a wholesale grocery named La Esperanza on North Main Street near Old City Hall. He was soon supplying staples like onions, sugar and flour to some of the biggest restaurants in town, including Pio Pico’s Pico House Hotel. He also serviced the diverse population that lived around the Old Plaza, which included Mexican-Americans, French, Italians and Chinese citizens. “At this time,” Gatto says, “all of these communities were overlapping and there was a lot of respectability and vice that were also overlapping.”
Vignolo also may have sold to some of the earliest Italian restaurants, which included Italian Unita and Madame Zuccha’s. Sadly, menus for these eateries do not survive but Gatto has some tantalizing hypotheses about what 19th and early 20th century restaurants may have served — and it’s not the typical red-sauce, Neapolitan fare we typically point to as Italian.
“One can rather assume, probably assume, two things safely,” Gatto says. “Number one, that these restaurants were serving fare that’s indigenous to the regions in Italy where their owners came from. Number two, they’re adapting it to reflect the availability of ingredients in California. They didn’t have the luxury of being able to source a lot of things that they might have had in Italy.” Since many of the early Italian pioneers hailed from Northern Italy, where polenta is very popular, and corn was readily available in Southern California, it is easy to imagine that there were probably ample offerings of delicious polenta.
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Gatto also says that many early Italian eateries — even later legendary 20th century institutions like the Paris Inn — served both Italian and French food. “I kind of attribute that to two factors,” Gatto says. “One, the Italian community and French community at that time are literally living side by side” The other factor is that much like early Mexican restaurants called themselves Spanish to combat a certain stigma or prejudice, Italians many have felt French food was more acceptable to certain Angelenos. “I think there’s an element of that,” Gatto says. “I also think it’s like, 'Gee, Italian food is still a little foreign to us,' but people have been introduced a little bit more to common, casual French food.”
It also made economic sense, in such a diverse place, to serve a variety of tastes. “If you don’t want Italian food, we’ve got French food,” Gatto laughs. She says that this is a phenomenon that appears to be unique to early Los Angeles. “You don’t really see this in other places.” As the 20th century progressed, Italian restaurant food in Los Angeles became more and more “continental.” “It reflected assumptions of what people want to eat or believe is Italian food,” Gatto says. “You know you can order spaghetti with a side of steak. It’s very I Love Lucy kind of food.”
In their first 100 years in Los Angeles, it is hard to overestimate the impact Italian settlers made on the city’s developing food culture. Gatto sums it up best. “When it comes to agriculture, viticulture, the food industry as a whole — the way we eat — there’s really no part of that, of those industries, that weren’t touched and shaped by the Italian community.”
Top image: One of the Italian owned wineries that existed when Olvera Street used to be called Wine Street | Italian American Museum of Los Angeles
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