This 1890s photograph came from a glass plate found in a local flea market. It was made while the Battaglia family was living in Eureka, leasing the hotel to Louis Franchetti.
GAYE LeBARON’S NOTEBOOK
Copyright The Press Democrat December 14, 1986
Lena’s history is Santa Rosa’s ‘Westside Story’
“Mama Lena,” circa 1950
It was just one of a half dozen Italian hotel-boarding houses in the area we now call Railroad Square. Then it was the Westside, or Tar Flat because so many of the houses had inexpensive tar-paper roofs. Some of the snootier folks uptown, forgetting their fathers were German or Irish Immigrants, called it “Italian town” with just the hint of a sneer at the accents and foreign customs of the newly American residents. But when they wanted good wholesome food, a little “sturdy” red wine that didn’t travel much past the railroad tracks, or a touch of Toscano ebullience, Santa Rosans looked to the west. IT WASN’T called Lena’s at first. It was the Battaglia Hotel, one of four such establishments in the same block of Adams Street, just across the tracks. The Torino Hotel, run by the Casassa family, was on the corner, the Hotel D’Italia Unita, owned by the Bettinis before they built the fancier La Rose Hotel, across the street. At the other end of the block was the Toscano Hotel, owned by the Guidottis. The Battiglia was in between, a wood frame building put up in the 1890’s by Olinto Battiglia who had come from Tuscany in 1886, purchasing a West Sixth Street home for his family from the Hewitt estate. Battiglia, a handsome man with sweeping baffi (mustaches), was interested in all the possibilities to do well in America. With his boarding house established for railroad workers, immigrants in transit and blockmakers who worked the quarries east of town, he leased it to another immigrant, Louis Franchetti, and went north to Eureka to get into the fish business and open a restaurant called Fior d’Italia. Soon after the turn of the century, he came back to Santa Rosa, and the Battiglia prospered as more and more immigrants arrived. His grandson, Dan Bonfigli, remembers his grandfather and the busy days of the early 20’s when his mother Lena and his father, Alviso Bonfigli, first took over the hotel. “Immigrant families would get off the train. There’d be six or eight kids upstairs in one room, sleeping on the floor, until they could find a place of their own. There was a family room in back, where the immigrants ate.” THE BLOCK became the social center for the neighborhood. There was a bocce alley between the Battiglia and the Torino and a double bocce alley across the street, alongside the tracks. The men gathered there to play the old-country game that is something like bowling but not really. If they weren’t playing bocce, they were at the billiard table in the old Battiglia barroom. “I remember that table,” says Dan Bonfigli. “By the time I was tall enough to look over the edge, I was a real pool shark.” “We lived in an Italian ghetto,” says Dan. He makes it sound like a wonderful memory. “We weren’t exposed to the rest of Santa Rosa at all. Do you remember when you first went uptown?” he asked his foster brother, Pete Marcucci. Pete agreed that they were probably 8 or 10 years old before they saw the plaza or the courthouse. It was like travelling to another city. Their world was between St. Rose Church and the old Lincoln School on Davis Street and Santa Rosa Creek, where they swam in the summer months. “Oh boy, the stuff we swam in,” remembers Kewpie Bonfigli. “Below the cannery, we’d dive in and come up with garbage on our heads and brush it off and keep swimming. ‘You go down that creek and get drowned,’ Ma used to say, ‘when you get home I’ll give it to you good!’” Kewpie, the youngest of Lena’s three sons, has been the keeper of the flame this past decade. He has run the family bar and restaurant since his brother Dutch died in the ‘60s and his mother, Lena, in 1973. He’s already talking about a spring reopening for the landmark structure, severely damaged by a Thanksgiving eve fire. “We’re going to make only the changes that are needed,” he said. A time estimate? “That’ll be up to Dick Colombini,” he said, naming the Santa Rosa contractor who is an expert on Italian restaurants, having redone several. (One restaurateur repaid Colombini for his skills with a menu specialty called Fettucine Colombini, but that’s another story.)
Santa Rosa’s Westside residents loved a party. This is the wedding supper for Lena Battiglia and Alviso Bonfigli at the West Sixth Street home of the Battiglia family, circa 1911.
TALKING ABOUT Prohibition days on the Westside makes Kewpie a little nervous. “Hey,” he says, “you trying to get me arrested?” But his brothers Pete and Dan know history when they live it, and ther’s little boubt that history was made on Santa Rosa’s Westside in the days when the sale of wine and liquor was illegal—and booming. “We always kept a spare room,” recalls Pete. “When they’d knock over a place, they’d seal the room for 90 days, so we always had another to keep going.” Like everywhere else in the U. S. during that Great Experiment, the Westside spots seemed to take turns being closed by the federal agents. But the sale of liquor never stopped. The main supplier of bootleg liquor for his family business, as Dan recalls, was the Garayalde still on the Laguna. It had a reputation for quality. “It was the only one Mama Lena would buy from,” says Pete. Dan worked at the still one summer. “They ‘fast-aged’ the booze by pouring fresh cow manure on the barrels,” he remembers. “It would steam. It was good stuff.” Wine, of course, was an Italian cottage industry. “You know why?” asks Dan, answering his own question. “It was because anyone of Mediterranean derivation was allowed to make 150 gallons per family member.” “That’s why we had such big families,” laughs Pete. Their grandfather Battiglia had a winery at the house on West Sixth where he made his own family quota and then leased the equipment to neighbors, who did likewise. Many of the Westside homes had smaller facilities. Beer? It was readily available also. Dan remembers making “beer runs” with his father to Sonoma, hauling back a load of steam beer “from some ranch over there where they were brewing.” AFTER PROHIBITION, the Battiglia became, officially, Lena’s. Alviso Bonfigli had died in 1929, at age 38, of a perforated ulcer, and Lena, a widow with three sons, bought the Torino property, expanded into the bocce alley, put stucco on the wood frame building, added a dance floor, hired a trio, and opened for the “carriage trade” in April of 1935. Through World War II and after, Lena’s was the town’s main night spot. “When the Navy was in town,” recalls Kewpie, “there would be sailors sleeping five deep in rooms upstairs.” The Navy dive-bombers who trained on the Sebastopol Road base wrote “Lena’s Special” on their target bombs. Her “boys” wrote Mama Lena letters from overseas. After the war, the business continued. A reputation for a good meal at a good price kept the customers coming. In 1946, Lena, who had married bar owner Jack Blake in 1938, expanded again, adding a banquet room and the familiar corner entrance. Gretchen or Muriel on the piano and the trio—Johnny Tisserand, accordion, Red Plummer, Sax, and Helen Collins, the steady-she-goes drummer the clientele called “Old Automatic” (“$21 a week,” says Kewpie. “Six nights a week.”)—played for literally thousands of dancers. KSRO broadcast from Lena’s every Saturday night during the war and just after. County politicians formed an informal Friday luncheon club. Supervisors Jim Lyttle and Nin Guidotti, county officials Andy Johansen, Ernie Comalli and Bob Connor, the late Bodega Bay wheeler-dealer Ray Shaw, Santa Rosans Walt Goode and Bud Leete met at the west end of the long bar for drinks and lunch and a chance to swap “war stories.” The waitresses stayed for years—PeeWee, Della, Mary Bianchi, and more. They knew the customers by name, knew whether they wanted ravioli or spaghetti, chicken or duck. “We had no help problems,” said Kewpie. “Just do it the way Mama Lena did it and you keep the job as long as you want it.” “I can remember,” said Dan, “that wherever my mother was in the restaurant, we’d find her when people were leaving. We’d say so-and-so’s going home, and she’d drop what she was doing and head for the front door. Nobody left until Lena said goodnight. With attention like that, how could you miss?”
Click tabs to swap between content that is broken into logical sections.