Published: Monday, January 28, 2013 at 8:49 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 29, 2013 at 9:00 a.m.
Tony Vicini, who left his native Italy for California as a teenager, toiled at whatever work he could find and first went into business in Santa Rosa serving cherries jubilee and a touch of class to patrons of his Los Robles Lodge, died Monday at age 82.
Vicini was still a young man when he left the hospitality industry for a new career selling property and building shopping centers, theaters and other commercial developments through Rogers, Jerpbak and Vicini Realty.
In retirement, he remained busy making award-winning amateur wines and olive oil.
“He was fiercely proud of being an American,” said longtime friend and winemaking partner Sal Rosano, a former Santa Rosa police chief.
“And he was proud of the success he had,” Rosano said. “He started with nothing.”
Members of Vicini's family said they're grateful to him for passing on a conviction in the value of hard work, education and personal honor.
“For me, Tony was like a dad,” said nephew John Vicini, founder and partner in Trecini Winery of Santa Rosa.
“I learned a lot from him. He had more energy than I did. He was amazing.”
Vicini was born in 1930 in a centuries-old stone house in Jera, a village in northern Italy. Through much of his childhood he shared the house only with his mother, Marina, because his father, Giovanni, was working in Northern California and his older brother, Andrea, was in the Italian army.,
Life for young Vicini and his mother was lean, especially after Italian Prime Minister Benito Mussolini formed an axis with Nazi Germany's Adolf Hitler in 1936 and, four year later, entered World War II.
Merely surviving was so difficult, Vicini said in a 2002 interview, that he learned to catch fish in a stream with his bare hands and to develop a taste for young robins.
“We didn't ever kill the mother or the father,” Vicini said. “We took the little ones just before they took flight.”
The war hadn't been over long when Giovanni Vicini wired money from America and told his wife it was time for her and his sons to join him. He was working then in the mill town of McCloud, on the flank of Mount Shasta.
Vicini's older brother chose to stay in Italy. Andrea Vicini later became president of the Italian arm of Columbia Pictures.
Tony Vicini was 17 when he and his mother sailed to America. At first he hated California. With his northern Italian dialect, he was unable to understand Americans but also most fellow Italian immigrants.
He left McCloud in 1948 and took a bus to San Francisco. He rented a room in a North Beach boarding house and found work as a cook at the B&G Coffee Shop on Powell Street.
“He would go to the movies in the afternoon to learn to speak English,” son Mark Vicini said.
Vicini father also enrolled in night classes at Galileo High.
From the coffee shop, Vicini moved up to a job as a busboy at the Mark Hopkins Hotel. Supervisors impressed with his work ethic and commitment to good service promoted him to waiter, then to maître d.
To make a bit more money and to serve his new country, young Vicini joined the National Guard. The Korean War led to his unit being called up in 1951 but he hadn't yet left the United States when the fighting ended in 1953.
He returned to the Bay Area and found work with the W.P. Fuller Paint Co. It was there he met Lorraine Vina. They married in 1958.
Vicini went back into the hospitality trade at the then-new Hilton Hotel adjacent to San Francisco International Airport. He became the banquets manager and got to know German-born co-worker Claus Neumann.
Always alert for an opportunity to move up, Vicini was interested when he learned that Nate McCoy was looking for a partner to operate the dining operation at a hotel being built alongside Coddingtown in Santa Rosa.
Vicini and his partner, Neumann, opened a restaurant at the new Los Robles Lodge in 1962.
The Press Democrat's Gaye LeBaron recalled in a 1994 column, “Overnight it seemed the restaurant alongside the highway, next to the shopping center parking lot, had become the center of the town's social universe. The lavish buffets, the ice carvings, the sit-down banquets climaxed by a parade of waiters carrying flaming baked Alaskas.”
Vicini loved running the front of the house, but after a few years moved on to Rogers, Jerpbak and Vicini Realty and the opportunities presented by the growth of Sonoma County.
Longtime friend Floyd Templeton said he always valued Vicini's initiative, loyalty and honesty.
“If you wanted to ask him a question, be prepared for the truth,” Templeton said. “He was one hell of a man, I tell you.”
In addition to his wife of 54 years and his son Mark Vicini, he is survived by his son David Vicini of Santa Rosa and four grandsons.
Visitation is from 3 to 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 31, at Daniels Chapel of the Roses. A memorial service will follow at 7 p.m.
A Funeral Mass will be celebrated at 10 a.m. Friday, Feb. 1, at St. Eugene's Cathedral. Parking will be limited, so carpooling and early arrival are advised.
Vicini's family suggests memorial contributions to the American Cancer Society, 1451 Guerneville Rd, Santa Rosa, CA 95403.