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.
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.