‘Cause Sal says so
Caffé Malvina celebrates 30 years of food, good times and a feeling of being at home
Caffe Malvina234 W. Third St.
Chico, CA 95928
Thirty years ago to this week, I wandered into a new restaurant on Broadway, in the space occupied today by Bella’s Sports Bar and a comic book store called The Dungeon. I bought a bitter brew from the guy who had the first working espresso machine in Chico.
Accustomed to standard restaurant coffee so weak it couldn’t wrassle a kitten, it took me two days to land back on planet Earth.
Addicted, I returned. “Gimme some more of that Sicilian rocket fuel,” I demanded, jittering and in need of a fix.
The guy hawking the espresso growled at me, “How the hell could a restaurant stay in business just selling coffee?”
I bought some sort of sandwich so he would leave me alone—a small price to pay for my new craving. And so started my acquaintance with Sal Corona and Caffé Malvina.
I returned frequently—as much for the slices of pizza as for the caffeine—but, eventually, it was the ambience that drew me back.Perhaps it was to eavesdrop on the staff meetings of the fledgling weekly newspaper that eventually evolved into the publication you are reading now. Reporters would debate which stories would go on the cover, sitting with half-edited articles and pitchers of beer spread out over the comfortable picnic tables in the café. Sometimes the owners and random customers would chime in with their opinions.
Perhaps it was the live music. Groups such as Spark ’n’ Cinder would draw hordes of hippies, and Corona would push the tables to the side so everyone could party. Other weekends, musicians from San Francisco would bring up a cool jazz vibe that Chico wasn’t quite accustomed to yet.
But, honestly, the best entertainment was watching Corona trade insults with his customers. It was his way of expressing affection.
One of those people was Chico Velo Executive Director Ed McLaughlin, who remains one of Malvina’s most loyal customers.
“I got in an argument with Sal the very first day they were open,” McLaughlin said. “I asked for my coffee a certain way and Sal refused. His wife, Denise, was just laughing, telling him to listen to the customers.”Those of us who got to know and love Sal quickly realized that this prickly exterior was just his way of expressing friendship, and we returned the energy with gusto: As in the time McLaughlin took out an advertisement in the News & Review (conspiring with Denise, but unbeknownst to Sal) offering free coffee to anybody who would attend that weekend’s jazz show.
“It cost me maybe 35 bucks to reimburse them for the coffee, but they had a great crowd … and it was worth it to see Sal open up the newspaper and see the ad for the first time,” McLaughlin said with a smile. “He got so steamed, he was ready to throw chairs out the window.”
In this day and age where coffee-shop baristas get three pages of instructions to make a simple latte, Corona has been known to snarl at a customer, “Eat what’s on my menu, or go somewhere else!”
The original Malvina’s lasted on Broadway for only about five years, after which Corona made a calculated decision to move to a smaller location around the corner on Third Street. “I could have made more money selling pizza slices, coffee and beer to the students, but I wanted to be a chef,” he said.
As Sal and Denise made the shift from college bar/dance hall/coffee shop hangout to a family-style Sicilian restaurant, many of the community members followed.
Father Mike Newman, priest at several local Catholic churches, was one.“I’ve known Sal since before he moved to Chico, and baptized both of his daughters,” Newman said.
A frequent customer, he’s a fan of the veal marsala and linguini pescatori … two meals that aren’t too far from the dishes Corona’s parents fixed daily in Sicily.
“I’ve met both his mother and father. Neither speaks English, but I can sort of understand them through gestures. His mother makes pasta old-country style. Nothing comes from a jar.
“I always go back in the kitchen to watch him cook,” Newman added. “He’s a feisty Siclian, and we banter back and forth all the time.”
Apparently, that extends beyond the restaurant.
“Denise goes to church all the time, but I’m too busy,” Sal confessed. “I’m one of those Catholics who turns up in church on Christmas and Easter. Father Mike will sprinkle the holy water during mass, and he’ll stop in front of me for a really long time. He’ll say, out loud, I need it more than everybody else. It gets a big laugh.”
Perhaps the blessing works.
Case in point: Spark ’n’ Cinder alum John LaPado, who passed away last December, and his wife, Christine, were frequent customers until their child Lydia was born. They almost stopped coming because as an infant Lydia was fussy and could possibly be a disturbance.Not a problem. The first time they brought the child (and every time after), Corona insisted on holding the baby while the LaPados dined in peace. He took Lydia to the kitchen and stirred the sauces. He cuddled the infant in his arms, going from table to table, with a big grin on his face, pouring a newly discovered Italian wine and barking at his customers: “Forget the Merlot you ordered. This is what you want to drink.”
And this is a snapshot of the way it should be. After 30 years, those who frequent Caffé Malvina feel like they’re at home. You’re going to have to eat what he wants to cook for you, and you’d better not argue when it comes to tastes.
But, you can trust your child in his arms.