Espresso explorer

Caffé Malvina led the way on coffee and pizza downtown

Sal Corona (right) with an unidentified employee shortly after he moved his restaurant to West Third Street.

Sal Corona (right) with an unidentified employee shortly after he moved his restaurant to West Third Street.

CN&R file photo

Try to imagine downtown Chico with no specialty coffee drinks and no pizza by the slice.

Today, such businesses abound in any college town. But in 1977, Sal and Denise Corona opened Caffé Malvina and introduced North State residents to their influences from San Francisco and Italy.

The java learning curve was steep at first. Getting people used to drinking out of a demitasse cup, instead of a standard diner-style coffee mug, was a challenge. “People would say, ‘Where’s my coffee?’” Sal remembers. “I would say, ‘It’s right there, so try it!’”

But soon, the Coronas recall, customers became pleasantly addicted, and the lines were out the door daily. Of course, in those pre-Starbucks days, there were no special orders, such as soy milk, “half-caff” or frozen dairy-type coffee drinks. The five options were cappuccino, espresso, café latte, mocha and mocchiato. And the coffee-on-the-run phenomenon hadn’t yet picked up steam, so to speak. “We wanted people to sit and relax and enjoy their drinks in a cup, not in something plastic,” Sal says.

The original Caffé Malvina, located on Broadway between First and Second streets, was a large open space with picnic tables, pool tables and local bands playing at night. “It was a hippie-type place,” Sal remembers, with a mischievous grin.

Sal and Denise Corona today.


Denise steps in to explain. “There were a lot of raised eyebrows—I mean, there were tons of bikes out front, dogs tied to the parking meters—things that would annoy the hell out of us today.”

After six years, Caffé Malvina moved to its current location at 234 W. Third St., where it’s been creating cozy lunches, as well as family and romantic dinners, for 29 years. Sal’s now 64, and Denise is 59.

The restaurant has relied on word of mouth, doing little advertising, to bring customers back for the tastefully presented, satisfying cuisine. “We have basic Italian food,” Sal says. “I fool around with a dish, everyone tastes it, and if they say it’s good, we put it on the menu. We keep it simple, and everything is made fresh. Everything’s cooked to order. And, I also cut and clean my own veal.”

Attesting to the food’s popularity, Denise adds, “Some people have traveled all over the world, and they come back and say we’re up there with those restaurants, and that’s a compliment.”

The Coronas’ two daughters, now young adults, grew up helping in the restaurant, and Caffé Malvina continues to encourage families to join them. “People have said it’s too noisy,” Sal muses. “I say, it’s an Italian restaurant—what do you want?”

“You can’t put a value on the people we meet here,” Denise says. “Our daughters have met so many interesting people from around the world. There’s a lot of personal value to us there.”

Sal played soccer for Chico State’s men’s team in 1969 and ’70 and continued to play locally in adult leagues for many years. “Back then a lot of students needed jobs,” he says. He has given jobs to many Chico State soccer players and other students—as many as 200, by his estimate.