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An immigrant family story: The Lemucchis of Bakersfield

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Timothy Lemucchi set out to write a book about his family’s century-old east Bakersfield business, Luigi’s Restaurant and Delicatessen. But the local attorney ended up writing about much more.

“The book, ‘Luigi’s: 100 Years Then and Now’, is about the immigrant experience,” Lemucchi said during a recent interview. “My grandfather, Joe, and his brother, Dick, arrived in the United States with nothing but the clothes on their backs. They came for the opportunity and found it. They worked very hard and married women who worked very hard. Although neither of them had much formal education, they were very successful. And that kind of opportunity still exists today.”

Lemucchi’s sister, Antonia Valpredo, helped produce the book. But the project took nearly a decade to complete because their work was frequently interrupted by Lemucchi’s busy trial schedule.

“My plan was to write about my grandparents, Joe and Emelia, two hard-working Italian immigrants, and the influence they had on their family and the generations that followed,” Lemucchi said. “But it became a window into the lives of all the Italian, Chinese, Basque, Portuguese, Spanish, Hispanic, French and German families who wove together the rich tapestry that became east Bakersfield.

 “It’s a story of a community and the experience of growing up in its ethnic diversity,” he said. “There were many shared values. You could go into any home, no matter what the ethnicity, and the values were the same. You knew what was expected of you. There was the feeling that we were all in this together. We were all Americans. We were all family. Many of the families shared two world wars, a Great Depression, and a massive earthquake that leveled much of Bakersfield. Maybe that had a lot to do with these shared values.”

The book begins with the arrival in 1905 of the family patriarch, Joe “Curley” Lemucchi. Like many of the Italian immigrants arriving from the villages surrounding the medieval town of Lucca, Joe settled in east Bakersfield, married Emelia and started a small grocery store that included Curley’s Café. The business catered to other immigrant families. Within five years, Curley moved the business to its present location at 725 East 19th St. — a triangle where 19th Street and Truxtun Avenue merge.

Lemucchi fills his book with stories of everyday life growing up in east Bakersfield in the early 1900s.

“As a 10-year-old child, I would leave the house early and play all day when there was no school,” Lemucchi recalled. “I would look for friends. We had all sorts of things to do and games to play. Lunch and sometimes dinner would be at a neighbor’s house. There was always food for a hungry kid. There was never any concern by parents or grandparents for our safety, as we roamed the streets of east Bakersfield. It was a safe neighborhood.”

The family’s grocery store grew to be a community hub. It sold ethnic foods and supplies to people who lived in the neighborhood and to farmers who drove into the city to shop. Lemucchi recalled delivering groceries as a boy.

“The grocery store took phone delivery orders. We would box up the groceries and put them in the bed of a 1932 Ford delivery truck. Leo Narducci would drive. At the customer’s house, my cousin, Cookie Barbeau, and I would carry the boxes to the kitchen door and knock. If no one answered, we’d walk inside and put the groceries on the kitchen table and, if necessary, we’d put the milk, cream, eggs and butter in the icebox and leave. No one locked their doors back then.”

In the back of the store was a café and constantly bubbling pots of fresh stew, minestrone soup, pasta and sauces. Luigi’s today still serves many dishes made from Emelia’s recipes, including her Bolognese sauce.

Behind the grocery-café were cabins that were rented to mostly bachelor Italian immigrants.

“Late afternoons and weekends would find groups of immigrants out back of the store, under the grape arbor, discussing the latest news and world events in Italian,” Lemucchi writes in his book.

The Lemucchis were an active family. The couple’s four children — Louis, Lena, Harry and Helen — enjoyed spending time in the outdoors and participating in sports. Like many of the family members who followed, Louis, or Luigi, was a local star athlete. While Bakersfield in the 1920s and 1930s had a population of only about 30,000, it was recognized throughout the state as a football powerhouse.

“The sons of oilfield workers and farmers in our small town beat teams from big city schools,” Lemucchi writes, noting local athletes were treated as celebrities as they strutted around Bakersfield.

About the 1931 Taft-versus-Bakersfield game, the Kern County High School Year Book noted that Luigi stepped in as quarterback for an injured Bullet Ben Lum. With that game, the Drillers won their fifth consecutive county championship against Taft. Lemucchi scored all five touchdowns.

Luigi was slated to go on to college after he graduated, but the death of his brother, Harry, in a hunting accident derailed those plans. Instead, he joined his parents in running the family’s business. After his father’s death in 1952, he took over the restaurant-deli, which was renamed Luigi’s.

Luigi was a voracious collector of local athletes’ photographs. The hundreds that hang on the restaurant’s walls today are just a fraction of Luigi’s collection. They draw the attention of old-timers and newcomers alike, as customers stretch their necks to get a glance of an athlete they remember, or who went on to national fame.

Within five years of Joe Lemucchi’s arrival in America, he convinced his youngest brother, Dick, to join him in Bakersfield. Dick worked a variety of jobs before beginning his own businesses. Dick Lemucchi and his wife, Bernice Martini, were best known as the owners of several local movie theaters, including the Mission, Tejon, Rialto, Granada, Arvin and River theaters.

“When my classmates at St. Joseph’s Grammar School found out my uncle and aunt owned a movie theater and I could get them in for free, I became a popular student,” Lemucchi writes.

Lemucchi’s book is packed with family recollections and recipes. In addition, several customers contributed their own Luigi’s recollections.

Perhaps one of the book’s most engaging chapters is devoted to Tula Marantos, Luigi’s longtime companion and a bartender who took delight in dishing out good-natured salty insults to Luigi and customers.

It would be an injustice to try to summarize the Tula stories contributed by such customers as retired Californian sports editor Larry Press, the late former Kern County Supervisor and Assemblyman Trice Harvey, and former Bakersfield College Foundation president Mike Stepanovich.

But this paragraph from Press’ account sets the tone: “At the back end of the counter was the small kitchen area where Luigi, always with that white cook’s hat, kept the sandwiches and platters coming — along with the salty back-and-forth repartee with Tula up front. If she didn’t cuss at or in front of you, it meant that you weren’t in the ‘in’ group. But inside, all knew, rested a good and friendly heart.”

After 23 years together, Luigi died in 1989. Although Tula said working at Luigi’s “wasn’t the same anymore,” her loyal patrons and friends tried to keep up her spirits. Tula died in 1992.

Since Luigi’s death, the business has been operated by the family’s third and fourth generations — Luigi’s daughter Antonia Valpredo, Monte Valpredo, their daughters Monica and Lanette, and son Gino.

“We’ve tried to continue the atmosphere and delicious food that have made Luigi’s so popular over the years,” said Gino, who notes that an additional building next to Luigi’s has been purchased to expand the store, and the restaurant’s take-out and catering business. “We tried to update the facilities, but keep the traditional feel of the family business.”

Timothy Lemucchi said writing “Luigi’s: 100 Years Then and Now” has been an educational experience for the family. “In order to know who you are, you have to know where you came from, what it took to get here and what it’s going to take to continue.

“My family’s experience is not unique. Bakersfield has always been sort of a frontier town,” he said. “There’s a core of established people, but it has always been welcoming to new people who are willing to come in and accept the values people here have established. People come here looking for something different. They work hard and establish their lives. There’s not a lot of inherited wealth. It’s mostly self-made people.”

— Californian Features Editor Jennifer Self proofread a version of  the book “Luigi’s: 100 Years Then and Now”

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