By 2002, David and Kitty Peri, and Jim and Dede Nonn, were some of the last stalwarts at Arnoldi’s Café, 600 Olive St. They went down Friday nights, hoping for the best.
On one particular Friday night in October, Jim and Dede couldn’t go and Kitty didn’t want to.
“It was always so empty,” she said.
But David and his family, and his parents’ family, and his grandparents’ families, had eaten at Arnoldi’s since it opened.
“We were from the same region of Italy as the Arnoldis,” David explained. “My grandmother and Ilda were cousins. They came across on the same boat.”
Ilda Calvi who crossed the ocean in 1922 was soon to be Ilda Arnoldi.
That Friday evening, no one else was in the restaurant except for owner Jim Kershaw and his cook. The Peris ordered wine. Kitty ordered the spaghetti Bolognese and David ordered a steak.
“They could cook a good steak,” he said.
As they sat in the nearly empty restaurant, it felt as if a vibrant thread of their history was reaching an end.
“We came home that night and called Dede and Jim,” David said.
The Nonns were just as concerned. The four quickly gathered a small group of deeply interested investors, and a couple months later, they bought the restaurant.
Today, 10 years further on, Arnoldi’s represents Old Santa Barbara so authentically, that passing through the front door literally takes you back. You don’t have to have lived in Santa Barbara your whole life, or be a fifth-generation Santa Barbaran, to slip into that earlier time.
Between the Wars
The Arnoldi brothers, Primo and Joe, arrived in the United States along with millions of other Italians in the post-World War I European diaspora of the early 1920s. Joe had served in the Italian army during WWI, but had spent most of the war in a POW camp. After the war, Joe returned to his family home in Sueglio on the shores of Lake Como. He was a son of a son of a son of stonecutters and masons. They built walls and stairways, buildings and roadways, all of stone — mostly just across the border in Switzerland for estates and manors. The region remains a place rich in stone and history.
Joe met his future wife, Ilda, in a Sueglio dance hall in 1918 when he was 21 and she was 15. But the post-war economy did not offer enough work for the stonecutters of Sueglio. In 1921, Joe and Primo traveled to California’s San Joaquin Valley while Ilda remained in Vestreno, Italy, working in an umbrella factory. In California, the brothers built houses, worked on the railroad and on farms, and hoped to forge an American dream.
“I did feel kind of alone,” Joe recalled in a Santa Barbara News-Press interview from 1983. “On the farm, all you could see was farm.”
In 1922, the brothers joined Ilda’s father, Gotardo Calvi, in Santa Barbara, where Calvi was working as a filmmaker. Later that year, Joe borrowed money from his future father-in-law and brought Ilda to the United States. On Oct. 21, 1922, the couple married among family and friends in Santa Barbara. They moved into a home at 301 E. Montecito St. Brother Primo and his wife, Lena, lived two blocks away at 310 E. Haley St.
Joe and Ilda moved the next year to Refugio Canyon to live in the quarry quarters and manage the cutting work on the big folds of Coldwater Sandstone. Many of the stones from that period of excavation were sent to build El Paseo in downtown Santa Barbara. In 1924, Joe and Ilda returned to town, where Joe was one of the many Italian stonemasons who helped etch Santa Barbara’s identity with the lustrous golden sandstones in walls and buildings throughout the city and foothills.
Much of the stonework that Arnoldi and others of his time completed still stands. Each structure was a work of art.
“Old Dad did a thing on East Valley Road behind Summerland,” Joe’s son, Ugo, recalled. “It was mortarless, and you couldn’t even fit a paper between the joints. They laid three stones a day, which shows you how meticulous it was and how slowly it went.”
In 1925, after the Santa Barbara earthquake, Joe Arnoldi was one of the masons who helped rebuild the Santa Barbara Mission. But over the next 10 years, he went from mason to laborer as his fortunes fell with those of the nation.
It is often said that the tides of the Great Depression did not rise as high in Santa Barbara where great wealth was accumulated. It was true; construction work did continue on buildings such as the Clark Estate and public works money eventually funded the erection of stone walls and bridges. Joe Arnoldi managed to remain employed, but often at lesser jobs and lower pay, and with gaps between. The family moved almost yearly, bouncing from one small rental to another, sometimes living with other families. And now they were three, their son, Ugo, having been born in 1925.
By 1936, there was finally a high reedy fluting of hope in the air. The New Deal had flushed work and money into an arid economy. As a result, the Great Depression was finally showing signs of loosening its grip. Prohibition had passed away in 1933. It was once again a time for wine and song, dinner and dancing. After nearly a decade of eating in, or sometimes barely eating at all for some, the number of restaurants in Santa Barbara doubled in a span of two years to nearly 100 establishments.
Hungry for More
The “Jos Arnoldi” restaurant opened in 1937 at 421 E. Cota St. Only two the nearly 100 restaurants listed in little Santa Barbara that year remain: Joe’s Café (1928) and Arnoldi’s. Early on, it was Ilda’s cooking and Joe’s infectious energy and goodwill that made the difference. Ugo Arnoldi, just 12 when the restaurant opened, waited tables and bused and washed dishes. The effort made enough of a difference that three years after opening, Joe could purchase a lot a half-block away at 600 Olive St. at the corner of Cota. It was here he used his construction and masonry skills to erect a sandstone building for a restaurant.
It was a time of great hope in the country. The Great Depression seemed a thing of the past. The new restaurant opened in May 1940 and had a bar and a dance floor, and opened out into an outdoor patio and bocce court that linked the restaurant to the Arnoldis’ new home at 509 E. Cota St. For there was no separation between the Arnoldis’ lives and livelihood. This was generally true of the times. The phone directories provided names, places of residence and work, and employment. People did not disseminate, obfuscate or dodge. They were themselves. No apologies.
Just one month after the new Arnoldi’s opened, Italy joined the great new war overseas. Ugo was 15 years old. Three years later, six months before graduating from Santa Barbara High School, Ugo was drafted for active duty with the Army. He was transferred to Gen. George S. Patton’s Desert Training Center, which had been in operation since April 1942 outside Blythe. Ugo would go on to serve in Patton’s North African campaign in the Third Army, 2nd Cavalry Division.
Following the war, Ugo returned and lived once again in the family home. He bartended and helped run the restaurant. The restaurant through these years hosted a steady flow of regulars.
Joe continued to run the restaurant and work as a contractor, running his own jobs and hiring his own crews. In 1954, he and his crew were selected to build the stone entry gate to Lake Cachuma, the water source that would help create Goleta over the next few decades. Then in 1955, his company, with Joe as lead mason, built the beautiful St. Sebastian Catholic Church in Santa Paula.
A long-time hunter, Joe shot a large elk during a hunting trip to Wyoming in 1958. He called the buck “Bucky,” and had the head mounted and hung above the bar.
In 1969, when Joe was 72 and Ilda 69, the couple retired from the restaurant. Ugo was married and working as a mason. He did not want the added work of running the restaurant. The Arnoldis sold to long-time customers Helen and Jim Romp.
The Romps operated the restaurant for 27 years, keeping Arnoldi’s on the map with signature Italian food, wines and service. They wished to retain the Old World ties. One step they took remains. The couple hired Mary Kapanek in 1973 to paint the mural of the Lago di Como region in the back dining room. Gino Morosin, a regular at the restaurant since 1949, and who still graces the bar today, recalls watching her paint the mural.
Throughout the Romp years, the bocce court continued to attract a devoted league of players.
In 1986, Guiseppe “Joe” Arnoldi passed away and was interred at Calvary Cemetery in Santa Barbara.
In 1994, another milestone passed when Mom’s Italian Village closed. That restaurant, located at 421 E. Cota St., was in direct lineage from Arnoldi’s first restaurant at the same address. Frank Signor and his wife, who shared in running Arnoldi’s in 1939, took over the site in 1940 and renamed it Mom’s Italian Village.
“Frank and Joe were close,” Morosin recalled. “Frank came over every week to play bocce.”
Mom’s remained a local favorite for 54 years, but did not survive after the passing of the Signors.
The site then functioned as Santa Barbara’s oldest and best consignment store, Cominichi’s, for a time, and then was torn down in 2009 to make way for new offices for Transition House, Santa Barbara’s only shelter for homeless families and children.
When the Romps sold Arnoldi’s Restaurant in 1996, it was to an Arnoldi’s bartender of nine years, Jim Kershaw, and his wife, Helen Daniels. Kershaw and Daniels, who had waitressed at the restaurant, had watched the restaurant sink into a decline. The late 1980s and early ‘90s in Santa Barbara was a period when restaurants and their customers gathered tightly around State Street and spread along Cabrillo Boulevard. Arnoldi’s found itself off the beaten track.
Kershaw and Daniels believed they could resurrect the place, modernize a bit. But the marriage ended, Jim’s focus shifted, and the restaurant struggled. Even the bocce leagues had dispersed.
When the Peris. the Nonns and their partners took over the restaurant in 2002, none of them were restaurateurs. David is a CPA, Kitty was a nurse at the now defunct Mission infirmary. Dede ran a preschool, Jim is CFO for PEMKO hardware.
“We ate out a lot,” David said, “and we’d been eating at Arnoldi’s our entire lives.”
They purchased the restaurant in December 2002 and immediately closed it for renovations. They projected they would reopen by Feb. 1, 2003, but they missed the date.
“Then it was Valentine’s Day,” Dede recalled.
That date came and went also.
The renovations were not just cleaning and repairing, and replacing where needed.
“We called ourselves The Preservationists,” David said.
The group conferred with the Arnoldi family. Gathering old photographs, they set out to reproduce the space as it was while the Arnoldis operated it.
“We could have bought new barstools, but we restored the original ones,” he said. “We tore up the flooring. We tore out the kitchen.”
Ugo, thrilled to have the restaurant back in the Lago di Como family, brought Bucky back.
Through the renovations, the development of a menu, the stocking of the restaurant, and the hiring of a staff, the team relied heavily on Amedeo Grieco, the former owner of La Campianna, and later on a chef at Trattoria Vittoria.
“We could not have done it without him,” Dede said. David recalled, “We all thought we were going to work in the restaurant. Jim was going to bartend, Kitty and Dede in the kitchen ...”
They held three or four practice dinners with friends and family. And then, on March 3, 2003, they opened. The dinner menu included their signature Calamari Fritti, Trenette al Pesto and Gnocchi Tre Versioni. It also featured the famous Bistecca Arnoldi’s, salmon and sea bass, and Pollo Alla Griglia.
The success Arnoldi’s has experienced since reopening, being run by two finance experts, a nurse and a preschool teacher, is surprising. But neither David nor Jim revert to finance when they talk about the business.
“We all eat here,” Jim said. “People like to see the owners eating at their own restaurant. We have our birthdays here, our retirement parties. We’re here at Christmas.”
They know half the people in the place at any given time.
The staff, some of whom have been with the new owners since the re-opening in 2003, are focused and passionate about the place. Jim points out that as owners they do not separate themselves from the restaurant or the staff.
“When we eat here,” he said, “we buy our meals. We pay for our dinners and our drinks and our parties.”
Of the original seven Preservationists, five remain in the ownership team. The Peris and Nonns are the primary owners and operators. Carol Smagala also holds a stake in the restaurant.
“When we started,” Dede said, “we were our own best customers.”
Now the owners have to compete for best customer rights with hundreds of other Santa Barbarans who are regulars.
Soon after the re-opening, Arnoldi’s began offering lunches, and much later, during 2010, they added weekend breakfasts. Two key elements that have enriched the business have been the resurrected bocce leagues — there are now three weekly leagues with a 10-month season — and the event bookings done by Sara Peri, Kitty and David’s daughter.
» Click here for more information on Arnoldi’s Café, or call 805.962.5394.
» Click here for a related Noozhawk article on Arnoldi’s Café‘s bocce ball leagues.
— Noozhawk contributing writer David Petry is a local historian, photographer and author of The Best Last Place: A History of Santa Barbara Cemetery. Click here to read his blog, Authentic Santa Barbara, which focuses on aspects of Santa Barbara history that are disappearing. Follow him on Twitter: @david_petry.