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Lucille Gonnella, of Occidental’s Union Hotel family, dies at 90

In the final months of her life, Lucille Gonnella, who died Thursday at the age of 90, cherished the familiar bedroom view from her home in Occidental — a redwood ridge to the west, often bathed in sunlight and shade. It was a beautiful scene that daily reminded her of the community that had been her Shangri-La since childhood.

From that same window, the beloved longtime proprietress of the nearby Union Hotel restaurant in Occidental, also watched her son Frank Gonnella build in November a 24-section outdoor dining area for the restaurant. It was a lifeline that would keep the business operating through the coronavirus pandemic and beyond.

“She was so proud that the project was complete. Guests were excited to see her, knowing that the heartbeat of the Union would carry on,” said Barbara Gonnella, Frank Gonnella’s wife.

Lucille Gonnella was a fixture at the Union Hotel, where she welcomed guests for decades after she inherited the business from her parents, Mary and Carlo Panizzera, after they died in the 1970s.

Gonnella’s health had been failing in recent years.

Gonnella, an only child, literally grew up in the Union Hotel. Her bedroom was “Room 5” on the second floor, where she spent a great deal of time with her grandmother Carmelinda Alberigi while her mother spent tireless hours downstairs cooking venison, cioppiono and ravioli.

Lucille was born in 1930, a year after her parents were married. Her father had immigrated to California’s San Fernando Valley from the Lake Como area of Northern Italy, Barbara Gonnella said. Panizzera left the hot valley climate and came north to Sonoma County’s more “Mediterranean” climate.

In the 1920s, he purchased the Union Hotel, a boardinghouse for railroad crews, their wives and families. One day, Mary Alberigi, a hotel employee, fell down the hotel stairs while carrying laundry and broke her arm. Panizzera took her to the hospital and the two fell in love thereafter, Gonnella said.

When the railroad stopped going through Occidental, the business became solely a restaurant in the late 1930s, and has been operating as such since then. Lucille’s heart and soul were inextricably linked not only to the family-run restaurant, but to the local community.

Her family described Gonnella as steadfast and methodical, the kind of person who finished every project she started. But they said she also had an elegance and grace that shone through her work.

“She loved hosting dinner parties, she created exquisite, bountiful tables to be shared with friends and family,” Barbara Gonnella said.

Taking over the family business was always expected of Lucille Gonnella, and she happily embraced that duty. But she was also a scholar, her family said.

Lucille graduated from Tomales High School in Marin County, received her associate degree and nearly completed a degree in music at Sonoma State.

She married her husband Dan “Mahoney” Gonnella in 1949 at St. Philip the Apostle Church in Occidental, and the two had five children. Dan died in 1992.

She loved playing the piano, and she often filled the restaurant with the romantic and plaintive melodies of Puccini’s operas.

“She was accepted to Stanford, but she declined,” said Gonnella. “She stayed home to help her parents run the Union Hotel.”

But she never gave up learning and remained a global “academic,” traveling to Europe and other parts of the world when the business would slow down after the holidays. But she always returned to Occidental, her “Shangi-La,” Gonnella said.

“She was a deep thinker,” said Frank Gonnella. “She was very independent, a hard worker, methodical but gracious. Somebody described her as having a silk glove with an iron fist.”

NIck Gravenites, a well known blues and folk singer who lives in Occidental, remembers Lucille as a “great person” with a loving family who took good care of her. Gavenites said he played at the restaurant every New Year’s Eve.

“When I heard she died, it broke my heart,” Gravenites said.

Aside from Frank and Barbara Gonnella, Lucille Gonnella is survived by her oldest son, Michael Gonnella, and his wife, Marie; daughter Mary Theresa Gonnella; son Dan Gonnella and his wife, Julane. Another son, Mark Gonnella, died in 2007. She is survived by 11 grandchildren and 18 great grandchildren and three great, great grandchildren.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @pressreno.

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