Stepping into Dinucci’s Italian Dinners is like stepping back in time.
Owners of the Valley Ford landmark found a recipe for success decades ago, and they’re not messing with it.
The longtime restaurant hasn’t changed much since 1968 when Betty and Eugene Wagner packed up their family and moved from Vallejo to the Sonoma County countryside to take ownership of Dinucci’s, where family-style dining and old-time hospitality are staples.
This week the Wagner family marks 50 years as proprietors of Dinucci’s.
It’s a milestone that recognizes hard work, dedication, family unity and an appreciation for down-home comfort food — Italian style — served in generous portions in a casual dining room replete with checkerboard tablecloths, vintage photos, memorabilia and hundreds of decorative liquor decanters lining the walls.
“We’re not trendy. We’re down to earth and our food is down to earth. There’s nothing too fancy (on the menu) that you can’t pronounce, except maybe linguini,” said Jeanne Garcia, who was a teenager when her late parents bought the restaurant from Henry and Mabel Dinucci, who’d owned the place since 1939.
The two-story building was constructed in 1908 as the Depot Hotel by the Barboni family of Occidental, who welcomed train passengers back when the railroad came through the tiny town.
Steeped in history
The building has a rich history and a resident ghost believed to be the apparition of a young man reportedly stabbed to death on the premises in the 1940s.
“His spirit is not settled,” Garcia said. “He’s a great ghost. He’s not a scary one.”
The ghost is just one of many curiosities at Dinucci’s. A pair of expansive moose antlers hangs in the dining room; a coal burner from an old caboose draws attention; an ashtray collection is on display; and dozens of abalone shells are attached to the ceiling across from the long bar that was shipped around Cape Horn in one piece.
The abalone shells are not for aesthetics. Instead, Eugene Wagner used them to help acoustics. “I’m telling you,” his daughter said, “he was thrifty.”
Today she and her husband, Enrique Garcia, own and operate Dinucci’s, with help from family members. The Garcias’ 21-year-old daughter, Geena Garcia-Wagner, manages the business. Fourth-generation family member Jasmine Minadeo assists in the kitchen; at 14, she’s the youngest family member carrying on her great-grandparents’ legacy.
Secret family recipes
The food, of course, is the main attraction at Dinucci’s, and the minestrone gets top billing. With a recipe perfected by the Wagners over time, the soup is especially popular with coastal travelers who typically buy a gallon to go. Several years back, members of the Los Angeles Police Department preordered 20 gallons of takeout minestrone when they were visiting the area.
The recipe “is a family secret,” Jeanne Garcia said, “and it will be until we’re all gone.” She’ll only say Dinucci’s uses the freshest ingredients, like produce from family- owned Imwalle Gardens in Santa Rosa, a vendor for 50 years.
Dinucci’s menu includes steak, poultry, seafood and pasta prepared by Enrique Garcia, who shadowed Eugene Wagner in the kitchen.
A Bolognese sauce heavy with meat also was perfected by the Wagners and remains a staple of many dishes, like baked lasagna. The chicken cacciatore follows the recipe developed decades ago by Mabel Dinucci. Dinner entrees include soup, salad, bread and an antipasto plate, all old-school Italian.