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In San Jose, Viva L'Italia

Carolyn Jung | September 19, 2017 | Story

The historic, barrel-tiled building on West St. John Street is a cornerstone of San Jose’s Little Italy. When built in 1925, though, the original Italian business there took pains to cloak its ethnicity as animosity toward anything Italian reached a pinnacle. Now, a new venture is settling in at the site, proudly and fiercely proclaiming its Italian roots. Enoteca La Storia opens in September to serve up Vermentino, Barbaresco, ravioli, panini and pizza—in short, a taste of authentic Italy that pays tribute to the two owners, as well as their immigrant families.

At more than three times the size, it is the big sister to the original Enoteca La Storia that opened in Los Gatos in 2010. The second outpost was a long time in coming for owners Joe Cannistraci, of Sicilian heritage, and Mike Guerra, of Calabrese heritage, who first got wind of the spot four years ago. It has been worth the wait, they say, to occupy such a meaningful location in the center of the original Italian settlement in San Jose, which at one point stretched 20 blocks but now occupies only two.

“I’m third-generation San Jose-Italian,” says Guerra. “There’s a lot of pride in that.” Indeed, Guerra’s paternal grandfather and paternal great-grandfather both owned grocery stores here, and his maternal grandparents ran Villa Pace, an Italian restaurant in Hollister, while Cannistraci’s father owned a grocery in New York. For the past 11 years, the nonprofit Little Italy Foundation has raised funds to revitalize the neighborhood. It has organized street festivals, hung banners, installed bricks in the plaza engraved with the names of historic businesses and families, and erected a “Little Italy” arch. “It used to be a scary area with dilapidated homes and drug dealers,” says Joshua DeVincenzi Melander, foundation president. “It was forgotten.”

But little by little, vibrancy has returned. What was missing, however, was an anchor restaurant for the 5,000-square-foot building that originally housed the Alameda French Bakery—operated by the Murillo family, which, like a lot of Italian-owned businesses in the 1920s, hid under French names, DeVincenzi Melander explains. He immediately thought of Enoteca La Storia, a wine bar he became familiar with as a former sales manager for a wine importer. “They were our first choice,” says DeVincenzi Melander, who helped recruit Enoteca La Storia for developer Barry Swenson. “What they provide is a whole nother level of craftsmanship and authenticity.”

That means no ham and pineapple pizzas coming out of the gas-fired oven at the San Jose restaurant; just margherita, sausage and other traditional pies with sturdy crusts. There are no sex on the beach-type cocktails either; just Italian ones like Negronis and Aperol Spritzes. The pizza oven and full-liquor license sets the sequel apart from the Los Gatos location. The former also boasts three bar areas, and a private dining room for wine tastings and classes. About 200 different wines are offered, and patrons can even buy bottles to take home. The new restaurant offers five different wine clubs, which now number 725 members. About 30 percent of the wines are Italian, most from small producers not readily available elsewhere in California.

Another distinguishing factor might not sit so well with Enoteca La Storia faithfuls: The superlative carrot cake made by Guerra’s mom, a menu staple since the Los Gatos eatery opened, won’t be offered regularly in San Jose because “I can’t do that to my mother,” Guerra says. She’s 78, he adds, and already has her hands full baking the cake, a family favorite for 40 years, for the one restaurant. But fans of Cannistraci’s famed tomatoes can soon enjoy them at both locations. For the past six years, he has grown heirlooms at his Los Gatos home. Last year, he harvested 4,000 pounds of them, which were featured on a special menu July through October in dishes such as Italian tuna-stuffed tomato and burrata salad. Cannistraci’s tomatoes are so revered that a couple of regulars have been known to pop in twice in one day for them.

Guerra and Cannistraci hope the San Jose spot evokes as much fervor. Like the Los Gatos one, it’s decorated with photos of their families. Baking paddles from the original bakery are also on display—a fitting touch for a business whose name, “storia,” translates to “history.” “It’s not just about our history, but of the Italians who came here to build the orchards and canneries,” Guerra says. “We’re trying to honor our cultural heritage. I would like to think my grandparents are looking over us, and smiling.”

Enoteca La Storia
320 W. St. John St., San Jose
Charcuterie & cheeses, $20-$30; small plates, $6-$13; salads, $7-$20; pastas, $13-$18; pizzas, $18-$40; paninis, $13-$16; desserts, $7-$12
Sun.-Mon., 11:30AM-9PM;
Tue.-Thu., 11:30AM-10PM;
Fri.-Sat., 11:30AM-11PM

Originally published in the September/October issue of Silicon Valley

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