Caterina Croce Massetti
Nicholas R. Cataldo (2005)
(Photographs taken from the 1994 "Heritage Tales". Courtesy of the
San Bernardino Historical and Pioneer Society)
Mother Massetti's Inn located at 1396 West 5th Street
Not much excitement goes on in San Bernardino at 5th Street west of Mt. Vernon Avenue these days other than cars passing through on the way to or from work. But at one time that area---1396 5th Street to be exact---was a happening place. That's where Mother Massetti's Inn was serving Ohhh, Mama Mia!...some of the best food around.
Caterina Croce Massetti
Caterina Croce was born in the Italian village of Cerro Tanaro on March 26, 1877 and was 20 when she married Eugenio Massetti in 1897. Finding work hard to come by, the young couple left their home land for South America only to return to Italy in time for the birth of their second child in 1902.
When the Massettis moved to the U.S. a few years later they first settled in San Francisco before arriving in San Bernardino in 1909.
With help from friends, Eugenio built a four room house with a cellar on land near the corner of 5th and Pico Avenue. He planted a garden and sold his produce to restaurants in town. But when the young Italian immigrant died of pneumonia at the age of 40 in 1916, Caterina started taking in borders to help provide for her three daughters.
Caterina Massetti with her three daughters, Teresa, Margaret and Gemma
For $15 dollars a month, a border would get home cooked meals, comfortable bedding and clean laundry.
Eventually, friends suggested to Caterina that she serve lunches to fraternal organizations and service groups. When 5th Street was paved and nearby Mt. Vernon Avenue evolved into Route 66 during the mid 1920's, Caterina opened up business to the general public.
The burgeoning traffic brought in a steady stream of customers. After a few years, Caterina added a long narrow room to the back which could be partitioned off for private parties.
In a recent interview, Louise Gavuzzi Torta, granddaughter of Caterina Massetti, described her "grandma" as a warm, witty person who never knew a stranger. She liked everyone and they all liked her.
Louise Gavuzzi Torta
Torta, [at the time] 84, wrote wonderful article for one of the San Bernardino Historical and Pioneer Society publications on the early Italian immigrants in the San Bernardino Valley. She mentioned in her writing:
"One time a customer coaxed Grandma to dance with a glass of water on her head. I thought it was rather silly, but looking back, she enjoyed it and it was part of her charm."
During this period someone started calling Caterina "Mother" so she became known as "Mother Massetti".
Beginning in the late 1920's and continuing right up to the beginning of World War II, the Arrowhead Springs Hotel was renown as a hangout for the Hollywood Crowd while San Bernardino had become the motion picture preview capital. Big name stars who were in town often stopped by for lunch or dinner and Caterina's reputation grew by leaps and bounds. Some of the celebrities who ate at "Mother Massetti's Inn" included Leo Carillo, Myrna Loy, Edward Arnold, Janet Gaynor, Lou Costello, Reginald Denny, Priscilla Lane, Allen Jenkins, W.C. Fields, Kay Francis, Bob Hope, Dorothy Lamour, Frank Sinatra and Gary Cooper.
Louise Torta recalled the first time she saw child actor, Jackie Cooper:
" I saw Jackie Cooper in 1932 at Grandma's with my cousins, Katherine and Eugene. He was with his grandmother and a little dog having dinner. He came out on the porch and talked to us. While Jackie was feeding his dog left over potato scraps from his dinner plate, we asked him a lot of silly questions. The studio was filming 'Skippy' (which stared Jackie Cooper) on nearby streets and Grandma was catering lunches for the film crew."
A book written by Cooper in 1981, entitled "Please Don't Shoot My Dog", refers to an episode which happened while filming in San Bernardino.
Torta mentioned that her grandmother's dinner menu over the years remained pretty much the same---but always included top quality meats and imported cheese. She served minestrone soup, vegetable salad with anchovies and a jumbo olive, a platter of spaghetti and a meat ravioli, filet mignon, a New York steak or a half of a roasted chicken with thick French fries, mushroom gravy and French bread or breadsticks, and coffee. Salami and Swiss cheese cost extra as did the Zabaglione custard. During the summer, Caterina sometimes served fresh strawberries dipped in white wine.
As Caterina Massetti's business flourished she added a stucco room to the front of the house. Caterina also started rubbing elbows with some of Hollywood's finest.
W.C. Fields gave her a beautiful satin lined evening bag and offered to put her in business in Hollywood. She lunched at Bud Abbott's ranch near Victorville (and pruned a grapevine while there) and visited Walter Houston at his lodge in Running Springs.
During a visit with his grandmother, young Eugene Cena got an unexpected ride to Lake Arrowhead with Loretta Young and her chauffeur.
Caterina sold her business shortly after World War II came to an end and moved to a new home on Muscupiabe Drive in San Bernardino. The always generous and caring "Mother" Massetti died in 1946.
To find out more about "Mother Massetti" and the early Italian Community in San Bernardino by Louise Torta, see the 1994 Heritage Tales which features the article, published by the San Bernardino Historical and Pioneer Society.