A golden anniversary for Dinucci’s of Valley Ford

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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.

Several tables are designated for regulars, with carved wooden signs hanging at select locations: “The Spaletta Table,” “Bill’s Table,” “Blaine and Christine” and “VIP.”

Celebrities from athletes to movie stars have discovered Dinucci’s, with Joe Montana, George Seifert, John Travolta and Clint Eastwood among them.

Actress Tippi Hedren, known for her role in Alfred Hitchcock’s Bodega Bay-based film “The Birds,” has been there, too.

When artists Christo and his wife, Jeanne-Claude, erected the Running Fence along stretches of coastal Sonoma and Marin counties in 1976, they’d dine at Dinucci’s.

“He’d come here and have lunch and the place would fill up,” said Don Wagner, the youngest of Betty and Eugene Wagner’s four children.

He said the real credit goes to local residents who supported his parents as they got started in the restaurant business, relying on word of mouth to bring in patrons.

His father, who’d had a career as a heavy construction equipment mechanic before buying Dinucci’s, insisted all 110  seats in the dining room would fill up once people had a taste of what was on the menu.

“In the slow times, the locals kept us alive,” Wagner said.

“There were rough times in the beginning.” Some patrons even placed bets the family wouldn’t succeed, he said.

Wagner recalls a time during his youth “that was before 911 and I was taught to call the sheriff if the Hell’s Angels showed up.”

Laidback atmosphere

Things today “are mellow,” said his brother-in-law, Enrique Garcia. Bar patrons and diners are mostly local farmers and ranchers, or travelers heading to and from the nearby coast.

Wagner, along with his sister, Jeanne Garcia, and their siblings, Joe Wagner and Dolores Hanson, at various times helped their parents in the family business, as have extended family.

In the early days, Jeanne Garcia said, “You could throw a bowling ball through the place and not hit anyone.”

Eventually, the restaurant began to thrive. Geena Garcia-Wagner is hopeful the nostalgic destination will continue to draw diners for generations to come.

“I just appreciate the history here and would like to carry that on forever,” she said. “The locals appreciate it almost as much as we do.”

The odds aren’t always favorable in the restaurant industry, the family said, and challenges can be compounded working with family members.

“That’s hard to do,” Enrique Garcia said, proud to share in 50 years of the Wagner family’s success.

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