September 6, 2013

Body, soul fed at Italian gathering

Drive deep into the woods and hills of southern Lake County about 30 miles from the nearest stoplight and you'll start seeing red, white and green Italian flags hanging from the cabins and cottages.

LOCH LOMOND, Lake County – Drive deep into the woods and hills of southern Lake County about 30 miles from the nearest stoplight and you'll start seeing red, white and green Italian flags hanging from the cabins and cottages.

Under a lush canopy of fir trees, signs start appearing: Parking only for Italians, others will be towed.

One pine sprouts signs for DeMattei, Mezzina, Musante, Bertolino. A driveway features a green-and-white sign uprooted from an Italian American community near San Francisco: Colma City Limit, Pop. 731.

Along the curving country road you'll see an altar lined with candles and covered with a grate protecting a sculpture of a giant wild mushroom, a delicacy prized by Italians who comb these woods for fresh porcini mushrooms to put in their pasta sauces.

Welcome to Lake County's Little Italy, where every August about 1,000 Italian Americans from throughout Northern California head for these hills for Ferragosto, an Italian holiday tradition dating back to the Holy Roman Empire.

Ferragosto, which falls on Aug. 15, is actually a monthlong vacation in Italy, when Italians take to the beaches or mountains to escape the intense summer heat.

For nearly a century, Northern California's Italian immigrants and their descendants have continued that tradition in Lake County. They cook all day, filling the pine-scented air with the aroma of baked lasagna, ravioli and penne alla bolognese. Then they eat, drink, talk, play cards and bocce, sing, dance to accordions and celebrate their heritage.

Italo-American restaurateurs, chefs, garbagemen, tailors, firefighters, lawyers and businessmen come with their extended families. Many have retired in the area: Lake County has 4,681 residents with Italian roots.

They stay in tiny motels or family-owned cottages or rent cabins in private resorts built by the original pioneers. The most famous – Biggi's Resort – has 18 units and a main house built by Giuliano Biggi out of rock and recyclables from his South San Francisco scavenger business. The water fountain is made out of a urinal, and he ingeniously crafted houses out of scrap lumber and "log" railings out of concrete covered with moss. A stone plaque declares: "G. BIGGI's RESORT STARTED 1950, COMPLETED 1960 A ONE MAN JOB."

Biggi's – which includes a water wheel, a fountain of elves and a dance hall with a foosball table – is a must-see on the Bisbiglia family's morning stroll through the woods.

"I've been coming here since I was 16," said Rose Bisbiglia, 69, as she strolled with her husband, two sons and their families, including her youngest grandchild, 1-year-old Nicholas Vincenzo Ghio Bisbiglia.

"It's the best place to come, nothing but fun," said Rose's husband, Frank Bisbiglia.

"Rumor has it I was conceived up here: They come in August and I was born in May," said their son, Sacramento firefighter Luigi Bisbiglia.

"I guess I didn't know what I was doing," said his dad.

"Mistakes happen, Frank," said Luigi's wife, Molly.

"The first time Frank came up here I was single girl, and Frank had to sleep in the car," recalled Rose Bisbiglia.

"It was powder blue – a '63 Pontiac Catalina," Frank said.

Having a car was a big deal. Rose Bisbiglia remembers coming up from the Bay Area by Greyhound bus in the 1950s.

Joseph Brignole, 78, said he's been coming to Loch Lomond, which is Scottish for Mountain Lake, for nearly 70 years.

Italian Americans from Little Italys in Oakland and San Francisco started coming here as far back as 1912, Brignole said.

"They say Lake County has the purest air in California, and the Italians love the climate, the drinking water, the hot springs and the mushrooms. They go mushroom hunting to this day."

About 1,000 immigrants from Sicily, Genoa, Piedmont and Lucca and their families flocked to three resorts in the woods to hike, swim and ride horses each summer, Brignole said.

Guilio Biggi began holding giant picnic dinners that continue by invitation only to this day, Brignole said. The first Italians to come up were in the garbage business, including Ettore Steccone, a window cleaner who invented the squeegee in 1936. They were later joined by restaurant owners from North Beach who got involved in the cooking, Brignole said.

The cooking starts early in the morning, and the only people who get paid are the kids waiting tables for tips.

On a recent Saturday, Italian Village hosted a dinner for 240 guests. Two husband and wife teams – assisted by about dozen others – took responsibility for preparing each meal.

Nancy and Steve DeMartini of Chico were in the driver's seat with John and Renee Tassio of San Francisco.

In the morning they started slicing the cheese, Italian bread, salami and mortadella for 55 plates of antipasto. Three times Steve DeMartini sliced the mortadella, only to have his wife declare, "too thick."

The guests supply their own beverages, including wine, San Pellegrino and Italian sodas.

After the antipasto and a garbanzo bean dip came the salad, followed by plates of penne ala bolognese. When the guests had their fill, out came the plates of green beans and thinly-sliced bistecca or steak. For desert, fresh biscotti, or anise cookies.

"It's just easy living," said Luigi Bisbiglia. "Everything here's unique and the food's better than any restaurant."

Luigi, 42, comes up almost every summer. "Now we bring our own kids, Ella, Brody and Grant, ages 7, 5 and 3. We open the car and they run out to play with the other kids. We all know each other one way or another."

In Italy, people gather in the piazza. In Loch Lomond the piazza's around the swimming pool and the regulation bocce ball court at Italian Village – known as Pezzolo's Resort in the 1950s – where the Bisbiglias are renting a cottage.

"My kids were cooking smores and my daughter Ella came up to me and said 'dad, now I have a new best friend' " Luigi Bisbiglia said.

At 4 pm. Saturday, families can attend mass at Our Lady of the Lake Church in Loch Lomond.

"You think that weekend after weekend you'd get bored up here, but you don't," said Alex Vincenzi, 43, of Oakland, who works off the dinners with games of bocce ball. "What comes through loud and clear is the pride in being Italian – family, food, friends. It's as close to Italy as you're gonna get without being there, and a helluva lot cheaper."

Related content




Entertainment Videos