Little Joe’s

Little Joe’s was a very famous Italian restaurant in Los Angeles. And it was located just where you’d expect to find a very famous Italian restaurant: In the middle of Chinatown.

The institution started life in 1897 as the Italian-American Grocery Company at the corner of 5th and Hewitt Streets. One account says its founder-owner was Italian-born Charley Viotto.  Another credits a man named John Nuccio, also an Italian immigrant.  Around the turn of the century, the city’s Italian immigrant community relocated to the North Broadway area and the market followed in 1907, settling into the ground floor of a three-story hotel at Broadway and College.  Eventually, the market turned into a restaurant and the hotel was torn down and replaced by a building that was just a restaurant — and a very nice one.

Along the way, the name was changed. After World War I, a number of Italian-American businesses changed their names to de-emphasize Italian heritage and some theorize that this prompted the restaurant to become Little Joe’s. In 1922, John Nuccio (who if he didn’t found the establishment seems to have acquired it by then) retired and sold out to his best friend, John Gadeschi. Nuccio’s son went to work there after serving in World War II and when he married Gadeschi’s daughter, control of Little Joe’s returned to the Nuccio family and remained there ever after.

In the forties, Little Joe’s became a favorite hangout of Hollywood stars. It is said that when W.C. Fields was staying at a nearby hospital to deal with alcohol abuse, he sometimes slipped out and hustled over to the bar at Little Joe’s for cocktails. When the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles in the fifties, Little Joe’s became a big hangout for fans of the team. Located not all that far from the stadium, it was a place to go before a game or — better still — after, when players were known to stop in. If the game was being televised, some people would decide to not hassle the parking and just watch it at the bar in Little Joe’s.

Over those decades, the neighborhood morphed into Chinatown. Little Joe’s was eventually the last major business for blocks around that wasn’t Asian in ownership and/or commerce. Business declined. It may have been the city’s oldest Italian restaurant but it was not its most convenient. As the building came to need major renovation, the Nuccio family decided it didn’t warrant the investment and Little Joe’s finally closed down in December of 1998. It was announced that the structure would be razed and an apartment and retail complex called the Chinatown Blossom Plaza would be built in its place at a cost of $162 million. But those plans fell through and the last time I was down there, the old Little Joe’s building was still standing, signage intact, fenced-off and looking pretty sad. Reportedly, a new shopping plaza is finally being erected there now.

Click above to see a Little Joe's menu (PDF)

I was only there once.  For years, my family and I had heard of Little Joe’s.  It was a very famous place to slurp pasta and everyone in my family was eager to try it.  Everyone but me, that is.  At the time, my favorite Italian restaurant was Zito’s which was much closer and where we never had a meal we didn’t love.  So why travel all the way downtown to try a place which, at best, might be just as good? Good question.  And the answer was that my Aunt Dot was on a “try new things” kick, lecturing us that there was something wrong with a person who stuck with the same old, same old.  In 1969, on the day I graduated from high school, it was decided we’d follow the ceremony with a big family outing to some restaurant.  Somehow, though it was my Graduation Day, I didn’t have a vote in the matter.  We were going to Little Joe’s.

It was a long drive and a long wait for a table, and then the food failed to thrill us.  When that happens in a place like that, you wonder if something’s wrong with you.  After all, thousands and thousands of people have raved about the cuisine. It can’t be as bad as you think it is, can it?  How could they be open all those years and have such a great reputation with mediocre cuisine?  But they lasted a long time without, obviously, my business. Guess we just caught it on an off-night.

36 Responses to Little Joe’s

  • Oscar says:

    Little Joe’s was an important part of an almost forgotten era. It’s sad that this famous restaurant is no more, but time marches on. I knew a lot of people who were regulars there. It came across like an Italian restaurant, but its spaghetti wasn’t anything spectacular. It was more of a popular hang-out, especially during the 1950s & 60s. I appreciate the pictures of the building & menu. I’m using features of LJ’s in the novel I’m writing. The menu was very helpful.

  • Robert Delgado Jr says:

    My fondest memory of Little Joe’s was back in the eighties, Mike Sciosa came into dine. Tommy Lasorda showed up and had a loud discussion about Mike waisteline. Needless to say it was off to the ballpark without pre-game dinner.

  • Mary Beaven says:

    On a recent trip to my mom’s house I found a little box of “In Memoriam” cards from my grandfather’s funeral (1909 – 1975) and in that box was a book of matches with “Little Joe’s Italian Restaurant” on the front… The address on the cover reads “900 No. Broadway, Los Angeles, Calif.”. My grandfather worked in the advertising business in LA… Don’t know whether he would’ve been entertaining clients or drinking away his blues at Little Joe’s. Either way – wish I could check it out… After all there’s a little bit of family history there. Too bad it’s gone (or is on it’s way to demolition). Thanks for the history on it!

  • Candy Reinhardt says:

    My grandfather took ‘business’ lunches there @ least once or more times a week for years and years. They knew him by his first name and when he arrived they sure he was seated immediately and since he tipped very well, he was treated well. We often ate there after Dodger, Ram, and any other game or play or event downtown. We never had a bad meal there or got tired of it! 55 years later I rate all Italian food by” the Little Joe’s standard”.

  • Vince says:

    My grandfather was close friends with John Nuccio. Every important family event resulted in supper at Little Joe’s. When my employment assigned me to a Civic Center office, I had lunch every Wednesday at Little Joe’s – the sausage and peppers lunch special. I was fortunate to be a part of their closing “Last Supper” and came away with a few momentos. I really miss that place.

  • Paul Selzer says:

    It is sad that all the great restaurants such as “Little Joes” and the “Brown Derby” have disappeared. I know Jay Nuccio, his wife, two sons and daughter. Terrific people! He has a restaurant in Palm Springs and also the owner of the Crazy Horse in Orange County.

  • John Mills says:

    I used to sell newspapers at Broadway and College streets in the early 60′s. I used to keep my papers in one of the loading docks of the restaurant. My brother would by fans in Chinatown and sell them to couples in the restaurant. We miss Little Joe’s.

  • Doug Conklin says:

    My dad owned Treasure Tones Paints in East L.A., and many times, when he took me to work with him–he would stop by “Little Joes” That was in the late 30′s and early 40′s. I remember walking through a Italian delicatesson, to get to the restaurant. My dad was always facinated by the huge wheel of cheese. It was about a foot thick and about 3 feet in diameter. That wheel of cheese was cut in half, and one side had a price of–let’s say: $1.00 a slice and the other side of the same cheese was priced at a $1.50 a slice–THE SAME CHEESE, AND MY DAD TOLD ME THAT THEY SOLD MORE AT THE $1.50 PRICE–SAME CHEESE!

  • Will Hamblet says:

    Went to Little Joe’s twice & found it disappointing both times. However, both times were near the end of their tenure.

    A place I did like, near Little Joe’s (& other places around town) was The Velvet Turtle. C’mon Mark, time for an entry on that chain.

  • David E. DeVol says:

    In the early 1960′s, I was in a group of management trainees with Union Bank in Downtown Los Angeles. We were learning to be loan officers.

    Part of our training was to collect delinquent auto loans. The rationale was that if we saw enough bad loans, we would recognize them before they were made.

    As loans approached 90 days in arrears, we were required to recover the collateral. Little Joe’s is where we met for dinner every Thursday evening before spreading out across Los Angeles to repossess automobiles.

    It was a valuable experience, as I went on to a successful 45-year career in commercial banking, including chartering and serving as founding president of two banks.

  • TG says:

    My parents would spend their wedding anniversaries there for many decades. They always got the clams and bring the shells home to me as a sourvenier. I never experienced it before it closed. Now it’s interiors are sometimes used for movie set locations.

  • Clyle Alt says:

    My parents married in 1939, and they went to Little Joe’s on dates. My dad worked for Westinghouse on 2nd Street and my mother worked at Union Hardware on Alameda. They continued to frequent Little Joe’s for decades. I remember going there before going to see the Ice Capades and Dodgers as a child. Relatives from Minnesota loved going to Little Joe’s when they were here on visits. I always ordered Half and Half, half spaghetti and half ravioli. Loved the sawdust on the floor. The bread was wonderful too.

  • William says:

    My late grandmother had season tix to the Dodgers, and would often take myself and a friend to Little Joe’s before the games. I remember enjoying the food very much. Little Joe’s was one of those places where they remembered your name, and it was just a wonderful, convivial, family type of place. It was funny that it was in Chinatown. I try to avoid chain restaurants because of my love for one-of-a-kind places like Little Joe’s.

  • Ron Koblin says:

    OMG – Little Joe’s is the very first restaurant I remember going to as a child – circa 1951-52! I was about 5 and remember going in the front door and down the stairs to our table – shuffling through the sawdust on the floor. Food, of course, was terrific and more than we could eat. Mom and Dad brought me and my brother back many times over the following years – what fun childhood memories! While other Downtown specials included Phillipe’s, Clifton’s, Taix (only a few times) and even China Town special events – Little Joe’s was always my favorite!

  • Stan says:

    My grandmother used to live down in Pico Rivera, I ran across an old post card (circa 1950) of “Little Joes” (never used) in some papers along with ones of other places. I would like to find someone that would like it. If so, please let me know.

  • John Hindsill says:

    Back in 1972/3 I was a vendor to the TV/stereo department of The Broadway Department Stores (now Macys) whose offices were on Mission Avenue not far from Little Joes. The buyer always scheduled my meetings with him for the 11 o’clock hour so I’d be obligated to take him to Little Joes for lunch. I think he had lunch there every day of the week, judging from his girth, but never on his dime.

    The food was good, I didn’t think it exceptional…but maybe my assessment of the place was colored by my slight resentment of having to take him there so often.

  • Patti Gyuraki says:

    Does the restaurant have tee shirts with “Little Joe” on it

  • Mel says:

    The Little Joe’s Fake Out
    As we drove into the parking lot we looked for his car. We could never remember what he drove exactly. “Is that it? Wait, is it that one?” His car, like him, was an enigma to us. We parked, I checked my face in the mirror, and applied one more layer of blush. We walked into the dark restaurant from the bright light of day, we his silhouette through a haze of smoke and shadows that seemed to swirl around us the entire evening. He always looked so surprised to see us. As if, each year at Christmas, for a few hours, we became real again…flesh and blood. So with hair curled, lips painted, heels high, and dress carefully chosen I made my way to him first. With a hug, a kiss on the mouth, and a handshake from my nearly invisible brother, we greeted him, then his wife, and sat for dinner.

    He insisted we order the filet mignon… rare. He wanted to “see the blood on the plate.” With scotch in one hand and a cigarette in the other, he held court. This was no time for dialogue. This was a time for directives: who to vote for, how to invest, what careers to choose, and how important it was to be educated. Although I rarely spoke at these dinners, I was busy. I listened keenly with prompting phrases, smiled apologetically at the waiters who were bossed around, cleverly winked at his wife who rolled her eyes at his storytelling, and averted his gaze strategically so that he would occasionally glance at my brother. At 16, I developed masterful, multidimensional caretaking skills.

    I was agreeable. I agreed that Filet Mignon was the best cut of meat, that Republicans would save the nation, that golf was the superior sport, and that he was telling the truth. My brother and I were held captive as we absorbed his advice and his stories. What I didn’t know is that we agreed to join him in a desperate fairytale.

    We were pawns in his fantasy world. With us, his illusory children who would probably never learn anything different, he could be anything.
    He could be the man he’d always imagined. For a few hours in December at an Italian restaurant in Chinatown, he could be from Sicily. That is where real men live by a code, answer to no one, and make things happen. He could be dangerous and put a hit on his father’s negligent doctor, “Needless to say”, he tells us one night, “the anesthesiologist is no longer with us.” He could be mysterious. “Our family moved a lot of interesting product during prohibition.” He could be generous, “When I leave this place, you guys are going to be as rich as kings, rolling in dough, we’re talking millions.” And he could be powerful, “Let’s just say I lend people money.” He could also have impressive offspring– the first set of Manlowe children. Two of them went to Princeton. His youngest daughter had two PH.D’s and was getting a job with the CIA. His oldest son Bobby Jr., was a corporate lawyer and best friends with Bill Gates.

    So after dinner, we would open gifts and cards purchased and signed by his wife in her beautiful handwriting and say our goodbyes with hugs and genuine well wishes. On the drive home, my brother and didn’t speak to each other. It was as if we were readjusting to the light. It was nighttime, but somehow it seems brighter as we shifted back into reality. I had nothing to say to him on those drives home. He was five years younger and I couldn’t rescue him from that hazy fog. All that I had left to give was to drive us home safely.

    It is thirty years later and not only are we not millionaires, we are not even from Sicily. His father’s surgeon was not taken out by the family. His father didn’t even die on the operating table. His trucking business did not deliver liquor. And he did not lend money, breaking legs as payment. His daughter has one PhD and was never involved with the CIA, and his son and Bill are only acquaintances that live in the same city. We have also learned that the marriage certificate was a hoax. He never even married our mother. The tallest tale of all.

    These tall tales monopolized our conversations year after year. They were the fundamental stories on which I built a relationship with my father. And as it turns out, they are all lies. Needless to say, men have been faking me out ever since.

    Little Joes has been closed for business for 15 years but it still stands proudly in downtown Los Angeles. It looks exactly the same, inviting patrons to park and walk up and try and open those heavy doors into a world of Italian cuisine, velvet art, pinkie rings and red vinyl booths. Its appropriate that Little Joe’s is still faking us all out; still beckoning us to enter a world where we can be anything we want for a few hours on a sunny December day in heart of L.A.

    – Gotcha

  • Ginny McCullough says:

    My father was a police office in downtown Los Angeles. He and several officers would eat at Little Joe’s several times a month. I remember him taking us ( my brother, mother and myself) to Little Joe’s when I was around nine in 1952. My mother loved the sweet breads, my brother and I the spaghetti. Over the years from then he would take us. I still can remember the taste of the spaghetti. I love change, but some things should never change like closing Little Joe’s.

  • Mike Mallory says:

    Over the last decade or so, the closed Little Joe’s has been used frequently as a filming location, for shoots that need a fancy restaurant.

  • Paul says:

    I remember sitting with my parents as a four or five year old at a table with a white table cloth, we were at Little Joe’s in Los Angeles, this would have been the late forties or early fifties. I remember eating there twice with my parents and enjoying myself but suddenly we stopped going, I asked my mother why and she said there had been a gangland style (hit) at the restrauant and she was afraid to go back. Whether true or not I’m not sure but would like to know if someone has the answer.

  • Mary says:

    I have a set of salt & pepper shakers , Sal & Pep, chef heads with the Little Joe’s name & address on that I inherited from my Mom. Are there any buyers out there? No breaks, one cork missing,

  • John Hindsill says:

    13 October 13–The Los Angeles Times has an article detailing the development being built on the Little Joe’s site. It seems to be a humongous undertaking. The developer has promised to save the old sign, but it is unclear whether it will remain as part of this project, or moved to another site.

  • Huang LongBing says:

    Scheduled for tear down today. Is nothing sacred?

  • Benjamin Sferrazza says:

    I have a boatload of Little Joe memories. I basically grew up there, especially the kitchen, where my dad worked as head chef in the 70′s and 80′s. Good times back then. Things were simple and straight forward. I saw a copycat Little Joes sauce recipe online recently and I didnt see any celery or green pepper in it. I used to stir the huge kettles of sauce and house soup all the time. So that recipe is way off base. Anyways, thanks for letting me share some memories.

  • Bill Cotter says:

    I was in Chinatown today and saw that a big chunk has been pulled out of the building, opening the insides of what looked like the kitchen area to the elements. No work was underway but the equipment is sitting there to finish the job. After seeing it sit empty all these years it’s going to seem odd when the corner is cleared.

  • Steve Willkomm says:

    Grew up in L A in the 60′s and 70′s. Went to high school at Cathedral HS about a quarter mile away at Bishops Road (Stadium Way) and Broadway. John Nuccio (son) was my math teacher and the Varsity Basketball Coach of the CIF Champions in 1978. I believe the basketball team used to eat at Little Joe’s on game days. I had a friend that was a retired LAPD Lieutenant. He worked Northeast, Hollenbeck, and Newton Divisions in the 60′s and 70′s. He always told me that Little Joe’s was a favorite of LAPD, LA Sheriff, County, State, and federal law enforcement agencies. It was a place for the celebrities, politicians at all levels, and the LA influential. Do not forget the families!!! I loved the Italian influence in LA.

  • Steve Troncale says:

    My Dad took his dates there in the 1930′s and I took my dates there in the 1950′s. My wife and I went there for the last time just before it closed. Side note. My family immigrated to the Lincoln Heights area of L.A. from Sicily in 1906.

  • Don Calzia says:

    Benjamin Sferrazza…..
    Could you forward this message to Benjamin please…..
    I remember vividly the any lunches at Little Joe’s in the middle 1960′s and my favorite was the “butterflied Halibut” that was delicious.. I have not found any halibut served anywhere that was as succulent and tender……
    Bengamine, would you remember the recipe or method of preparing the Halibut….was the halibut fresh California or ??
    Thanks,
    Don Calzia

  • Tom Agamenoni says:

    This was my father’s favorite restaurant, his business, Hillman and Kelly was close by on Auto wrecker row.. He used to eat there to entertain customers, and also for pleasure with the family. One day my father took a group of people to Little Joe’s after the annual Southern Cal/Notre Dame football game. My mother and I attended as well. USC crushed The Irish that day behind their running back at the time, O.J Simpson, who ran for 256 yards as I recall. He was the toast of the town that night, long before his dash for the border in the White Ford Bronco driven by his old teammate, Al Downing. I live in Oregon now, and inherited two Little Joe’s cocktail glasses when my mother passed away. They are both marked “Ladies”…if someone us willing to trade for one that is marked ” Men”, let me know.

  • Mary Anne says:

    I worked near downtown Los Angeles. Loved Little Joe’s right before a Dodger game.

  • robert mamer says:

    My dad started taking us to little joes in the 60s it was a weekly outing. If not weekly he would bring home the mos incredable food I remember for many many years.it was our familys place to go.he was at little joes a lot ,he work at a company near by for 29 years before passing thank you for being a part of my life bob mamer

  • Pam Gram says:

    I cried when they closed Little Joe’s. That restaurant was a family tradition for me. My grandparents would take my sister and me to dinner there. My grandpa would always order us the Half and Half, but my favorite was their handmade meat Ravioli’s.

    My grandpa’s birth was August 17th and mine the 18th. Every year my mother would drive down to Little Joe’s market and buy sausages and dried porcini mushrooms to make a special spaghetti sauce for my grandpa’s birthday dinner. The biggest treat for me was that she would buy a quart of their marinara and a pizza box of their ravioli’s to bring home. I would ration the ravioli’s so they would last a whole week and have them for lunch everyday until they ran out.

    To this day, I am always disappointed when I order meat ravioli’s from another restaurant as they never measure up to Little Joe’s. I am a professional chef now and have finally recreated the filling for their ravioli’s through trial and error. I wish I could get my hands on their original recipe as I believe I am close but not exact. I do miss Little Joe’s!

  • barbara jean says:

    I still think about their meat ravioli. Pam, if you would share your recipe, I would so appreciate it, or if anyone else actually has their recipe, I’d be eternally grateful. One of the best memories of my childhood in L.A.

  • Joe Salazar says:

    I use to work 2 blocks away and use to take out every night. I don’t know why but they all thought my friend Ivan and I were undercover police. Mike the head chef would invite us into the kitchen and give us samples of what ever. I ran into lots of well known people there. I don’t live in L.A. anymore but I’m sorry its closed.

  • Howard Drucker says:

    For what it’s worth, the faux leather booths from Little Joe’s ended up at a cocktail lounge in Fullerton called The Continental Room.

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