Italian roots at historic Bacchi’s

Owner Bill Hunter in front of Bacchi’s.

I walk through the thick floor-to-ceiling, double wooden doors into a dimly lit restaurant. In the foyer is a pool table and some bar tables in a space that used to host a dance floor. It feels like a throwback to the 1940s with its burgundy carpet and a dining room with tables covered in white-and-red checkered tablecloths.

This is the place where Lucille Ball used to smoke up a storm. Tom Selleck came in with his new bride. Mama Cass sat at the bar two weeks before she died. Peter Graves got in a paper airplane-throwing contest with the staff and Al Pacino was turned away and told to come back the next night, which he did.

Tucked into the Lake Forest neighborhood outside Tahoe City on what used to be a main road, is one of Tahoe’s longest standing, family-owned Italian restaurants called Bacchi’s Italian Dining. Built in 1932, Bacchi’s still serves family-style meals and has kept its old-school charm.

George and Josephine Bacchi emigrated from Sicily to America in 1905. They eventually made their way to Sacramento. In 1923, George Bacchi hauled freight —mostly vegetables — up to Tahoe and sold it to restaurants and stores. He also kept a fruit stand in Tahoe City. Meanwhile, Josephine cooked Italian dishes for wealthy families around Tahoe. Lora Knight, the owner of Vikingsholm, used to send someone across the lake just to pick up Josephine’s meals. Knight finally suggested that the Bacchis open a restaurant. The Italian couple bought land in Lake Forest and built a log cabin on it. They opened Bacchi’s restaurant in 1932.

a Salad at BAcchi’s

“There were a lot of locals and no places to eat,” current owner and grandson Bill Hunter says. “This used to be a thriving blue-collar business. We have quality food, serve family meals; this is what an Italian family would serve you if you went to their house. There’s food, wine and water on the table and you would spend two to three hours talking and eating.”

The Bacchis ran the restaurant until 1949; then William and Sara (nee Bacchi) Hunter took over. Their son Bill started washing dishes from the time he could reach the sink, eventually taking over the business in 1978. Bill’s son Everett also works at Bacchi’s, keeping the family tradition alive.

“A family business is a family business,” Bill says.

While food trends and practices have changed over the last few decades, Bacchi’s has kept the quality and traditional Italian family-sized servings at a decent price. Bacchi’s still serves meatballs the size of a small fist and specials for those who don’t come in with an appetite for a five-course meal: a bar special, of spaghetti or ravioli with beer or wine for $12.95 or an all-you-can-eat soup and salad special for $14.95.

Personally, I’ve been wanting to eat at Bacchi’s ever since I moved to Lake Tahoe 10 years ago, so I went in hungry with high expectations. It did not disappoint.

At 5:45 p.m. on a Sunday evening, we’re some of the first to arrive. We saddle up to the bar and order a Peroni and an Old Fashioned. The Old Fashioned goes down smoothly. We are given lots of cutlery — three spoons, two forks and a knife — and intricately patterned dishes. Soon the waitress brings a basket of bread, soft, flaky, French bread, followed up by a gigantic trough-like bowl of housemade minestrone soup with big chunks of zucchini and pasta that fall apart in my mouth.

Next, a bowl of salad is served of Iceberg lettuce, red onions and a housemade dressing that’s light, yet full of flavor. All of the salad fixings, such as garbanzo beans, beets, olives, banana peppers and slices of salami, are served on the side. I’m starting to fill up and we haven’t even gotten to the main course yet.

After our table is cleared, the entrees are served — tender slices of veal bathed in a rich lemon butter sauce that looks like gravy and a side of housemade raviolis. We eat as much as we can, but it hardly looks like we made a dent in all the food. We box the leftovers up to take home.

However, we don’t leave without trying a healthy scoop of spumoni, a pistachio ice cream with cherries in it. Even though I’m full, I manage to eat the entire dessert while Bill tells me about how a bear broke into Bacchi’s four times, ate pounds of ice cream in the walk-in, curled up and went to sleep.

We leave Bacchi’s at 8 p.m., full and happy. Now that I’ve been to North Lake Tahoe’s oldest restaurant, I can’t wait to go back. Call ahead to make sure there’s room. | (530) 583-3324, bacchistahoe.com