The Italian Hotel

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 Prohibition had recently been repealed and a bottle of red wine would be enjoyed by the adults.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. 


  1. Thanks Milt for the pictures. Even in 1982 Faber’s Cyclery looked like it was ready to fall over. How it has managed to stay upright this long (sort of) is a modern-day miracle.

  2. Leonard, you’ve got me hungry after that description of food Big & Little Al used to turn out.  We could use a place like that around here again!

  3. I’m sure readers of Leonard’s history lessons would be interested in the fact that Leonard and many others who are interested in California History belong to the California Pioneers.  This is an organization of active interested citizens of our community.  We have just learned yesterday that our long time president Jerry Rosenthal has to give up the gavel for health reasons.  Jerry has spent many long hours seeing to the organization of the ‘Pioneers’ and their major project, the restoration of the Poulson House in the History San Jose Park.  This project is near completion.  When the PG&E can find time to install the necessary electrical transformer, the work can be completed and the house open to the public. Jerry deserves a lot of “atta boys” from us all for the sweat, tears and stress he has put into the project over the past couple of years.  Now the doctors say he must step aside.  Replacing him will be quite a project in itself.  I’m sure Jerry would like to hear from you.  His email contact is [email protected]
    One of Jerry’s biggest stresses is getting PG&E going on the electrical part of the work.  Seems they’ve got too many other projects going to find time for the Pioneers.  If you’re a native Californian we loved to have you join up with us.

  4. NO LOVE TUESDAY at Henrys Hi Life. Yep Thats what went on today at Henrys Hi Life. Cindy and Ron/Joe, you want to know where you are in the lives of the cross sectional strata of San Jose residents, Al Davis, you want to know if you still have a fan base, Ron Gonzales/Joe Guerra, you want to know if you will have a life after this? Reed you want to know if you should have tripleled your donations? Scott Herhold , you want to know if this diverse group of experts really care about your thoughts? Come to no love Tuesday and participate.
      25 years ago when I settled in at 525 West St. John. I rejoiced in the fact that my sis and her husband started one of the first Tortilla Factories across the street from Henrys Hi Life. That was back in the sixties. It was called Lindas Tortillas.
      I worked my foundry for 15 years before my brother Fernando convinced me to have lunch at Henrys Hi Life. We sat in the first booth and while waiting for Jimmey to serve us , Fernando asked Jimmy to serve us. The joint was packed, which prompted Jimmey to announce to Fernando, in the presence of a packed house and more for my benefit, that “Do I look F***ing busy to you? Every one laughed as in anticipation of a new guy going thru the rites of passage. Aftre 20 minutes waiting , I realized that I had found the only watering hole that benifitted my life style and that of my friends and customers.. I have had the pleasure of seeing many of this countries best, reduced to joe blow status by our beloved Jimmey. Not only is the food excellant, the Chef, splits his own oak for his fire.
      Sunday morning steak and eggs while watching the 8 tv’s for football. Our annual Golf tournament. A group of folks SP training up the track to watch the horses, the San Jose Giants groups attending our own ballpark. The fishing trips with our own “West St. John St. Master Baiters”.
      There is still life in our Village. The true Americana lives at Henrys Hi Life.
      Thanks Leonard, You’re the best!!!
      The Village Black Smith

  5. The contributions of Italian immigrants (and all immigrants) are still felt in this Valley, even though many of their original neighborhoods are not.  The Henry’s/Manny’s neighborhood homes had bocce ball courts in their backyards, and kegs of homemade wine in their basements.  Parts of stills could be bought at nearby metal shops for assembly at home at a time that having a complete still was considered illegal.  Even when we moved to St. John St. in 1979, we could still feel the neighborhood’s “flavor”.
    The Henry’s/Manny’s neighborhood on west to ours near Autumn and Montgomery was dissected by Route 87/Julian in the 70’s, and redeveloped in bits and pieces throughout the 90’s.  But before that, perhaps because of its proximity to industries, it suffered many devastating fires which also changed its landscape.  Throughout it all, it remained very true to itself, a working-class neighborhood whose early residents worked the canneries, at the nearby PG&E plant, for early FMC, and the railroad—and built this Valley.
    Thank you Mr. Peddy for sharing the photos, and to Mr. McKay for your weekly lessons.  “They certainly don’t make ‘em like they used to!”

  6. I have too discovered henry’s and have always looked for the old historic places in this city ,but i try not to get to attached them.The city of san jose seems to like destroying all it can of old historic buildings and places just to replace them with something of no meaning and sweeps history under the rug to be forgotten forever,greed is plentiful in this city it shows up on a daily basis, every time i see an old building or house the first thing i think of is why is that still standing,must not have been discovered by one of the money hungry fools yet ……….how much time is left for henry’s ,or did it escape the destruction crew this round ,just to be encrouched by another steel structure ……….

  7. #7 njd2,
      All things in life are fleeting. Embracing some thing one love defines us. Fear of the unknown Is really the fear to express and accept the moment.
      Repeat after me “I Love Henrys Hi Life”.
      You Donkeys might give that a try as well!
      Repeat after me ” We Love Reed Too”.
    When the Circus was in town recently, I noticed as the parade of animals passed our gate, as they were being lead into the HP Pavillion. The donkeys were cute and singly having a good time. While the elephants, all seemed so determined, all the while holding each others tails, single file. I pondered the moment.
      Repeat after me “I Love The Circus”.
      Repeat after me “I Love Change”.
      Let’s make today ” In Love Saturday”
                  The Village Black Smith

  8. I enjoyed reading the article on the Italian Hotel in downtown San Jose.  My grandfather was Lawrence Berti and his parents owned and ran the Genova Hotel on Market Street.  My granfather was well known here because he was very involved in the politics of our town and he owned and operated Berti’s Bail Bonds and Berti’s bar until he passed away.  He and my grandmother were wonderful people who enjoyed very much helping others out.  Before my grandfather died, he taped many hours of historical facts about San Jose.  I love listening to these tapes because San Jose was and still is a great place to live.

    • The Torino Hotel was operated by the Vinassa family. Victoria Vinassa was my great aunt on my mother’s side of the family. My father was Judge Louis Doll. He knew your grandfather, “Berti,” quite well.

  9. This morning I cliked on my browser for San Jose Inside and there was Leonard McKay and The Italian Hotel I found that I really miss folks shareing their stories on this site. Leonard alway had the ability to find the best in all of us,with his stories.
      It seems that of late, political statements are the rule.
      The “sign thefts” were interesting.Old fashion Cops and Robbers.Who could forget the Little Saigon stand off with Mayor Reed and the City Hall Camper
      I enjoyed John Michael’s shoot from the hip attitude on Tom’s Pike Mkt.It does seem like a one way street down town at times. I have been across the street from the HP Pavilion for 27 years and Started the Hall Of Fame project while it was The San Jose Arena.  Our previous Mayor sought to have the Bronze Plaques done out of the area. By a trophy shop, Probably having them made back east.
    Go Figure?
    I went to see Paul Rodriguez with my children, all in their thirties. We attended the Improv’s late show. On exiting 10:30, the street was filled with what resembled a sea of Margaritaville. Lots of young people looking for fun and excitment. We walked over to OJs for a late sandwich, things were buzzing. We ARE a party town after 9pm that is for sure. There the RDA succeded.
      Tom’s brother John was one of my favorite reads here on San Jose Inside. This sight could use some of Manny Cellar’s attitude.I miss Jack VanZandt’s pieces as well.
      Thanks JohnMichael for kick starting me back to reality with your post on Tom’s Market.
      Today I’ll have the pleasure of watching my Grand Son Jesse Corral and his Raiders play in the State Championship game in “Pop Warner Football”. I photographed his last division Championship game and I want to Thank and Acknowledge the wonderful work that organization is doing for our community and Children.
      Merle Haggard’s, “If we make it to December” is now a reality.
    Happy Holidays
      Gil Hernandez / The Village Black Smith

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