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Volpi’s in Petaluma: Beer, deer, and good times

"A FAMILY BAR" - Volpi's historic bar has been in place since 1925, back when the front of the operation was still a grocery store. PHOTO BY DAVID TEMPLETON

DAVID TEMPLETON,

On a warm Thursday night inside Volpi’s Historic Bar, a pair of visitors from Kentucky are perched at the bar, drinking Bud light, and swapping stories with bartender Tino Rivera. On the walls are an array of hunting trophies — with a yardstick available to measure the rack spread, should one be so inclined — while, overhead, dozens of dollar bills are pinned to the high ceiling, with messages, names, and doodles scrawled upon each faded green bill.

“You can tell the old ones from the new ones by how brown they are,” explains Rivera. “Some of have them been up there since before it was illegal to smoke indoors. People still want to add their own sometimes, though. We wrap the dollar bill around a heavy weight, with a pin sticking out, and throw it up there until it sticks. The weight falls down, and the dollar bill sticks up. Some are pretty ancient.”

It’s just such traditions that keep people coming to Volpi’s, and other local watering holes like it, and which lead residents to tell visitors from Kentucky and beyond that it’s a place they have to check out at least once while passing through town. The 92-year-old pre-Prohibition bar, bedecked with decades of photos, accordion memorabilia, and all those deer and elk heads, has become a certified Petaluma landmark - a compact, no-nonsense, comfortably cluttered, plain-beer-and-hard-drink haven, tucked away in the hindmost quarters of Volpi’s Ristorante on Washington Street.

It’s the kind of place some might once have called a “neighborhood bar” or a “family bar,” while some could certainly employ the once-pejorative phrase “dive bar.”

Originally meaning a descent into darkness, Dive Bar is a term that used to be tinged with danger and illicit immorality, but has since lost the air of seedy despair, and has now come to be synonymous with history, authenticity, and a certain kind of old-school charm.

“People love going to dive bars,” says Rivera. “I love going to dive bars. If I’m in a new town, I’ll ask, ‘Where’s a good dive bar?’ They’re fun. They’re real. A lot of them, like this one, are full of history. Here in town, I’ll go to Gales, on Petaluma Boulevard, ‘cause my buddy owns it and it’s fun - and that’s definitely a good, historic Petaluma dive bar. But I hang out here a lot, too, ‘cause I work here, and I’ve known the family my whole life.”

Rivera, born-and-raised in Petaluma, drives a truck by day — he drove out to Colusa County and back earlier today — but still spends a night or two every week making drinks behind the bar, where he’s worked Saturday nights, and the occasional fill-in, for nearly fourteen years.

“I’ve known this family since I was a kid. I’ve known the Volpi’s since I was eight years old,” he says. “My dad and the owner, John Volpi, taught boxing in town when we were kids. In the old days, ranchers used to come into town, do what they had to do, and stop in here for a drink before heading back home. But most of them are gone now. We do still have a few the old-timer’s kids, and grand-kids, and even some of their great-grandkids, coming in here.”

Before the front of the house was a restaurant, it was an Italian market. As such, it was one of several market-bar operations in town, a vanishing breed now mainly represented by Ray’s Delicatessen and Tavern, on Western Avenue since 1947.

“I remember sitting back here on the bench, drinking orange juice while my dad and John Volpi talked about boxing, and maybe had a beer,” Rivera recalls, then pointing to the famous back door — leading to a back alley, about four-and-a-half feet up off the floor — which patrons used during prohibition to make a quick escape whenever a vice raid took place. “People’d have to climb up onto the bar to get out through the door,” he says. “There really is a lot of history in this place. That’s a big part of what makes it such a great place to hang out and have a friendly conversation. Bars like this are small and simple, so the focus is on the people you meet, and the good times you have.”

Simplicity.

That seems to be one of the hallmark of such historic “dive bars,” where many still observe a cash-only policy, few have their own websites, craft beers are rarely served in deference to brands like Budweiser and Coors, and where even “top shelf” cocktails are served at affordable prices. For example, a Grey Goose vodka martini at Volpi’s runs $7 a pop, whereas fancier, “classier” locations in town might charge nearly twice as much.

“Hey Tino, is John coming in tonight?” calls out a young woman, stepping into the bar just long enough to ask the question, get her answer – yes, John will be in at 7 — and leave. “Good,” she says. “I’m in the mood for some accordion.”

Most nights, owner John Volpi — whose sister and co-owner, Sylvia Volpi, passed away earlier this week — takes a stool in the bar and plays tunes on his old Excelsior accordion. Sure enough, just after seven, John Volpi appears, and begins unpacking the accordion, setting up a notebook full of old accordion tunes on a music stand in a corner of the room.

“My dad was an accordion player,” Volpi acknowledges, “and he taught a lot of people to play, but not me. I grew up playing the piano, and I still do. I came to the accordion on my own.”

In reference to the bar’s long history and landmark status in town, Volpi says that despite that, many folks have no idea there’s a full bar in the back of the restaurant, even people who’ve patronized the place for spaghetti and meatballs for years.

“A lot of people here in town don’t realize this little bar is here,” says Volpi, tuning up the accordion, preparing to play his fist song of the night. “But we do have our regulars,” he adds, “and people find us by accident, sometimes, like when they come for dinner and then follow the sound of the accordion back to the bar.”

With that introduction, Volpi plays the first two or three tunes of the evening. After stopping a moment to flip through the book of music, Volpi nods at the three newcomers who’ve just poked their heads in to bar, taking in the decor, the trophies, and Volpi himself, with wide eyes.

“One way or another, it can get a little hectic in here from time to time,” he says, “because it’s not a very big place. And younger people are beginning to discover it, we always have new people. That’s good, but we aren’t going let that change us. This bar is what it is, it’s pretty good just like this.”