Of kitchens and kilns
Angelo Lucido—restaurateur, chef, potter—remains fired up about food, family and friends
“The basic ingredient in the lifestyle of an Italian is passion. It colors his art, chisels his sculpture, arranges his music. It seasons his food.”
Italian Country Cooking by Judy Gethers
Travel back in time to the late 1970s, back to a time when there’s nary a Starbucks to be found anywhere, a time when good coffee is extremely hard to find, especially in the hinterlands. Sure, you can get a cup of espresso in places like North Beach in San Francisco or Little Italy in New York City, but if you are a constantly touring musician with a yen for good food and drink, you know as well as you know the highway that a non-greasy meal is not an easy thing to find, and most coffee served in American diners is so thin and weak you can read a newspaper through it.
Back then, Norton Buffalo was one such musician, playing a gig at the now-defunct Cabos, a nightclub in Chico that brought prominent blues and rock artists to town every weekend.
For those who don’t know him, Norton Buffalo is a harmonica virtuoso, a guy who had already been making his living as a performer for a half-dozen years or so, back in those days when he first came to play Chico one fine weekend, in that place that now houses Herreid’s Music. Norton Buffalo is one of those Italian-Americans whose idea of la dolce vita begins with the notion of good food, and so good food and good coffee were on his mind that weekend almost from the moment he got to town.
“When I first met Angelo Lucido,” he said, “I was playing at Cabos with my band, probably around 1979. Don DiBono, who owned Cabos, was a great friend of Angelo’s, and he took many of his bands to Angelo’s place for dinner. Angelo had one of his first restaurants down the street from the club on Park. It was a small place.
“Angelo and I and his brother, Vince, just hit it off. Those guys have ‘big’ Sicilian personalities. And there was all that great food. So we always made a point of going to his restaurant whenever we came to Chico, even the first few times I was playing at the Sierra Nevada Brewery.
“I especially loved the big place he later opened on Park [where the ARC of Butte County now has its offices]. I would hang out in the kitchen and get him to show me how to make some of the dishes. His brother, Vince, even jammed with my band up on stage a couple times.”
That was then.
Flash forward some 30 years and, after being out of the restaurant business for more than a decade, Lucido is back with a new establishment over on Nord Avenue, a place he calls Cucina Trinacria.
“Cucina,” of course, means kitchen, and “trinacria” is a Greek word meaning triangle. The triangle is the symbol of Sicily, where Lucido’s roots run deep. Black-and-white pictures of his family adorn the walls of the new restaurant—all those Sicilian aunts and uncles in their native habitat, all of them looking as though they’d just stepped out of a post-war movie directed by De Sica or Rossellini.
It took four visits to Cucina Trinacria before I felt I’d gotten a handle on this little story, though the reasons for all those visits may have had more to do with the food than with the story. In a telephone interview, Lucido once told me about how much he still likes to cook veal marsala. I said I’d never liked the dish because I’d ordered it once years ago, and it was too sweet. He said, “Oh, the chef must not have cooked it right.”
The next time I went to dinner at Lucido’s restaurant, I ordered scampi, which was as good as I’ve ever had anywhere, including in Italy. Accompanying my scampi, Lucido sent out a side dish of veal marsala. It was delicious, and with the first bite a life-long aversion based on a dish poorly prepared by a bad chef was corrected by a dish prepared by a good one.
Had you wandered into Lucido’s new restaurant a few Saturdays ago, you would have had the unexpected pleasure of being serenaded through dinner by none other than Norton Buffalo and his wife, Lisa. Buffalo is still earning his daily bread by playing alongside guys like Steve Miller or fronting his own band, the Knockouts, putting out some of that sweet soul music for the delight of fans around the globe.
But Norton and Lisa weren’t at Cucina Trinacria on that recent Saturday evening to play blues, pop, or rock ‘n’ roll; they were there to indulge their love of an Italian heritage they share with Lucido. They played a medley of Italian-American standards, along with traditional Sicilian songs they’d first heard when their parents played them when they were kids.
The 46-seat restaurant bustled with patrons. Lisa played guitar, and Norton blew his harmonicas with understated sensitivity, bringing out the heart in those old songs in ways that, at special moments, made the room grow quiet and more than a few eyes grow moist.
“Angelo has always been big on family and friends,” Norton said. “His restaurant’s menu primarily comes from his old family recipes passed down to him, and his connection to family, including helping care for his very Sicilian mother, has always been very important in his life.”
Family and friends—those are two big reasons Lucido started up his new dining room at the time of life when most people are bailing out.
“I’ve been pretty much in Chico for 30 years,” Lucido said, “and over the past few years I’d run into people and they’d say, ‘Oh, you’re back in town,’ and I said, ‘I’ve always been here,’ but once I was out of the restaurant biz, I didn’t see people as much, and I missed the socializing. And I guess I wanted a part-time job. Now I get to see lots of my old friends who turn up to eat my food.”
If you’ve lived in Chico for a long time, there’s a pretty high probability you’ve eaten food prepared for you by Angelo Lucido. And if you were a Chico State student in the past 35 years or so, you just might have supported your educational ambitions by working in one or another of his various kitchens. He estimates that somewhere around a thousand students have worked for him over the years since he opened his first place in 1971.
There have been 10 Lucido-owned dining establishments within a 10-mile radius of Bidwell Park since he first came to Chico to major in art, and to support his own education by opening his first restaurant downtown, a lunch place called The Red Dog Saloon. After that came a Gashouse Pizza, a couple of Sicilian Clans, Angelo’s Pizza & Pasta, and a Sicilian Café.
Since the Red Dog Saloon days, by conservative estimate, he’s probably cooked a quarter of a million meals in these parts.
Lots of people in and around Chico know Dave Guzzetti, as a restaurateur, caterer, former city councilman, and civic-minded citizen. What they probably don’t know, however, is that Guzzetti’s path to local prominence began with a lie.
And he told that lie to Angelo Lucido.
“Before I opened the Kramore Inn,” Guzzetti said, “I got my start in the restaurant business working for Angelo. I got hired as the only cook other than Angelo and his brother, Vince. That was at the old Sicilian Clan [that] Angelo opened out on Park Avenue back in ‘76.
“I was a student at the time. I needed a job, and I read that he was taking applications, so I applied to be a waiter. Angelo called me back to say he was going to be using waitresses, not waiters, but he wondered if I’d done any cooking. I lied and said I had.”
That lie led to a pretty challenging experience for Guzzetti on opening night, when his new boss and his boss’ brother invited all of their friends over for free food and drink.
“Angelo took me back in the kitchen and said, ‘Here’s the menu,’ and then he left to go party with the guests. And there I was, stuck in the back with only my Italian-American heritage to fall back on.”
Guzzetti chuckles over the event, now more than 30 years in the past.
“Luckily, I was befriended by a mutual friend of Angelo’s and mine, and he came back to the kitchen and helped me out. But I worked my ass off that night, even with his help.”
For Guzzetti, that evening pretty much spelled the end of his foray into higher education and the beginning of his own life as a Chico chef.
“That night was the beginning of a 30-year culinary career for me,” he said. “Angelo wasn’t always an easy man to work for, but he gave me my start, and I have the highest respect for him. He never lost the desire to be part of our shared cultural heritage. He loves preparing good food, and he loves eating good food. That’s Italian to the core.”
When Angelo Lucido opens a new restaurant, he’s usually done most of the heavy lifting to get it ready. As a young guy, he was in the Seabees before he came to Chico to study art, and he learned how to build things during his military service.
“Angelo has designed and in great part done much of the labor of building and remodeling all of the places he’s opened over the years,” Buffalo said of his friend. “The new place went through an amazing transformation, with Angelo spending months of long days cleaning, re-constructing, and painting to give it the atmosphere it has.”
It was déjà vu all over again, but on a smaller scale.
“In 1988,” Lucido said, “I opened the big Sicilian Clan restaurant on Park Avenue. That was 5,000 square feet, but when I took that property there was just four walls and a ceiling, and I put that restaurant together pretty much with my own hands.”
In naming the new place, “I dropped the word Sicilian because of the associations with the mafiosi, but Sicily has a lot more to offer than that association with the Mafia. There’s so much culture, so much art, and that’s why I wanted to use that triangle association to represent Sicilian culture, to downplay all that stuff about gangsters. If you’ve been to Rome, Florence, Venice, but not Sicily, you haven’t been to the best of Italy.”
Of his approach to cooking, Lucido says: “A lot of people think Italian food takes a lot of preparation, time, but it doesn’t. It’s simple. My mother taught me that simple is best. The more complicated you get, the more it becomes like French cuisine, which I don’t care for. It’s over-fussed. I don’t want to take all day to prepare one sauce.
“It’s the simplicity that allows me to manage running the kitchen myself. Some restaurants I’ve seen have all this fancy equipment, and big staffs, but good stuff can be done very easily.”
Guzzetti echoes those sentiments: “A Sicilian will tell you that if you have more than four ingredients in a dish, you’ve compromised that dish. Angelo’s an excellent chef, and a very disciplined chef. You can order a dish in one of his restaurants one day, and if you order it the next, it’ll come out just as well.”
Guzzetti recalls a cooking show he saw on TV, with a proud Italian chef who proclaimed, “When it comes to good food, who knows better than us?” It’s a sentiment Guzzetti shares, of course. “Who knows food better than Italians?” he said, “and who cooks food better? You can see that pride in our culinary heritage, in Angelo’s attitude and his approach to cooking.”
More people than ever seem to be taking a greater interest in good food, with a plethora of cooking shows on television, and an array of cooking magazines vying for and getting the public’s attention. When so much in the world seems uncertain and fraught with peril, people seek solace in the immediacy of food.
“I love to read cookbooks and the magazines devoted to food, myself,” Lucido said. “There’s so many things going on with food these days. I get ideas, adapt them to what I want to do.
“Cucina Italiana—that’s a great magazine,” he elaborated. “Great recipes, great stories. I’m trying new recipes all the time, but most customers will order the same old things: calamari, chicken piccata, veal marsala.”
As an illustration of his point about the link between simplicity and goodness, Lucido offers his recipe for “sugo,” the Sicilian word for sauce:
“Start out with olive oil, onion, garlic, parsley. Lightly sauté that, add whole peeled tomatoes, tomato paste, water, salt and pepper, basil; then cook it down. That’s it. Easy and good.
“I don’t have a lot of pasta on my current menu,” he said, “so I don’t use that much sauce these days. Maybe do a gallon a day. I don’t have to do a pot of it and use it for days on end. I cook it fresh because it’s so easy to make. My mother used to make the sauce every day for that night’s dinner. I do the same.”
Beyond his abilities as a chef, Lucido continues to work as a potter/artist, the thing he came to Chico State to learn in the first place.
“I can pinpoint an exact overlap between my interest in pottery and my interest in cooking,” he said. “When I was taking a class from Jack Windsor, who headed up the Chico State ceramics department when I was a student, he’d have me make pizzas for the class, and we’d bake ’em in the kiln.”
Norton Buffalo thinks of his friend as an artist, both in the kitchen and in the ceramics studio. “We’ve got a couple of beautiful pieces he’s done here at our home, including a wonderful platter featuring a buffalo standing on top of a harmonica. Quite a few galleries have shown his artwork, from here to Monterey.”
Buffalo keeps urging his old friend to exhibit his work in the restaurant, something Angelo plans to do in the future.
“There’s definitely an overlap between the kitchen and the kiln,” Lucido said. “You have to have food that looks appealing. If it doesn’t look good, people aren’t going to enjoy it. Too much of this, too much of that—you have to be able to judge what you’re doing. It’s so easy to overcook something, or to put too much cheese in a dish and have it come out like a brick. The same kind of attention to detail applies when I’m throwing a pot.”
Pasta and pottery are intermingled in Lucido’s life. “Having been part of his circle of friends for many years,” Buffalo said, “I’ve been to lots of gatherings of close friends and family at Angelo’s house, and they always include great food, bocce ball and occasionally, pottery firings.”
A rather striking coincidence developed over the course of their long friendship.
“Norton was playing at Feather Falls a few years back. I went to see him, and he told me he had met this woman he was about to marry who came from San Vito Locapo, which, as it turns out, is where my people come from in Sicily. There’s a beach in San Vito. My dad had property on the beach there. You could walk out a long way and the water would be to your waist, crystal clear, the most beautiful beach in the world.”
Norton Buffalo came to know that beach when he went to Sicily in 2004 on his honeymoon. “Angelo had told me of his father’s house, which is right next door to rectory of the church and right across the piazza from the street that is named after Lisa’s grandfather. It is up a couple blocks from the beach. Lisa’s father’s house was just down the main street, right at the edge of the sand.”
He shook his head over the serendipity of human experience, then continued. “Lisa and Angelo are probably third cousins—something like that, anyway—and Lisa’s grandfather had sponsored some of the Lucido family to come to the States from Sicily.”
Food, family, friends: All the threads of this tale come together at Angelo Lucido’s table, as people come together to take nourishment, and to find the ties, some of them surprising, that bind us all together. Buon gusto, amici.