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Volpi's: A story of speakeasies, squeezeboxes and family

John Volpi is known for playing the accordion for customers at Volpi's Ristorante & Bar.

SCOTT MANCHESTER/ ARGUS-COURIER STAFF
Published: Tuesday, September 3, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, September 2, 2013 at 9:16 a.m.

Volpi's, much like Petaluma itself, has always been about family and community. Generations of Petalumans and visitors have pushed open the worn, wooden screen doors of the Washington Street business and received a friendly welcome since 1925, when Silvio Volpi and his mother Giovanina acquired the original space, a grocery store with a small tavern in the rear of the building.

On a recent evening, an enthusiastic group of friends made their way through what is now a restaurant to that same small tavern which still bears the unofficial moniker of the “Speakeasy,” a holdover from the days of Prohibition.

Kathy Maffia was celebrating her birthday in one of her favorite places, and, as husband Romeo Maffia explained, “It's 36 the second time around.”

She was toasted with a clink of cocktails and by the time their table was ready, Kathy — not the shy type — had met all the other customers and discovered that one was a possible distant relative. It's an oft-repeated scenario, with different characters and connections, at Volpi's.

Silvio Volpi was also an outgoing person who made friends easily. In addition to the family business, he was an accomplished musician who played accordion and taught many locals over the years. In 1934 Silvio married Mary Oberto, a former Egg Day Queen, and eventually the family was able to purchase the building, which also housed an adjacent soda fountain called Eliot's.

John Volpi, son of Silvio and Mary, is the present owner along with his wife Mary Lee. He remembers his first tasks as a young boy at the store, dusting shelves and stocking merchandise. “Things were good into the '50s, then big chain supermarkets came in,” he recalls. “That was the end of the era of independent grocery stores.”

The Volpis converted the store into a successful deli and the tavern remained as it had for decades, a gathering spot for friends, replete with stuffed animal heads on the walls, a fluttering forest of yellowed dollar bills stuck to the ceiling and an indestructible dark wood bar.

The musical gene was passed on to John and his sister Sylvia. “I started out on the piano, taking lessons and performing many recitals with Sylvia,” said John. “Then I more or less taught myself accordion and took some lessons.”

John was instrumental in forming the Accordion Club of the Redwoods (ACR), a social club that welcomes all genres of accordion players. The group met at Volpi's until it got so large it outgrew the space. “We have 200 members now,” he said, “so we moved it to Hermann Sons Hall.”

In 1956 Silvio set out to fulfill a dream and bought a dairy farm. Sadly, he died that same year and John stepped in to run the ranch. “Overnight, I became a full-time dairyman at age 19,” he said. Assuming the reins of the dairy farm, John still kept a hand in running the deli and bar. Mary Lee, Sylvia, and his mother, Mary, presided over the business.

As John and Mary Lee had children, each one became part of the establishment, greeting customers and serving hearty Italian food with a smile.

In 1992, the Volpi family took over the area occupied by Eliot's and combined the building into a restaurant. Not much has changed since then, and that suits the Volpis and their customers just fine. The authenticity and lack of pretension even attracts young concertgoers that are heading for a performance at the Phoenix Theater, just across the street. John Volpi encourages these newcomers to participate. “They show respect for the music,” said Volpi. “Sometimes they're having so much fun they don't even go to the concert!”

About 15 years ago, John left the dairy industry, leasing the farm to highly respected cheese purveyor, Soyoung Scanlan, whose products end up at venues like the iconic French Laundry. Scanlan keeps approximately 1,000 goats on the ranch and has her cheese-making facility there.

So, are John and Mary Lee now retired and taking cruises around the world? “We get four or five days off a year,” says John Volpi. “We're a hard-working family.”

If you stop in, you'll no doubt find him with his favorite black Excelsior accordion, crooning along to classic Italian tunes.

(Contact Dyann Espinosa at argus@arguscourier.com.)

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