Most immigrants arriving in San Jose from Italy early in the last century were quite poor, so they stayed in boarding houses that offered furnished rooms. The building now known as the Fallon House was used for a much longer time as the Italian Hotel, where single Italian men or families would stay for a reasonable time with people like themselves while they earned enough to buy a small farm or establish a business. Property was extremely important to them; in the old country it was impossible for a man of limited means to ever own land. Many of the wealthy Italian families now in San Jose exist because their grandparents bought and worked the land.
While the Italian Hotel was a stopping off point, it was only one of many such places, all located within several blocks. West on St. John Street was the Torino Hotel, now known as Henry’s Hi Life Restaurant. The Costa Hotel, the Genova, the New York Exchange and the Swiss Hotel were all near each other on North Market Street. Of these, Henry’s Hi Life and the Fallon House are the only buildings still in existence.
Most of these establishments provided meals in addition to lodging. My first recollection of them was coming to the Italian Hotel with my mother. We carried a large empty kettle and walked directly into the kitchen. The year was 1932 and the Depression was at its height. Here, for 25 cents, my mother could get enough cooked spaghetti, ravioli, roast beef and French fries to feed our family of four. On special occasions, we were fortunate enough to eat in the dining room. The first course was a huge tureen of minestrone soup and a platter of French bread. Then came a green salad dressed in oil and vinegar. Another platter of bread arrived with plates of spaghetti and ravioli. The main course was baked chicken or roast beef with potatoes and overcooked vegetables, followed by a dessert of pudding or sherbet. Prohibition had recently been repealed and a bottle of red wine would be enjoyed by the adults.
When I returned from World War II, I purchased the building previously occupied by the Louis Bakery, owned by Louis Petrino. My building abutted the Italian Hotel property at the rear. The two owners of that establishment were Al Franzino and Al Visca, affectionately known as “Big Al” and “Little Al.” Little Al would rise at 3:30 every morning and hand-make the day’s fresh ravioli. Nothing in today’s supermarket frozen food section compares to Little Al’s ravioli. Big Al was the head chef and he would alert me when the special of the day was polenta. It was equal to Little Al’s ravioli. Layers of cornmeal mush were topped with homemade tomato sauce, pieces of chicken, rabbit or sausage, and mozzarella cheese and then baked. Mama mia, it was delicious.
Big Al was always trying a promotion to improve business. He changed the name to the Italian Cellar. Saturday night was “Opera at the Cellar,” when Franzino presented local singers. It was there that I first heard Lila Lloyd sing nearly 40 years ago. Lila had just completed playing in the excellent musical, “A Little Night Music.” But, with everyone singing, eating, talking and drinking, it was a near-disaster. If you could leave without your head bursting, you probably badly needed a hearing aid.
The times just weren’t right for the two Als and their business failed. Manny Peirera came in just as the high-rise buildings started to go up, renamed the place “Manny’s Cellar” and made a great success of it. Manny was a good operator, greeted everyone by name, and managed to get a remarkable turnover of seats. He also had a hard liquor license and many attorneys spent their afternoons resting on the bar. Manny had the greatest waitresses—two or three could serve the whole restaurant and insult every customer to the customer’s delight—and he made a fortune. The city bought the building and restored it to its 1850s splendor as early mayor Tom Fallon’s residence.