Services May 22 for Enrico 'Rico' Romano, restaurateur and longtime Pacifican

By Stella Pilgrim
Special to the Tribune

Enrico Joseph Romano, "Rico," was born in that part of San Mateo County that would eventually be known as Pacifica on April 12, 1922, to Angelo and Enrichetta Romano.

Mr. Romano died suddenly in South San Francisco, where he had recently been living, of an apparent heart attack. He was discovered on May 5.

His parents were Italian immigrants who lived and worked on an artichoke ranch in San Pedro Valley. Rico's uncle, his mother's brother, Mr. Guastavino, owned a restaurant in Rockaway Beach on Old County Road. The restaurant was known as "The White House." Mr. Guastavino's manager at the time was Julia Mignacco. When Mr. Guastavino passed away, his manager and Mr. Gus Krips continued managing the restaurant.

In 1936, Rico's parents decided to build their family home next to the restaurant. When they moved to their new home, Rico's mother worked for Jim Troglia who owned the Coastside Distributing Company which was located across the street opposite the Romano home. Sometime during 1938 or 1939, Julia Mignacco had to retire from the management of the White House restaurant due to failing health, and Rico's parents assumed ownership of the business and renamed it "Romano's."

Rico attended Rockaway Beach school, which boasted a total student body of 30 students grades 1-8. Rico, who only spoke Italian, had a very difficult time in class. His fellow students, who understood and could speak Italian, translated Rico's Italian into English for the teacher. When Rico was capable of speaking and understanding English, the teacher insisted that only English would be spoken in class thereafter. However, school was always difficult for Rico because he could only communicate with his parents in Italian which created a problem for him because he had to continually translate everything mentally from one language to another.

Rico was in the same class with Florence Troglia Grazziani, Jack and George Rich, Marian Thoreid, the Piccardi's and the Bernardi's. Florence, Rico, and Nick Gust were classmates at Jefferson High School in Daly City. The Gust family still lived in Daly City though Nick's parents operated the Rockaway Beach Cafe in Pacifica. Nick's parents later built and moved to their family home which was adjacent to their present restaurant, "Nick's."

The Gusts and the Romanos were immediate neighbors, and Florence lived on the east side of Rockaway Beach. The three grew up together and shared many fond memories of the early coast style of living.

Florence Troglia Grazziani remembers the time that Rico taught her how to drive (her first driving lesson) in her father's Model A Ford. Rico had her drive up the Sharp Park "hill" and turn around and drive home. She still remembers how furious her father was with them both.

Rico began driving the school bus as a community service, as well as driving a bus for the San Mateo Transit system. One day, he was driving the school teenagers home from school. On this particular day one of the girls in the back of the bus was giving Rico an especially bad time. She kept it up until Rico abruptly stopped the bus and told the teenager to vacate the bus and walk home. Her name was Lorraine Pendola, the future Mrs. Nick Gust. The incident marked the beginning of years of pranks often orchestrated by Nick and Lorraine and their son Chuck, with Rico as the intended "victim." Of course, Rico managed a few choice pranks of his own. Chuck told an amusing tale which occurred during the Frontier Days Fiesta, which Chuck supervised and coordinated. This occasion was marked by Chuck bringing one of his horses into Rico's restaurant. As Chuck was trying to turn the horse around to leave, Rico appeared, and startled the horse with his fury: The horse's "comment" had to be cleaned up by Rico!

Sometime in 1939, Rico joined the Army. He returned from service in World War II a "changed man." One war experience story told to Bob Pilgrim was of his experience in France shortly after the Normandy invasion: It concerned the infamous "Battle of the Hedgerows." His company was pinned down by German armor near a French farmhouse. The farmhouse had a barn behind it.

Rico and three or four of his compatriots who were the only survivors of their company made a dash for the farmhouse. As they ran though the farmhouse to the barn they were seen by the Germans. The German tanks proceeded to blow the farmhouse to bits, and then turned their attention on the barn. They drove their tanks through the barn where Rico and the other soldiers were crouched on the floor. One of the tanks passed no more than one foot from Rico's face. He watched helplessly as the tank ran over one of his companions. Rico and the remaining men managed to survive because the Germans undoubtedly concluded that no one could survive their assault. The survivors regrouped and found their way back to the allied lines. It was experiences such as this which, in large part, caused Rico to return to the coast a changed man.

Rico did not speak of the numerous medals he was awarded for his service to his country. In fact he received the Bronze Star Medal for "exemplary conduct in ground combat against armed enemy during the Rhineland Campaign in the European Theater of Operations." He also received the campaign "Victory Medal" for his European/African mid-eastern campaign. These are only two of several medals/decorations he received. Rico received an honorable discharge from the Army as Private first class, 414-PH Infantry Regiment. Rico had survived the horrors of War. Unfortunately, he did not receive the proper medical treatment for the post-traumatic stress disorder he so desperately needed. He went on with his life with the uncompromising nightmares of the death and devastation he had witnessed and lived with for so long.

Upon being discharged, Rico resumed a civilian's life, assumed management of Romano's, and became an active member of his community which at the time was unincorporated.

In 1980, he served as President of the Chamber of Commerce. He was also past president of the Rotary Club and hosted the Rotarians for many years. He also supported numerous children's sports programs. These are a few of the innumerable community services in which he gladly participated.

Rico married Bonnie Welch of San Francisco in 1969. He was 50 years of age when his only child, Gina, was born on Dec. 9, 1972. He always referred to her lovingly as his fiftieth birthday present, and as his "miracle" child.

Rico and Bonnie were divorced when Gina was about three years of age. Gina was raised by her mother and paternal grandmother who shared custody of the child. Friends remember little Gina who was always seen at the restaurant with "Mama" Romano's arm around her. Mama was most protective and nurturing of the child. Gina later worked her way up to Manager of Rico's newly expanded restaurant, "Romano's Ristorante." Gina began as a waitress, then on to hostess, then to management with her father.

The original "Romano's Ristorante" was packed nightly with people patiently waiting at the bar for a table. The specialties of the house were Romano's famously delicious pizzas, and the Italian meatball sandwiches with the Italian cut French fries on French bread with a salad. His overall menu was excellent and featured Italian foods. Mama's "gnocchi" were an absolute delicacy and were prepared exclusively by Mama Romano. Many people still savor fond memories of those days of camaraderie. The intimacy of the restaurant was like an extension of one's own dining room.

Shortly after Mama Romano died, just prior to her 95th birthday, Rico decided he would proceed with his long-desired plans to expand the restaurant. The business climate in the late 1980s was conducive to such a plan.

Rico retained renowned architect Fani Hansen, and together they conceived and constructed a new, and glorious, Romano's Ristorante. However, the costs associated with such a grand project exhausted Rico's financial resources. This fact and the unanticipated, and dramatic downturn of the business boom beginning in the very early 1990s proved to be ruinous to Rico's personal and financial status. The restaurant failed and he defaulted on his business loan and was evicted from both his residence and place of business; he fell on very hard times until his passing.

During this difficult period, the Gust family hosted a 70th birthday party for Rico. On April 12, 1997, Rico's daughter, Gina, hosted a 75th dinner at Vallemar Station.

In the eyes of some, Rico could appear distant, or rude, or crude or offensive, or he could reveal all these characteristics at one time. To use the words of one of his intimates: "...he could be a bugger." Conversely, he could be humorous, considerate, generous, realistic, and even optimistic (as strange as that may seem). This obvious duality of his personality was revealed in mood swings, and they in turn, were worsened by dissipation. He, and his childhood friends and schoolmates, ravished by the Great Depression, tempered and scarred by war, and then maturing in the environment of sometimes reassuring, sometimes crushing experiences of everyday life, established the baseline for the existing social climate, and quality of life we currently experience in this place on the coast known as Pacifica. He will be missed.

Rico died approximately three weeks after his 75th birthday of a heart attack at his home.

A Memorial Service will be held at St. Peter Catholic Church, 700 Oddstad Blvd., Thursday, May 22, at 7:30 p.m.

In lieu of flowers, donations are requested to be sent to the Enrico J. Romano Memorial Trust Fund, c/o First National Bank, 210 Eureka Square, Pacifica.