By LANCE ARMSTRONG
When it comes to Sacramento history, few places in the city have such a rich heritage as the Español Restaurant.
Although such an impression is undoubtedly correct, the historic building and sign represent only a part of this restaurant’s rich past.
With a few steps inside this old building at 5723 Folsom Blvd., which was built in 1946 as the new home of the Square Deal Café, one can observe a business that is swarming with history.
Immediately inside the front doors of the place, black and white photographs of days of old begin to tell the story of a business that began long before it opened at its current site in 1965.
Hanging on the walls of the lobby area, which is an addition to the original structure, are photographs of the business’s previous site at 231 I St., as well as other images such as photographs of members of the Luigi family. The business is currently owned by Perry Luigi, Paula (Luigi) Serrano and Karen (Luigi) Zito, whose father Frank “Babe” Luigi and uncle Mario Luigi previously owned the business.
The longtime tradition of the restaurant, however, began long before Babe and Mario purchased the business in 1959.
The restaurant, in fact, was established in an even earlier location than the 2nd and I streets site, near today’s historic Southern Pacific train depot.
Español of yesteryear
During the 19th century, the city was home to many hotels such as the Pacific Hotel at 916-918 11th St., the International Hotel at 320-326 K St. and the Tremont Hotel at 112-114 J St.
At the site of the Tremont Hotel, a new hotel, known as Hotel Español, emerged as early as 1919.
It was at this hotel, which in its early years was owned by Victoriano Urrutia and then Castro Arrate and Mamerto Fernandez, that the Español Restaurant began to evolve.
On the ground floor of the large, brick building, food such as oxtail stew, pig knuckles, lamb fries, lamb chops, tripe, chicken and veal were prepared and cooked for the Basque tenants.
News of these meals eventually made its way to many outsiders of the building, as others were introduced to the boarders’ food and the eatery increased in popularity.
During the early 1930s, the well-known Sacramentan Ancil Hoffman, who has a park named in his honor in Carmichael, became the owner of the building.
With the 1952 sale of the Hotel Español building, the Español Restaurant was relocated to the Commercial Hotel, which had been constructed about 15 years earlier.
This move was arranged following Arrate’s retirement and under the direction of the restaurant’s chef Joe Trueba and his close friend, Joe Martinez.
The restaurant, which continued to increase in popularity and serve Basque tenants who relocated to the Commercial Hotel, was operated by Trueba and Martinez until the business’s sale to Babe and Mario Luigi, who brought in the eatery’s Italian food offerings.
The development of Old Sacramento, which included the nearby extension of Interstate 5, resulted in the second relocation of the restaurant within a 13-year span of time.
Moving to East Sac
Opening at its current site in 1965, the Español Restaurant, despite no longer serving unique food to Basque hotel tenants, carried forth many of its traditions in East Sacramento, near the historic Little Italy neighborhood.
Beginning her career with the Español in 1936, Trabazo retired from the restaurant 52 years later.
Waitress Leah Alcanter also dedicated her fair share of time as an Español waitress, as she worked at the restaurant for 35 years.
Many other employees, including 26-year waitress Diane Lara and 25-year dishwasher David Larsen, have spent many years at the restaurant throughout its history.
This history includes various famous diners such as actress Ann Sothern, actor Leo Carrillo, singer Frankie Laine, boxer Max Baer, flamenco dancer Jose Greco, Gov. Earl Warren and Secretary of State Frank Jordan, Sr.
East Sacramento native Willie DaPrato, who was part owner of the restaurant with Babe and Mario from 1978 to 1985, said that he enjoyed working with the Luigi family.
“I had a great time and (Babe and Mario) were two wonderful people,” DaPrato said. “I had no problems. I went in on a handshake and I left on a handshake. Every now and again, I still drop into the restaurant. It’s one of the finest family-owned restaurants in town with lots of home-style cooked food and it’s just very good.”
On Jan 1, 1988, Perry, Paula and Karen, who began assisting their father at the restaurant as children, purchased the Español from Babe, who passed away three months later.
Louise Luigi said that she is proud of her children’s accomplishments as owners of the restaurant.
“They have done a wonderful job running the place and my husband (Babe) would be very proud to see that it is continuing on today,” Louise said.
With a look around the Español on any given day, one can observe people who have been dining at the restaurant for many years, as well as those who are much newer guests of the establishment, which also includes a popular bar.
Español customer Mary Giacomotto said that she has been enjoying visiting the restaurant since it was located at 231 I St.
Perry said that the secret of the restaurant’s longtime success is its traditional, family-style Italian dishes, as well as its great value and fine service.
The Español offers dishes ranging from veal cutlets and chicken cacciatore with polenta to cheese ravioli pesto and lasagna. Guests can also enjoy traditional spaghetti and raviolis with meat sauce.
Also among the restaurant’s many menu items is its famous minestrone soup, Perry explained.
“People come from miles around to buy our minestrone soup-to-go for their dinners and family functions such as Christmas Eve,” Perry said. “I think I sell more soup than any restaurant in Sacramento.”
Complete lunches and dinners include tureen of minestrone soup, salad, an entrée of one’s choice, pasta, vegetables, coffee or iced tea and spumoni.
Prices for these lunches range from $9 to $11 and the dinner prices range from $15 to $20. And for those who prefer a lighter meal, soups and salads cost about $5.
The restaurant also includes the following daily specials: roast turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy on Tuesdays, veal stew on Wednesdays, corned beef and cabbage on Thursdays and meatloaf on Fridays.
Paula said that people are attracted to the restaurant, in general, because it reminds them of the traditional, family-style restaurants of New York, Chicago and San Francisco.
“It reminds them of the Godfather-type restaurants,” Perry added with a chuckle.
Español Restaurant, which has a seating capacity of 160, is open Tuesdays through Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. and on Sundays from 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Perry said that he takes great pride in carrying forth the tradition of what he refers to as “the Italian restaurant with a Spanish name.”
“We’re proud of our long history in East Sacramento, as well as the Old Sacramento area, and we invite people to take a step back in time and drive to East Sacramento to enjoy Sacramento’s oldest restaurant,” Perry said. “Come on in, join us and experience traditional, family-style cooking and be part of the Español family.”
For additional information about Español Restaurant, call (916) 457-1936.
E-mail Lance with firstname.lastname@example.org.