Just like family
Italian chef Sal Corona and his (extended) family have kept Caffé Malvina a Chico mainstay for 34 years
Caffe Malvina234 W. Third St.
Chico, CA 95928
Sal Corona can simply sum up nearly 34 years of success in the restaurant business.
“It’s the personality of the people who work here and the good food,” he said recently.
Corona, who owns, operates and serves as the singular chef at Caffé Malvina, offers both personality and good food in spades.
On a typical night at the downtown bistro, his hearty laugh and jovial voice—still thick with a Sicilian accent after more than 40 years in the United States—boom from the kitchen into the bistro’s small dining area. He emerges on occasion, all smiles and handshakes topped with a shock of white hair, to greet long-time friends and customers.
Denise Bell-Corona, Sal’s wife and the architect of Malvina’s delectable dessert menu—which features Italian favorites and locally famous almond-encrusted cheesecake—also makes the rounds, inquiring about the wellbeing of diners’ loved ones and offering news about her and Sal’s own daughters, Amanda and Brigida.
Amanda and Brigida, now in their mid-20s and with successful careers as educators, still also work a few nights a week at the restaurant.
“It’s just like a family here,” said Sal.
When it comes to Italian food, the word “family” is thrown around far too often, usually as a marketing term to hock the latest $9.99 puddle of noodles at some faceless chain restaurant, but when Sal says “family” he means it.
“A lot of people work here a long time,” he explained. “We have one guy that’s been here 25 years. He works as a schoolteacher but still comes in at least one night a week. He doesn’t want to quit—he just wants to be a part of it.”
The Caffé Malvina family extends well beyond the Coronas and the restaurant’s staff. “We have made real great friends through the restaurant,” Corona said. “Some of the kids that used to come in, I see them now and they have their own family.
“They come with their parents as little children, then they come for the rehearsal dinner and they go get married, then they come in with families of their own.”
Caffé Malvina opened on Broadway in 1977, originally offering only espresso and lunch. “We were the first place in Chico to sell espresso, or pizza by the slice,” Corona proclaimed proudly.
The café moved to its current location on West Third Street 29 years ago and became a full-fledged restaurant, offering nightly dinner in addition to lunch.
Caffé Malvina offers dishes from Northern and Southern Italy with an emphasis on seafood, reflecting Corona’s own heritage—his hometown is Porticello, a fishing village near Palermo, Sicily, and his father was a fisherman.
“Everything is fresh and made to order,” said Corona. “You want a fish, I cook you the fish. You want a veal, I cook you the veal. I make the sauces every day, I make everything.”
Corona’s commitment to perfection is notorious, and he is known to remove menu items for the night if they don’t meet his impeccable standards.
In addition to the usual favorites—linguine, fettucini, tortellini, penne, calamari and prawns served any way one might desire—there are specialties that gourmands will find nowhere else, like the Linguini Brigida ($17.95)—ham, mushrooms, black olives in cream sauce over a bed of linguini. Or the Fileti di Sogliole Amanda ($19.95)—filet of sole in egg sautéed with butter, capers and black olives. The dishes are named after his daughters and, coming from Corona’s mouth, the list of ingredients and quick description of how he prepares them sound like poetry.
“If you see something on the menu that has the weird name you don’t recognize, it’s probably something we made up at home or in the kitchen,” said Corona.
If Corona needs further inspiration for new Italian dishes or wines, he and his wife go straight to the source—back to Porticello.
“My mother’s family came to United States, my father’s family stayed there. I have 21 first cousins in or around Porticello,” he offered. “We go back every three or four years. We invite friends from Chico, rent a big house—lots of wine, lots of food, we have a great time.”
Caffé Malvina has survived some tough times, including the construction of the Third Street parking structure that drove some downtown businesses under, and, of course, today’s touchy economy. Corona says he’s happy and proud to have stuck it out in Chico, though there’s one thing he doesn’t understand.
“Sometimes people think this place is expensive. Chico is a great town, we have a university, we have education, but people, they don’t know how to read,” he joked.
“All they see is the price, they don’t read and see that you get soup and salad plus a great meal for the same price as other places and we don’t charge for the extras.”