On May 10, 1980, Café Roma opened its doors in San Luis Obispo’s historic Park Hotel building and became an immediate sensation and local favorite. It was the first Italian restaurant in the area, serving Northern cuisine with French flair in what was then considered the “Red Light District” by the Railroad Station. The restaurant remained on 1819 Osos Street until 1998 when it moved across the street to its current location, 1020 Railroad Avenue.
Café Roma was founded by Joseph Rizzo and his wife Maria Rosa along with their three sons Denis, Marco, and Saro. Maria was the first chef and wore the “white hat” for nearly 20 years while Joseph ran the front of the house.
Café Roma was the culmination of several successful restaurant ventures for Joseph Rizzo following a classical musical career as a world famous concert oboist where he performed under the batons of legendary musical conductors (Toscanini, Fiedler, Bernstein) and contributed to the instrumental works of Disney and Paramount Pictures. Joseph was celebrated as one of the leading oboists of the Twentieth Century.
Upon retiring from the concert stage, Joseph trained at a renowned school for epicurean restaurateurs in Stresa, Italy. He met Maria Rosa Bardinelli of Varzo, Italy at the Montreaux Palace in Zermatt, Switzerland and it was love at first sight. While Joseph was raised in Lawrence, Mass. by Sicilian parents, he was only fluent in their village’s dialect. Without English or the proper Italian language in common, the two communicated in French. Within days they were engaged to be married. Months later, Joseph returned to Varzo, Italy with just two best men and took Maria Rosa’s hand in marriage among her reluctant priest and skeptical villagers.
He plucked his bride from the last town at the Swiss border in the Italian Alps and took her to the heart of America—Hollywood, California. Her new home was in the Hollywood Hills. Oddly enough, her new neighbor had a familiar face, that of Hollywood heartthrob Steve McQueen—the “King of Cool”. She knew her life would be different from here on out.
Joseph had a long history in the restaurant business that started with critically acclaimed Los Angeles bistros, The Corsican and Robaires. It was a glamorous time during the 1960s for Rizzo’s La Brea Avenue restaurants which were popular among Hollywood celebrities like Frank Sinatra, Rod Serling, and Herb Alpert and even the last King of Italy, Umberto II. The boys have wonderful stories. Ask them about their dinner with Curly from the Three Stooges.
When the Watts Riots caused widespread unrest in Los Angeles, the family patriarch sensed the tides were changing and it was best to return Maria Rosa to her homeland to raise their three sons. They settled in a villa in Palanza, (Verbania) Italy on the Northern Lake of Lago Maggiore, geographically West of Lake Como. There, the children attended elementary school and received a proper Italian education.
After several years, Joseph put roots down in Las Vegas, partnering with Maria’s brother who he had brought to the U.S., Luciano Bardinelli, and his new restaurant venture, Via Veneto. Soon after, Joseph relocated the family to the Las Vegas Country Club.
After about six years, California was calling again and a good friend, Gerald Caylor, lured the Rizzo family to the Central Coast where dreams of old country living were rampant. Joseph recognized the Park Hotel’s latent Old World civility and restored its European charm to create Café Roma.
Soon diners and travelers alike were warmed by Maria Rosa’s rustic Italian cooking, inspired by family Piedmontese recipes combined with Lombard, Tuscan, and Roman specialties. The boys worked along their parents and took on more and more as their father suffered disabling strokes and eventually passed away in 1990.
Saro who became an attorney and Marco who completed his Masters in Business decided to take a risk and grow the family business, further purchasing a nearby lot where a dilapidated coffee shop stood. With the construction of the new Café Roma, they sparked a transformation of the neighborhood which eventually became the Historic Railroad District.
Among other improvements, they organized the commissioning of a bronze sculpture that would recognize thousands of Chinese immigrant rail workers for what was otherwise muddled credit for their contribution to the railroad. Renowned artist, Elizabeth Mac Queen, completed the larger than life Iron Road Pioneers sculpture between the old and the new Café Roma locations.
To this day, the boys carry on their father’s restaurant legacy and celebrate the best of Italian culture, wine and cuisine, offering long guilt free meals and hosting many memorable occasions. But above all, they create community, connecting their guests with one another and the fruits of many labors from local farmers, vintners, fisherman, and ranchers. To this day, Café Roma is one of the largest buyers at local farmer’s markets, where they frequently do their picking with the new Rizzo generation and buyout the day’s hauling.
Café Roma is not only a family tradition for countless guests but a local institution along with the likes of the Madonna Family’s Madonna Inn—businesses that manage to stay relevant among ever changing times. The neighborhood has become a vibrant and historic part of downtown San Luis Obispo and has since welcomed the train museum, and many other original restaurants and businesses.