Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Chef Angelo Zanetta

If a Time Machine is ever built, I'm going back to Angelo Zanetta's Plaza Hotel in San Juan Bautista.   It is 1859 and I will arrive by stagecoach wearing this gorgeous blue suit.  In my carpet bag I will have an evening dress made out of black velvet because I intend to dine in Zanetta's famous restaurant.  I have heard fellow travelers praise his Chicken Tetrazzini and Zuppa di Aglio alla Napolitana.  These are foreign dishes.  Exotic.  Wonderful.  My mouth is watering as I type the names out.
After dinner my husband will retire to the card room for a few rounds of poker and a cigar.  I hope Tiburcio Vasquez, the notorious outlaw, does not show up, but I banish that thought from my mind.  I am here on a holiday.   And I intend to enjoy every minute of it.

 I retire to the ladies parlor upstairs and the ever gracious host sends up a bottle of sherry and cannoli.  Who knows?  Maybe my fellow travelers are not as refined as the men downstairs think they are!  I pull out a deck of cards.  "Anyone interested?" I ask.
When Angelo Zanetta arrived in 1856, the building housed guards for the local mission.  He set up a bar in the barracks and made $3,000 in the first twenty-four hours!  Two years later he added a second floor to the building and the Plaza Hotel was in business.  His reputation soared.  Not only was he a distinguished chef, introducing French and Italian cuisine to the California Territory, but he was a very smart business man.  During San Juan Bautista's heyday, eleven stagecoaches arrived daily.  Most of the traffic came from San Francisco and Los Angeles, but the surrounding quicksilver mines and the cattle and sheep ranches also brought men in from all over the United States.
Zanetta acquired another building on the plaza of San Juan Bautista in 1868.  The Plaza Hall was originally a dormitory for unmarried Native American women.  Everyone thought the town would keep on booming, but the county seat moved to Hollister as did the railroad.  Zanetta moved his family into the building where he set up a beautiful home (now a museum with period pieces).   The second story became a meeting place for city officials.  When people commented that the floor "had a good spring" the hall was used for dances and various celebrations.  These were happy times but short-lived.

The stagecoaches that had brought hundreds of travelers to his hotel were now being replaced by railroad cars.  Who wouldn't rather ride in a faster, smoother, dust-free environment?  One by one, the seven stage coach lines gradually stopped operating.  The hotel, the saloon, the restaurant and surrounding businesses were abandoned and San Juan Bautista came perilously close to becoming a ghost town.

Angelo Zanetta introduced European cuisine to California.  Italian immigrants continued to pour into the state and many of them moved into the larger metropolitan area of San Francisco.  It's a comfort knowing I can still get a good chicken Tetrazzini  in North Beach if my dream of a Time Machine never comes to pass.

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