DOWNEY - There are many ways to serve a community. You can be a firefighter, or a philanthropist. Or you can create a warm, friendly place where strangers come for an excellent meal, and by the end, don't feel like strangers anymore.That's what Ralph and Jeanette Granata have done. Granata's restaurant is the longest-running family business in the history of Downey, and it's still going strong. It first opened at Paramount and Alameda in 1955, moved to Florence three years later, and proved so successful that Downey's city manager, Gerald Caton, and Maria Larkin and John Croshaw of the Downey City Committee thought it'd be great for the city if they moved downtown, which they did in 2001. During all those years, the family has worked together, including two sisters, one grandmother, and son Paul, who managed the current Downey Avenue site. "I go to the new restaurant, and the grandchildren who came to the old one now come in with grandkids of their own," says Jeanette. An old picture of Ralph overlooks the dining room. He's scarcely changed. The same joie de vie remains in the warmth of his greeting. He has always taken a lot on himself. He was born in Gaeta, an Italian seaside town that was in harm's way during World War II. The fighting was so fierce that the German army leveled a nearby town. Most of Gaeta's citizens fled to the hills. The teenager joined a small group that grabbed a rowboat and rowed to Naples, over 40 miles away, where he worried about his family in its life or death situation and continued to worry after the American army relocated him to a refugee camp in Sicily. Ralph always dreamed of coming to America, and once the war was over he did, first to Maine, which was way too cold for his Mediterranean blood - he'd never seen snow before - and then to Boston. One night he was invited by a Catholic women's club to join in a musical celebration of folklore and stood close to a young girl named Jeanette Bianuccio, who'd just graduated high school. They've stood close ever since. They were married in 1951, while he was serving in the U.S. Army in the Korean conflict. Southern California seemed a natural place for them to settle. They drove out in a brand new '53 Ford, fully paid for. "I can still smell the lemons and orange blossoms," says Jeanette. "There was a lot of warmth in the people. They were hospitable. Downey had an intimate feel then. We fell in love with it." Ralph went to work as a chef at Michael's Restaurant, a site currently occupied by Vasilio's night club. "I'm not afraid of hard work," he says. "I figured the future is where you open your own business." As for being named grand marshal, he says, "I feel honored, I appreciate it. But I'm not a big shot." And she says, "I'm scared to death." "If I got to live my life all over again, I wouldn't change a thing," he said. "That's the truth," she added.
********** Published: November 20, 2009 - Volume 8 - Issue 31