Italian cuisine, Chico history

A dinner invitation leads to memories of marvelous cooking

Photo Illustration by Carey Wilson

We received an invitation to dine with some friends in celebration of a special occasion. We eagerly anticipated the dinner, knowing the cook, whose heritage was Italian, would prepare an authentic home-style Italian meal. Little did we know we’d also be treated to a fascinating tidbit of Chico history.

Upon arrival at the gorgeous, lakeside home of our friends, we sat down to a superb wine. After sinking into big, white couches and relaxing a while, we proceeded to the dining area, where our cook had set out individual salads that appeared as incandescent baskets of greens with gems poured over them. The tomatoes were very thinly sliced and translucent, and the chilled asparagus spears glistened in the ambient light.

Also on the table was a basket of real sourdough bread, toasted and slathered in melted butter and pressed garlic. “Since it has so much garlic on it, we’ll all have to eat at least one piece!” our host told us. It was so delicious most of us ate two.

Then the main course arrived, steamy and pungent: fresh cheese tortellini richly coated with pesto. I marveled at the culinary expertise of our cook, who was born and raised in Chico. “I had an Italian grandmother who, when I turned 9, said, ‘You’re going to learn how to cook,'” he explained, “ and she taught me everything I know.”

When he was a child, our cook’s grandmother lived in a house on Park Avenue; later she moved to the Oakdale and 14th streets neighborhood. “She always had something cooking,” our friend described, telling us his grandmother had been born in Italy and had come to America at 15 as a “picture bride,” marrying a man in Napa Valley many years her senior. After becoming a widow at a young age, with three children to care for, a second marriage brought her to Chico, where she had other children and lived for the rest of her life.

Our friend told us how his grandmother used to cook at the Portuguese Hall at 14th and Broadway simply as a labor of love.

“They all called her ‘Mama’ there,” our friend recounted, noting his grandmother—the stereotypical Italian woman with dark upswept hair, dark brows, and short stature—served dinner at the hall two or three nights a week. “If you didn’t call her ‘Mama,’ you were in big trouble!”

Mama, our friend told us, always had something on the stove at home: veal scaloppini, ravioli, spaghetti—along with big pots of salad and lots of garlic bread. “She ruled the roost, but she ruled it with a spaghetti spoon—because that’s what she did: She cooked!” he said.

Our host told us that, instead of turning into a latch-key child when he was growing up, he went to his grandmother’s house after school during the ‘50s and early ‘60s. “As a result,” he observed, “because her passion was cooking, it became mine. She started putting the spaghetti spoon in my hand, and I learned how to make homemade ravioli and other fine Italian dishes. She brought all of those recipes with her—in her head, not on paper—from Italy, along with all of the Italian cooking utensils, which were packed in a suitcase all of their own.”

Because there were no recipes in writing, our friend learned to cook “with a dash of this or that and a handful or a sprinkle of something else,” including many fresh herbs that came out of Mama’s backyard garden.

After dinner, we returned to the comfy white couches with the dreamy view of the lake. Jazz played softly as our host brought us the crowning glory of the evening: dishes of peach sorbet over which amaretto had been poured.

All in all, it was quite the gastronomical evening—with a dash of Chico culinary history thrown in.