Heart of gold

Under Sal Corona’s rough exterior is one sweet chef

CAFÉ THAT SAL BUILT <br>Sal Corona, owner of Caffé Malvina, says many young people don’t appreciate real Italian cooking as offered by his restaurant. They opt instead, he says, for the commercial comfort of places like the Olive Garden. “It’s not their fault,” he offers. “They’ve been raised in households where the dinners are microwaved because Mom has to work. They don’t know any better.”

Sal Corona, owner of Caffé Malvina, says many young people don’t appreciate real Italian cooking as offered by his restaurant. They opt instead, he says, for the commercial comfort of places like the Olive Garden. “It’s not their fault,” he offers. “They’ve been raised in households where the dinners are microwaved because Mom has to work. They don’t know any better.”

Photo by Tom Angel

Simmer down: Caffé Malvina is open for lunch Tuesdays through Fridays 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and for dinners 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays and until 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.

“Lizards! They had lizards in front of my restaurant. Can you believe that?” Sal Corona is wound up. For the last few years, Corona, owner of Caffé Malvina, has sustained a complaint about the Downtown Chico Business Association and its Thursday Night Market.Corona says the market, designed to highlight downtown businesses and bring in waves of potential customers, is having a detrimental effect on his restaurant. Business is off on Thursdays, a traditional date night in Chico.

On some market nights, Corona says, live lizards in cages were stacked close to the entrance of his Italian restaurant, located for 20 years on Third Street between Salem and Broadway. If it wasn’t lizards, he goes on, it was people getting full-body massages or some other service that in his mind routed people—other than those who wanted to use his restroom—away from his restaurant.

This year market officials finally moved a lot of the street theater and other activity away from Corona’s café, though he still complains, in his thick Sicilian accent, about the bounce house that sets up across the street.

“You got the kids bouncin’ up and down,” he says, waving his arms. “It’s crazy.”

Caffé Malvina is a well-kept downtown Chico secret. The cozy little restaurant—seating capacity 49—has a New York City feel. It’s intimate and reasonably priced, the food is genuine, and it caters to both casual and more formal attire.

During a typical evening, Corona will visit his tables of customers, joking and teasing with regulars, asking newcomers about the meals he has prepared. They know they haven’t mistakenly stumbled into The Olive Garden. This is the real deal.

At first Corona strikes you as a gruff, cantankerous character right out of a television sitcom. He is the loud, animated restaurant owner and cook who rides his employees and chides his customers. But that is far from the truth.

Indeed, Corona can rub people the wrong way. Ask the directors of the DCBA. But those who know him well will tell you it’s all bluster, that in fact Corona loves people, particularly the underdog.

Jeff Tracy first met Corona 16 years ago when he started working at Malvina as a dishwasher.

“It was the summer of ‘86, and Canal Street had just folded,” Tracy says, recalling the popular pizza joint on north Main Street where he worked as a bartender, serving many of Chico’s counterculture types. When a weekend job came open at Malvina, he grabbed it. That’s how he got to know Corona well and in a short time.

“When you are a dishwasher, Sal goes out of his way to welcome you,” Tracy explains. “He’s got this whole underdog thing going for him.”

Tracy said washing dishes put him right next to Corona, who was cooking the meals. “We’d stand there next to each other, shooting the shit about sports. That’s what we had in common.”

But it is Corona’s way with people that most impresses Tracy. “You ought to see him with kids,” he says. “Or babies. The guy loves babies more than anybody I’ve ever known.”

As for Corona’s accent after all these years in America, Tracy suggests that either because of stubbornness or, more likely, a fondness for his Sicilian roots, Corona has held on to his way of talking. In fact, Tracy says, Corona can come with twists on the English language that rival the master, Yogi Berra.

“He’ll say things like, ‘If you put money in the bank, it gets interesting.’ “

Corona came to America from Palermo, Sicily, with his mother and father in 1963. He was 15 when the ship brought them into New York Harbor.

“I think we were some of the last people to come by boat,” Corona says during a recent interview in his restaurant while it’s closed between lunch and dinner. “It took us like 12 days to get across the ocean.”

A week later, the family arrived in Oakland after crossing the nation by train, stopping in Milwaukee for two days to visit his great uncle. He’s had relatives living in America since 1900 and comes from a family of fishermen, both in San Francisco and San Diego. Corona grew up in San Francisco, the son of a fisherman.

“I grew up right in the city, North Beach. My parents still live in the same house.”

His father never wanted his son to become a fisherman—too dangerous, he said—so Corona learned to cook by working in restaurants in San Francisco.

After high school, he attended junior college in the Bay Area, where he played soccer. About this time one of his friends suggested they come up and check out Chico.

“I didn’t want to stay in the city. So we came up here. We really liked it and came to school to play soccer.”

That was 1969, and Corona stayed until 1973. Apparently he was a pretty good soccer player, because a year ago he was inducted into the Chico State University Sports Hall of Fame.

He came back to Chico four years later with his wife to be, Denise Bell Corona, and opened Caffé Malvina on Broadway, occupying the storefronts currently held by Sam’s House of Hof Brau and The Dungeon.

“We opened a coffee shop,” he recalls. “We were the first coffee shop in town. Espressos, cappuccinos. … We sold pizza by the slice, soup, salad and sandwiches and beer. And the coffee.”

When told he was ahead of his time, he shakes his head and his brown eyes flash.

“I’m still ahead of my time, and I still don’t fucking get it. I should have stayed in one place! I would have been a millionaire by now!”

His cafe featured live, free music on weekends and offered pool tables. It was a hot spot. “We used to be packed all the time. The kids would come over and get sliced pizza and sit around and do their homework and stuff. Because we had such a large space, we didn’t really care.”

In 1982 he moved to his present location on Third Street because he’d lost the lease to his location on Broadway. “We decided to open a restaurant instead of a coffee shop, and we’ve been here ever since.”

Today he has two daughters, aged 17 and 19, and on Wednesdays they come to work for him. He calls it “family night.”

“I think our place is so comfortable that anybody can come in, from old to young. We’re still 20 years ahead of our time for Chico, like we were with the pizza slices and coffee shop. That’s the way I feel.”

Corona has an assistant chef but does all the sauces and soups and all the ordering, including wine. He says the job has taken its toll on him because of the long hours involved. “I have mixed feelings. Sometimes I want to just quit and go work for somebody else for eight hours. … But then you get people coming in and they say it was a great dinner—we hardly ever get any complaints.”

Corona has built a reputation for hiring minorities and immigrants over the years. “I’ve had a variety of people working here. Arab, black, Chinese, Japanese. I hardly fire anybody. In 25 years, I’ve fired maybe three people.

“Most people stay here until they graduate and then they leave. This weekend a guy who used to work here came up for a wedding. The first thing they do, when they come back to town, is to stop in here and visit me.

“I’m rich with that. I have so many great friends, you know, that I’ve made through here.”

He returns to readying his place for another evening of business. It’s Wednesday night, so it should be a good one. Not only that, there is only one more Thursday Night Market before it ends for the season.

This makes Corona very happy.