Bimbo’s was never the best Italian restaurant in Tacoma, just the best known. It sat in the middle of little Italy, surrounding the intersection of 17th and Pacific, during the last decade of prohibition and lasted long enough to see the 21st century.

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1953 Interior of Bimbo’s Avenue Cafe

You can still get Bimbo’s legendary red sauce in Tacoma but not at the once shady and now demolished storefront that once stood at 1514-1516 Pacific Ave.

The restaurant was opened in 1921 by Vittorio “Bimbo” Perniconi and John Teglia, two young Tuscan immigrants with a love of wine and food and the diplomatic skills to sell meat balls and tomato sauce to just about anyone. Their Avenue Cafe was just down Pacific Avenue from Union Station in the streetcar days when travelers from around the world arrived in Tacoma at the imposing Beaux Arts railroad station. During Prohibition, the cafe advertised spaghetti and ravioli in neon but could also arrange more discreetly for a discerning selection of wines and spirits by the glass or bottle. 21581The cafe was raided by police in 1931, but Vittorio was able to stay out of jail and in business with the help of friends at City Hall. In 1953, John Teglia passed away and Vittorio “modernized” the restaurant and changed the name to Bimbo’s Avenue Cafe. The once notorious and still familiar cocktail bar was moved to the status of headliner along with a new two story high neon sign.

During the late 1950’s and 60’s most of the downtown Italian businesses faded as Urban Renewal projects bought them out and design guidelines striped away their ethnic storefronts. Little Italy’s prime location near Union Station lost its foot traffic as cars and freeways turned the grand passenger station into an idle curiosity. But through it all, Vittorio’s nephew Reno Rosi kept the landmark restaurant going, complete with the special recipe red sauce, that legend held was first started in a stewpot when the cafe opened and was constantly added to but never emptied.

Vittorio Perniconio (Bimbo) died in June 1978. Bimbo’s was perhaps the last survivor of Little Italy, but in 2001 the city bought the building for demolition to make way for the convention center. In addition to the real estate purchase, Bimbo’s decedents bargained for and received a separate, not insignificant financial settlement for Bimbo’s recipes and culinary secrets. It was a politically awkward but unavoidable payment involving City Hall  something Bimbo would have understood perfectly. 10.9.56 TNTBimbo’s closed its doors in late September of 2001 after 80 years of business.

Reno Rosi, Vittorio “Bimbo” Perniconi’s nephew, serving spaghetti in red sauce, 1976. 

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Written by tacomahistory

This site is about the way history, in this case of a city and it's surrounds, is remembered or recorded in stories and small bits of memory. It's also about the way images and stories go together, how they inform and enrich each other and how we as thinking people fill in the content between a narrative and a visual document. So here is my city in time past, the way it looked and the people and events that create its character. For more than 20 years I have taught a 5 credit course on the History of Tacoma at the University of Washington Tacoma. With an average of 30 or 40 students a year, each doing a research paper as their primary focus for the course, I have benefited from many paths of inquiry and many researched and assembled stories. Here are some of them in the retelling along with the treasures of photographs and images in the collections of the Washington State Historical Society, Tacoma Public Library, University of Washington Digital Archives, Washington State Archives at the Office of the Secretary of State, Library of Congress, Washington State University, Alaska State Library, and many other archives, libraries and private collections.

1 comment

  1. Bimbo’s was a family favorite and I remember eating there as a kid. The food was a little greasy but was always hot and tasted good. There were also plenty of breadsticks at the table and I loved the remote jukeboxes located at the tables. My parents liked Tacoma’s dive restaurants like Bimbo’s and also the Spout and Toad up the hill on Center Street. Even though I no longer live in Tacoma, I still look for these kinds of places wherever I go.

    I spent a lot of time in downtown Tacoma watching the businesses leave for the mall or outlying neighborhoods. It is sad to see the shell of what remains. I hope the new small business owners all success in revitalizing downtown T-Town.

    Like

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