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After Many Years, Little Joe's Will Just Fade Away

October 08, 1998|BOB POOL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Like a marinara sauce spooned over pasta, the word spread slowly Wednesday through the noontime lunch crowd filling the cozy banquettes and tables at Little Joe's.

After 101 years of helping feed Los Angeles, the famed Italian restaurant in the middle of Chinatown announced that it is closing.

"This is awful, just awful," moaned Neil Olsen, who has dined at Little Joe's since 1936--when he was a 5-year-old who regularly accompanied his parents for spaghetti dinners.

Olsen, a Palos Verdes lawyer, had his own son in tow Wednesday when waitress Alberta Wenzel served their antipasto and broke the news that Dec. 5 will be Little Joe's last day.

"It's progress, I guess," said Wenzel, who has waited on tables there for 27 years.

Kent Olsen stared at his plate and shook his head. A Torrance business executive, Olsen is 27 himself--and has been coming to Little Joe's since he was an infant.

"This is progress? What kind of progress do you have when a landmark is torn down?" the son asked his father.

Across the restaurant, on the other side of the 50-foot-long hand-painted canvas mural that separates the dining room from the bar, Little Joe's co-owner was asking himself the same question.

Bob Nuccio is the great-grandson of the restaurant's founder. That makes Little Joe's one of Los Angeles' oldest family owned and operated businesses, he said.

Nuccio, his brother Steve and their mother, Marion, decided to close because the restaurant needs to be remodeled and updated.

But to do that, they would be required to retrofit the 112-year-old building to make it earthquake-resistant and make it comply with the federal Americans With Disabilities Act.

That would cost $800,000, more than they can afford.

"We decided to go out with our heads high, while the building still looks good," said Nuccio, 45, of Pasadena.

"We could have driven until the wheels fell off, but that's not right."

Little Joe's roots go back to the turn of the century.

It was started by Italian-born Charley Viotto at the corner of 5th and Hewitt streets in 1897 as the Italian-American Grocery Co.

When the city's Italian immigrant community relocated to the North Broadway area after the turn of the century, the grocery store followed--moving to the ground level of a three-story hotel at the corner of Broadway and College Street in 1927.

The family skirted Prohibition laws and was soon catering to the Hollywood crowd--including comedian W.C. Fields, who slipped in for drinks weekly from a nearby sanitarium where he was staying.

The restaurant was launched at the grocery's deli counter in the 1930s after railroad workers constructing nearby Union Station began dropping by for lunch. To keep the rowdy workers from scaring away ladies shopping for groceries, "they kicked a hole in the wall and opened a dining area for men," Nuccio said.

The grocery company changed its name to Little Joe's (after maitre d' and then co-owner Joe Vivalda) in 1940 to avoid growing wartime stigma against things that were Italian. About the same time, the city's Chinatown district was uprooted and relocated to the North Broadway area.

Various remodeling efforts removed the restaurant's third floor and exchanged the building's original Victorian exterior for a more modern facade. By the 1960s and '70s the place had become a hangout for Dodger players and fans and the downtown crowd.

"This place would be jammed at noon," 35-year customer Howard Bellesi, a salesman from Palm Desert, recalled Wednesday as he sat at the bar. "You wouldn't go to a Dodgers game without coming to Little Joe's first."

A few bar stools away, Valencia salesman Lloyd Hooper, a regular for 38 years, urged authorities to exempt Little Joe's from rules on seismic retrofitting and handicapped access.

"The city ought to be sympathetic to places like this. You don't find landmark restaurants in San Francisco being closed," Hooper said.

Steve Nuccio, a 50-year-old Pacific Palisades resident, said letters announcing the shutdown have been sent to about 900 customers who over the years maintained tabs at Little Joe's. They are being invited back for a farewell lunch on the house.

But that invitation wasn't much comfort to old-timers like Covina resident Bob Christensen, a patron for 50 years.

During his career as an electric supply company executive, Christensen had regularly held business lunches at Little Joe's with customers like Jim Clark.

This time Christensen and Clark--now a retired aerospace company buyer who lives in Long Beach--were getting together again for fun.

But Wednesday wasn't much fun.

"This is a sad, sad day for Los Angeles," said Christensen, 79. "This breaks my heart."

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