Featured Wine History Project Legend:
The Rizzo Family
Just two weeks ago, a group of fifty food and wine enthusiasts gathered at Cafe Roma in San Luis Obispo to learn more about the Rizzo family's roots and Italian cuisine. This month we feature the Rizzo family as our Wine History Legend.
Joseph Rizzo was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts, and would later become a world-famous concert oboist where he performed with a slate of legendary musical conductors such as Toscanini, Fiedler, and Bernstein. He was celebrated as one of the leading oboists of the twentieth century. During WWII, Joseph served in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) for the United States government, which would later become the CIA.
Joseph Rizzo, circa late 1930s
While serving in Tunisia, Joseph met the Robaire family, who had French restaurants in the city. Joseph Rizzo sponsored the Robair's and together they opened Robaire’s Restaurant on La Brea Avenue in 1952. It was one of the first notable French restaurants in Los Angeles. After several years in the partnership, Joseph left Robaire’s and opened The Corsican restaurant in 1955.
It was around this time when Joseph met Maria Rosa in Switzerland. They were married in a small Catholic church in Varzo, Italy in 1961. Once married, Joseph, now with Maria Rosa as his wife, returned to Hollywood. Joseph was operating The Corsican restaurant, a French restaurant, which he would run until 1974.
Corsican Restaurant in Hollywood, circa 1955
The couple's three sons were born in the 1960s while the family lived in the Hollywood Hills. The boys, Denis, Marco and Saro, spent Sundays at the restaurant while Joseph worked on the books with his sister, Rosemary.
The early 1970s were turbulent times and Los Angeles was not immune. Joseph and Maria decided they didn’t want to raise their kids in that environment, so they decided to move from Los Angeles back to Italy. They settled into their lakeside villa in Verbania, Italy on Lago Maggiore, just west of Lake Como. Italy in the early 1970’s also had its fair share of civil unrest.
The Rizzo family moved back to their summer
home in Pallanza, Italy in 1970s.
The Red Brigades, a left-wing terrorist organization, was responsible for numerous violent incidents, including assassinations, kidnapping and robberies during what was called the “Years of Lead.” Given this, Joseph and Maria decided to return to the U.S. where they were invested in a restaurant in Las Vegas, Via Veneto, (named after a famous street in Rome). They ran it from 1975-1979.
Both Maria Rosa and Joseph were not happy in Las Vegas and didn’t want to raise the family there either. Joseph and Maria visited friends in San Luis Obispo in September of 1979, fell in love with the city, and moved here one month later. They found a small restaurant for sale in the old Park Hotel next to the railroad. Originally this location started as the Whistle Stop and served railroad workers in the early 1900s. Some say, it is the oldest continuous food establishment in San Luis Obispo.
After an extensive remodel they opened the new restaurant in May of 1980 and Maria named it Café Roma. The boys worked alongside Maria Rosa and Joseph and took on more of the business responsibilities as Joseph suffered several disabling strokes. Joseph passed away in 1990, leaving the sons and Maria Rosa to continue the family restaurant operations. The brothers decided to grow the family business, and in 1997, they purchased a vacant lot just across the street. The family utilized some of the materials from the original building into the new design of Café Roma.
Café Roma, 1980
The new, larger restaurant gave new life in the small neighboring community now known as the Historic Railroad District.
To this day, Marco and Saro alongside Maria Rosa carry on the family’s restaurant legacy. Joseph’s vision was to celebrate the best of Italian culture, wine and cuisine. Café Roma is a family tradition for many locals and tourists alike. In May of 2020, the family will celebrate 40 years since the opening of Café Roma in San Luis Obispo. This is a triumph in the restaurant industry. The Rizzo family continues to support local farmers and wineries through purchasing locally-sourced produce.
The Wine History Project invites you to visit our website to learn more about the Rizzo family and Cafe Roma. Click the link below to learn more: