Looking Back: Making It in America: Family Business Spelled Success for Many Italian American Immigrants
I remember on Dad’s right hand was a permanent callus, formed there by the cooking spatula he used, for so many years, flipping burgers on a hot grill.
The bay area is an eclectic mix of houses and people reflecting a unique blending of styles and cultures. Perhaps that’s why this area was the chosen home for my Italian grandparents, uncles and aunts who came to America during the great Migration. The different styles and backgrounds they brought with them grace our family heritage with pride and memories. Subsequent generations proudly followed the traditions and heritage of their families, while at the same time assimilating into the American California culture, to eventually becoming the middle class.
It was into this “middle class” that I was born. It is where I have spent the past 60 years of my life. Like most residents, I have a keen awareness and reverence for things past, as well as a feeling of pride in my present community. The generation I grew up in has undergone many changes and upheavals. But one thing still remains strong, the feelings of tradition and family unity that our parents and grandparents instilled in us and in our community.
Success for the Italian American immigrant depended a great deal on family unity. Working together as a unit was the catalyst for achieving a successful goal in the New World.
The year was 1939 when my Dad, Rocci Curci, and five of his younger brothers-Nick, Joe, Tony Frank and Sal, decided to take advantage of San Francisco’s busy downtown area to open a fast food diner. Growing up on a prune ranch in the Almaden valley of San Jose, they knew little about the restaurant business, but the young entrepreneurs sensed a golden opportunity in the bustling city. and decided to make the best of a 50 mile commute to work to find some measure of success in a struggling economy.
The young brothers named their new business “Hamburger King,” featuring, what else, but juicy burgers hot off a sizzling grill: 10 cents served on a bun and 15 cents served on a French roll. Some days the neon lights of the diner could hardly be seen through the thick fog that rolled in from the bay. The rumble and roll of the streetcars cut through this dense fog every morning with the clank, clank of their bells announcing their arrival on Chestnut Street, just in front of Hamburger King, the family owned diner. The trolley cars shuttled dozens of hungry customers in and out daily. Patrons enjoyed the family atmosphere of the diner and that lingering cup of hot Java sipped over their morning chronicle.
The small business proved to be a good investment for the five brothers, and feeling a sense of new found security in their new business, they agreed to reinvest in their new business and expand the building. The paint on the walls of their new establishment wasn’t dried yet when the news of the attack on Pearl harbor blasted over the airwaves. Dec. 7th 1941 would bring an immediate and unforeseen change in their lives. Unexpected world events would suddenly put an end to their personal plans.
Just weeks after the United States declared war on Japan, Dad and his five brothers were drafted or volunteered to join the armed services. Dad, who failed to pass the Army physical exam, remained behind to run the business.
Overnight, the Hamburger King became a favorite eating spot for the many GI’s stationed nearby at the San Francisco Presidio, Trees Island and Yacht Harbor.
Dad was overwhelmed by the success of the business. It was just too much for him to handle by himself. After a family meeting, it was decided that Grandma and Grandpa Dinaopli would rent an apartment in San Francisco for the duration. In that way Dad and the family could avoid a daily commute by spending a few days a week at their house. Mom and dad would often say of those days, “knowing we were all going to be together at the end of the work day, warm and comfortable in grandma’s home gave us the strength to see it through those impossible years.”
The overwhelming obligation to meet the monthly bills kept my grandparents bustling frantically in the kitchen. Papa, a creative cook with a glistening smile, consistently came up with a new “dinner special” every day. They say necessity is the mother of invention, and the need to keep the bills paid helped inspire many of papa’s recipes. This pride and creativity that my grandparents felt in their cooking trickled down to their sons and their wives who were ready to step in to work at any station in the diner that needed attention.
It didn’t take long for the young servicemen to find a taste of home in grandma and grandpa’s cooking style. Homemade staples were a favorite, such as sauces, stocks and soups seasoned with Italian herbs, flat parsley, and garlic. Their food was a warm reminder of what the servicemen were missing and the family they left behind.
During those long war years, everyone in the family pitched in to keep the business going. Mom recalls of that time, “learning the diner slang was half the work” – a nervous pudding, (Jell-O) Adam and Eve on a raft (two eggs on toast) a pig between two blankets, (Ham on white bread), squeeze one (orange juice), and the popular sinkers and Java (donuts and coffee).
After the war, all of Dad’s brothers returned safely home from overseas. Dad, tired of the daily commute, decided to open a small business “The Pronto Pup” creamery in the Willow Glen area of San Jose. His brother, Frank Dinapoli, remained in San Francisco to open several more successful restaurants, among them, The Tides at Bodega Bay and the Vagabond Villa in San Francisco. Brothers, Tony and Nick moved to Santa Cruz California and opened the “Merry-Go-Round restaurant,” a Beach Street landmark for over 30 years. Later Nick and his wife Nancy opened the popular Di Napoli’s on Soquel Ave in Santa Cruz and Sal Dinapoli was the executive chef at Castagniola’s in Santa Cruz and Plateau 7 in San Jose.
What dad had learned from his experiences at the 1940s Hamburger King diner he brought to his 1950s Pronto Pup Creamery. The aroma of burgers and fries mixed with the tantalizing smell of Italian sausages; tomato sauce and delectable pasta made his version of the soda shop a unique experience and a huge success. Mom made all the sausages and tomato sauce in the soda shop’s tiny back kitchen, while dad did the fry cooking.
The Pronto Pup creamery gave Dad the means to invest in real estate and to open several other businesses. Eventually, dad got out of the fast food business and, with his brother Tony, opened Curci’s Restaurant in Scott’s Valley California, featuring fine Italian cuisine. This was to be dad’s last business, but it was his most successful. Mom and I worked in the kitchen and waited tables. There was always a job available for family.
Pray for the things you want – work for the things you need
All together, dad and his brothers owned over 15 different dinner houses, diners, and donut shops in the Bay Area. Sometimes the long hours and the nickels and dime income put a strain on family finances, but eventually all the Family businesses were successful.
Someone once asked my Grandpa DiNapoli his secret for success. His answer: “Pray for the things you want – work for the things you need.” My immigrant grandparents, and their children, worked long, hard, hours to acquire all the things they would need. And, eventually, they were granted all they could ever want in the new world.