Italian heritage vignettes

These character sketches and other scribbles appeared in “Our Cultural Heritage,” a feature I write for the monthly newsletter of The Colombo Club in Oakland, California.  Immigrants from the Piedmont region of northern Italy formed the club in 1920 as a way to preserve and pass on their cultural customs and traditions, which, to this day, largely revolve around good food, good times and good people.   The Club’s 900 members and their families make it one of the largest Italian-American social clubs in the United States.

As they say in Piemonte, andooma!  (Read on to know the meaning of the word)…

Ann’s Café – The memories are alive and cooking

Fran Bienati at home -- always cooking up something

Frances at home--something's always cooking

Long after closing her fabled Ann’s Café, Frances Bienati is still dishing it out – the wisecracks, the advice, the help hand, even fresh-baked cookies, if you’re lucky enough to visit her at home.

            “My mother called me and said to come and help her one day,” Frances says, laughing at the memory.  “I was there for 42 years – I never left.”

During that time she also helped turn the narrow little 19-stool counter café on Fruitvale Avenue into an Oakland institution.  Her parents Anna and Tony opened the place in 1958 and Frances, with husband Frank – longtime and active Colombo Club and auxiliary members — closed it to the anguish and adoration of fans in 2000.

Frances retired but kept doing what she does best – making people happy, taking care of people, keeping them fed.  The basement level of the Bienati’s home serves as their spacious family room but also as a busy spare kitchen and a shrine to Ann’s Café.  It’s brimming with photos, newspaper articles, memorabilia from the café, and a multitude of awards and accolades, including the latest, bestowed in May, from the Oakland Police Department honoring Frances for her good citizenship.  There’s also the Bienati Way sign from when the city named the street that borders the Ann’s Café site.

Ann’s served solid and substantial American fare – franks and kraut, meatloaf, gigantic omelets – with an Italian touch:  spaghetti and meatballs was the Thursday special, she and Frank say in unison.

Over the years Ann’s attracted a loyal following from its Dimond District neighborhood and beyond.  It was a favorite hangout of Oakland police officers and brass and it was an everyday thing to see politicos (including Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown) sports figures, doctors and lawyers sitting shoulder to shoulder with undercover cops, FBI agents and Hell’s Angels members.

“I fed the very richest to the lowest,” says Frances, who’d often take no money from people on the outs and bring a warm plate home to an ailing customer.

She did her share of matchmaking among customers, too.  Some resulted in marriages – some even lasted.

August 2008

A conversation with ‘Mr. Colombo Club’

Eddie Basso working from home on Club business

Eddie working from home on Club business

“Don’t make this a story about me,” Eddie Basso says,  in that soft-spoken, modest manner of his.  “Make it about the Club.”

Trouble is, a story about Eddie Basso is naturally a story about the Club.  Ask people about the Colombo Club and Italian history and culture in the East Bay, and first name that comes up is Eddie Basso.  “Mr. Colombo Club,” they call him.  Spend some time with Eddie and you know why.

At 90, is one of the Club’s “elder statesmen.” He personifies what’s special about the people who formed the Colombo Club and others like it – hard-working people from strong stock, with solid values.

 Born in Oakland, Eddie and his family lived on 46th Street in the heart of the Temescal District and two or three blocks from the Club’s original headquarters.  His father Tomasso, a quarry worker, was one of the Club’s founders.  Like most other of the Club’s early members, Eddie’s parents came from Italy’s Piemonte region.  A main reason why the Colombo and other clubs began, Eddie says, was for people from particular regions of Italy to preserve their regional customs and traditions, find work and build a new but familiar life in a new country.

“It was wonderful,” Eddie says of life in Temescal in the old days.  “Nobody had money; we were all poor in dollars.  But in family life we had everything – gourmet dinners, kids could play in the street, we’d go to movies for 10 cents at the Claremont Theater, you could walk the streets at two or three in the morning and you never had to be afraid of anything.  We never locked our doors.”

And there was the Club.  It was a place for people to gather during day.  There were the Saturday night dances and big Sunday night family dinners – “delicious dinners,” Eddie remembers. Members would work in their spare time to keep the Club on good shape – painters, plumbers, carpenters, masons – and big names who never forgot their heritage and humble beginnings would visit the Club.  Eddie particularly remembers boxing legend Rocky Marciano and baseball great Ernie Lombardi, an Oakland native.

 “It made you proud,” Eddie says, thinking back to his father’s words to him about the Club:  “He told me to take care of the Club. He was proud of his Italian heritage.”

Eddie went through local schools then spent a career at Bank of America branches in Oakland and at the bank’s institutional credit department in San Francisco.  For 30 years he was the Club’s treasurer and he remains an active member today, mostly behind the scenes organizing reservations and seating arrangements, with his dining room table almost doubling as a Club office.

 “I think Italians have contributed more to the world than any other group,” Eddie says, which is why he considers the Club so important:  “For our heritage and culture,” he says.  “I don’t know if young people today recognize that.  They’re not proud of it.  They should be.  They’re the ones who have to keep the Club going.”

 July 2007

Words to live by

Italian families have passed them down through generations – ‘i proverbi,” our mothers and grandmothers would caution us with a watchful eye and a wag of the finger:  Pay attention to the proverbs, they’d say.

Proverbs, or i proverbi, are age-old sayings, brief expressions and teachings, words of wisdom. They can be as meaningful today as centuries ago.  They’re also an important element of Italian folklore and culture — and a good way to learn the language.

Here are some examples of Italian proverbs.  Consider how they apply to daily life:

Sbagliando s’impara (learn from your mistakes).

Amici e vino devono essere vecchi (wine and friends must be old).

Il riso fa buon sangue (laughter is good medicine).

Canta che ti passa (sing and it will pass).

Chi va piano va sano e va lontano (who goes slowly goes in good health and travels far).

Detto, fatto (what is said is done).

Scopa nuova scopa bene (a new boom sweeps clean).

A tavola non si invecchia mai (at the dinner table you never age).

Chi va per ingannare resta ingannato (whoever intends to deceive ends up deceived).

Then there’s this popular proverb (and a personal family favorite):  Dimmi con chi vai e ti diro chi sei. It means, tell me who you go with, or who your friends are, and I’ll tell you who you are.

And, finally, a familiar and often translated proverb that may or may not pertain to the Colombo Club:  Troppi cuocchi guastano la cucina — too many cooks spoil the meal.

At the Club, however, it may be the other way around:  The more cooks, the better – because they’re all good at what they do and so is the food.

April  2007

In the kitchen with Albino


Albino raises a glass in The Colombo Club kitchen

It’s a slow afternoon at The Colombo Club.  Albino Gabrielli and some of the regulars are in the Isabella Room playing cards.  On the wide-screen TV off in a corner, with nobody watching, Emeril the celebrity chef is doing something fancy with pasta.

“Cooking is like any profession,” Albino says, unaware of Emeril’s orchestrations.  “You can’t learn from TV or a book.  You just have to do it.”

That’s what Albino does, almost every day, starting as early as 6 or 7 in the morning, in the club kitchen.  He’s one of the Club’s head chefs, along with John Tandi and Doug Emeldi.  They typically work with four or five assistants to prepare a meal for up to 500 guests and a crew of waiters to serve it.

 “I don’t measure anything,” Albino says.  “I take a taste.  If it needs more salt or something else, I put it in.”

He’s down in the kitchen now, surveying the set-up for tonight’s meal:  roasted chicken resting in the oven; champagne sauce simmering on the stove; carrots and beans, like a carpet of color, spread on trays and ready for the oven.  There’s still salad to be dressed and pasta, always the pasta, soon to be bubbling in huge pots and topped with sauce.

“It’s all about timing — you all have to work together,” Albino says.  “Everything has to be ready and it has to get out at the right time.  It takes teamwork.”

Albino, lean and slightly built with white hair and an outgoing personality, came to the United States from his native Rome in 1955.  He lived in the East briefly – “I couldn’t take the weather” – before settling in the Bay Area.  He worked for the Colombo Baking Company in Oakland in a variety of positions until his retirement 13 years ago.

Albino’s cooking career at the Club goes back 20 years, about the time he joined the club.  He had no formal training and no particular instruction or coaching at home.

“I do remember,” he says, “that my mother, when she made meatballs, would have wine on her hands when she rolled the balls.  It made them cook better and they tasted good.”

At the Club, Albino took up cooking the old-fashioned, traditional way — by working with the cooks who came before him.  “The only way to learn is to observe,” he says.

And then, making it all sound too easy:  “We try to keep everybody happy…No complaints yet.”

May 2007

John Penna – Caring for The Colombo Club

John Penna with a photo from the founding days of The Colombo Club

John with a photo from The Colombo Club's founding days



Visiting John Penna at home is like strolling through the history of the Colombo Club, all 85 years of it.

Always ready with a smile and kind word, John is one of the club’s “elder statesmen” and best ambassadors.  He’s also the caretaker of the club’s history, which makes sense since he was born in Oakland the same year his parents’ generation founded the club.

“It’s such a rich history, you can’t duplicate it,” John says.  “You have to admire the old-timers – how hard they worked and what they accomplished.  They were pioneers.  They made things better for all of us.”

In his collection, John has all kinds of classic photos, some from the days when dinners cost a dollar and indoor bocce alleys were converted with planks into a dining hall, with kids sleeping under benches while parents danced into the night.  He also has newspaper clippings about the club, badges and commemorative ribbons, memos, letters, resolutions and proclamations, even a thick ledger from years back with pages containing facts and figures for each member.

“Everything was written in Italian until 1951,” John says, referring to neatly handwritten meeting minutes and other records.

He salvaged much of the memorabilia from club headquarters, from closets and cubbyholes, back rooms and even trash bins.

“It’s important for us to preserve all this and important to keep the club going, especially for the younger people,” John says. 

In the old days, he remembers, the club’s various committees were always active and productive.  Everybody chipped in on everything, from general club maintenance and repairs to stocking the bar, staffing the kitchen and planning social events.

John himself tended bar, set tables, helped in the kitchen – his father-in-law Mike Roggero was one of the club’s first cooks – ran the social committee, and started the club’s wild game dinners and businessmen’s lunches, both of which are continuing traditions.  He served as club president for two years and was chairman of the board of directors; his son Jim, an Oakland attorney, was president as well.

“I’ve got a lot of love for the club,” says John, whose wife Irene, a master home baker, passed away three years ago.  “The friendship and camaraderie, talking with the old-timers, all this history…it’s really something else.”

January 2008


Andooma – The lingo lives on

Two Colombo Club buddies — Ray Mellana and Eddie Basso — have collaborated to come up with a piece of writing that’s a real treasure for anyone interested in or connected with Oakland’s Italian-American heritage.

Ray, the principal author, titles the document “A Piemontese Lexicon:  The Words of My Youth.”  It’s just a few pages long, consisting of a one-page introduction by Ray followed by lists of words, phrases and expressions in Piemontese dialect accompanied by translations in English and formal Italian.  Many of the early Italian-American residents of Oakland — including the founders of The Colombo Club — spoke Piemontese rather than formal Italian, especially at home and around the neighborhood.  It was the language they knew best, a rustic, choppy vernacular that immigrants brought with them from the Piedmont region of Northern Italy.

Here’s an example from the lexicon:  “Adooma, stoma or che cosa fooma?”

It’s a phrase, an exhortation, no doubt routinely uttered and heard in the old Temescal neighborhood where Ray and Eddie grew up.  It means, “Are we going, coming or what are we doing?”  And in formal Italian – note the basic resemblance to dialect — it would be, “Andiamo, stiamo o che cosa facciamo?”

Piemontese, like Genovese and other Italian dialects, can sound vaguely similar to or vastly different from formal Italian.  And once in the States, immigrants would mix dialect with newfound English words, resulting in alternate from of speech all together.

As Ray recalls in his introduction:  “The Piemontese dialect was my first means of communication within the family, and I continued to speak it into kindergarten.  I also learned some English words while playing on 46th Street with the neighborhood kids.”

Some other examples from those old days:  Balloordo (“dizzy” or “lightheaded” in English, “balordo” in Italian); chacharoong (a “big talker” in English, “chiacchierone” in Italian); fatifurb (“be smart or sharp” or “wise up” in English, “fa furbo” in Italian).

Ray produced the lexicon with the editorial help of his daughter Linda, a retired English literature teacher. He lives in Sonora and worked with Eddie, who’s in San Leandro, by phone, letter and in occasional visits.

To the three of them we say, “Grazie mille e complimenti.  Bravissimo!” 

February 2009





Published on February 14, 2009 at 3:54 am  Leave a Comment  

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