One memorable restaurant out here in SoCal was di Palma’s Italian Village outside of Corona, California. You would head out on Magnolia heading south of Corona in the direction of Riverside. As you went down the two lane road with palm date trees on the left side, you needed to keep your eye open on the right side for the sign that would lead you over the railroad tracks up and around the hills on a meandering dirt path. This would lead up to the parking lot which was more dirt and less sage bushes the path leading to it.
All of this was reminiscent of another family run operation, which has survived, Knott’s Berry Farm, however badly, since Cedarfair got it’s claws into it.
Now Old Man di Palma had this place since after the Second World War, and by the time I last went there he and his village had rebuilt after two wild fires and three floods. The place looked tired and shabby and Mr. di Palma seemed distracted and his banter seemed rehearsed and somewhat disjointed. There were little rickety shops leaning one way or another precariously filled with dusty old knick knacks, some new, most used. There was a pond with a couple of flamingos and half lit Christmas lights strung back and forth and in the eucalyptus trees down the walk way.
When we first went there, however, my Dad was still alive, as was this destination. My father was a chef and as a child I remember how we would be seated in private dining rooms and the chef would always come out to talk shop and make sure that whatever was served to us met with Dad’s approval. As this was the only thing I had known I did not realize until later in life how we were treated special. At the Italian Village however, Mr. Di Palma would frequently bring out guest’s food. He would flirt shamelessly with the ladies, back slap the men and generally chide anyone that did not clean their plates or exclaim the virtues of his cuisine.
Couples and families once would walk around the pond and look through the shops. No reservations were accepted and waiting for a table, like at Knott’s restaurant, could mean a wait of an hour or more to be seated. In its prime, those dusty old shops contained items that Di Palma had sent from Italy. Returning veterans saw such things while stationed in Italy during the war, but here these imported items were unique here and especially in the sticks as this area was then. The Christmas lights brightly lit the pathways, while the kids would feed the swans, ducks and the flamingos in the pond. There were strolling violinists would play romantic songs to entertain the waiting diners.
Once seated, small plate after small plate of anti pasti would be brought out: olives, pickled vegetables, bread, olive oil and cheeses among others. Di Palma prided that he provided 23 small plates of anti pasti to begin his meals. After an hour of these, the pasta would come, followed by the il secondo, the main course, then gelato and finally fruit and cheese. By the time my Mom and I were there in the mid seventies many things contributed to the end of his Village. It was a point of pride to Mr. di Palma that he would always rebuild his restaurant after one brush fire, common in these hills, singed and a second brush fire consumed much of his Village. He boasted also of coming back after two floods that had taken its toll. Finally the first gas shortage and then the second in the early 70s brought about the end. His finances were not helped by the likes of family style chain restaurants being built with their consistency and perceived quality, nor a television for entertainment once home from a quick meal. The final blow steam rolled literally over the di Palma Italian Village when Interstate 15 was decided to be built right through his property.
Sigh, and thanks for letting me wallow in the memories. Now I need to go rummage in the 'fridge for olives, bread and wine and mutter to the cats about the good ol' days.