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Espanol Italian in Sacramento closing, citing coronavirus strain

Espanol Italian Restaurant cooked up Basque-style cuisine from its original downtown location through the Great Depression and World War II, and has stood at its current spot in East Sacramento for more than half a century, with more than a decade-long stint in Old Sacramento in between.

Now, financially ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic, Sacramento’s oldest continuously operated eatery will shut down next month and it’s very unlikely to reopen its doors at 5723 Folsom Blvd., co-owner Perry Luigi told The Sacramento Bee by phone Friday morning.

“We’re just out of funds,” he said. “We’re a cold-weather, group party restaurant. I don’t see (reopening) happening this year.”

Luigi, who owns the restaurant with his sister Paula Serrano, says the lease on the aging building is up and “negotiations aren’t doing very well.” Espanol has leased its current spot, across Folsom Boulevard from Corti Bros., since 1965.

Espanol, which is offering takeout service only and does not have outdoor dining space, will last just a few more weeks in its current form. Depending on discussions with landlords and the slim possibility of an unexpected change to the statewide stay-at-home order by Gov. Gavin Newsom, Espanol will likely close by Aug. 3, and will definitely be closed no later than Aug. 17, Luigi said.

“I’m not counting me out yet,” Luigi said, adding that he might find another place sometime next year. He plans to keep the name and liquor license.

But Espanol at 58th Street and Folsom Boulevard will be done in 2020 upon the August closure, he said.

“I’m pretty sure that the location here is pretty much done unless someone out there wants to buy the restaurant to keep it going.”

Espanol Italian, then known as “The Espanol,” first opened on J Street in 1923 as a Basque boarding house with a menu “designed basically for the hearty boarders,” according to the restaurant’s website.

Original owner Castro Arrate retired, and the building at 114 J St. was sold in 1952. Chef Joe Trueba and his friend Joe Martinez partnered to move the restaurant into the Commercial Hotel in Old Sacramento, renaming it Espanol Italian.

Ownership changed hands a couple of more times, and in 1965, redevelopment of Old Sacramento due to the construction of Interstate 5 forced the move to its present location. Luigi’s family took full ownership in the middle of the 1980s, and Perry’s father, Frank, bestowed ownership to him and his sister in 1988.

“There are a lot of customers that are gonna wanna see us. We have a very loyal fan base,” Luigi said. “Most of them are groups, retired groups, all people who can’t go out (during the pandemic). So it really hit us hard.”

It’s a bittersweet moment on a personal level.

“It’ll be a little break,” said Luigi, 62, whose family took the reins in 1985 and who says he’s been working at least 70 hours a week since then. “My wife will be very happy.”

Espanol was celebrated for its longevity. In 2018, it received the Burnett Award from the Sacramento History Alliance for lasting as long as it had. The Corti Brothers market across the street is among other recipients of that award.

“It’ll be 98 years after this year, and I was really looking forward to making it 100 years,” Luigi said Friday.

With its 97 years in business, Espanol is reliably considered the oldest standing restaurant in Sacramento history. The Sacramento News and Review, in a snippet from 2007, noted that the main challengers for that title had closed in recent years. One of them burned down.

A 2019 Sacramento Bee feature on some of the city’s oldest restaurants highlighted Luigi’s dedication to the restaurant. He’d arrive at 3 a.m. to start making meatballs and layering lasagna, readying them hours ahead of lunch and dinner.

“Sometimes I think I want to compete, but we’re in our own niche and I’d rather stay there,” Luigi told The Bee in early 2019. “If we changed, we’d be just another place in the mix and not the Espanol anymore.”

In 2020, it’s not just the restaurant scene but the entire world that has changed, dealing death blows to a number of locally owned restaurants and other businesses. The COVID-19 pandemic has left more than 7,300 people dead across California, and has killed nearly 100 in Sacramento County, in a little over four months.

Newsom initially issued a sweeping stay-at-home order that instructed most non-essential businesses to close their doors in an effort to slow the rampant spread of the respiratory disease. The stay-home mandate for its first several weeks limited restaurant service to takeout and delivery service only. For scores or perhaps even hundreds of restaurants in the capital region, takeout and delivery simply could not sustain them financially.

From mid-May into early June, the governor’s office gradually allowed reopening of many business types, including restaurants’ indoor dining rooms with a number of restrictions in place.

But then, faced with another intense surge of new infections and soaring hospitalization rates, Newsom began a major reversal of that economic reopening. Indoor dining in restaurants is off-limits again across the entirety of California as of Monday, and has been shut down in hard-hit Sacramento County since the start of this month.

“It’s been a tough couple months, mentally, physically,” Luigi said. “I just don’t trust a government that can close everything down on a moment’s notice, without warning … It’s not a good time for restaurants or any business.”

This story was originally published July 17, 2020 8:58 AM.

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Michael McGough anchors The Sacramento Bee’s breaking news reporting team, covering public safety and other local stories. A Sacramento native and lifelong capital resident, he interned at The Bee while attending Sacramento State, where he earned a degree in journalism.

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