So, here’s a 64-year-old guy, Paul Nunneri, who has owned one of the most popular Italian delis in the San Fernando Valley for 40 years — Cavaretta’s over in Canoga Park — and he hasn’t put on more than 10 pounds since high school.
If I owned the place, I’d be Jabba the Hutt by now.
Between his mother’s cannoli, his homemade meatballs, and his Italian subs, forget about it. You’re putting on a few pounds with a smile on your face.
We had dinner the other night to talk about his business and family. Paul had a salad.
“Lou Cavaretta opened the deli in ’59 and sold it in ’78 to a guy named Sal who sold it two years later to a guy named Dominic who sold it to me and my brother, Joe, in 1983,” Paul said, wrapping up 64 years in one sentence.
“Joe carried the business and me for the first seven years. Without him, I wouldn’t be here today. He taught me never forget where you came from. Never complain about the long hours or your feet killing you standing all day. Just do your job and remember where you came from.”
Forty years, and Joe’s little brother hasn’t forgotten.
When Mama Nunneri heard her boys had bought the deli the first thing she asked was when do I start? She sat up front at the cash register watching her boys work and talking to the customers — getting to know their families, as their customers were getting to know them.
“They’ve literally shared my life with me,” Paul said. “They knew me when I was single, when I met my wife, when we baptized our babies, when they went to high school and off to college, when I became a proud grandpa.
“They’ve shared my life and I’ve shared theirs. I know it sounds like a cliché, but it’s not. We’re family.”
After a few years at the register, Mama Nunneri moved into the back kitchen and started making her cannoli from a 70-year-old recipe she’d rather die than give up.
“She was tireless,” Paul said. “She never took a sick day in 35 years. She’d come in at 7 a.m. and make a few hundred cannoli and party platters every day. During Christmas time, she and my wife would make a thousand cannoli a day. On the 24th, they’d make 3,000 and sell out. That’s a lot of cannoli.”
In 2000, Joe decided it was time for new challenges in his life and moved on. Paul needed a new partner he could trust. He asked his friend, Dave Weisberg, who had worked at the deli for 10 years, if he wanted to buy in and become his partner. Dave jumped at the chance.
Like Joe, Dave became the go-to guy while Paul was the smiling face longtime customers loved to see when they came in, the star working behind the counter.
Sometimes, though, even the star has to play second fiddle in the main act.
“It was Canoga Park’s 100th birthday in 2012 and I mentioned to (then) Councilman Dennis Zine I should make a 100-foot-long sandwich for the celebration,” Paul said. “I was joking and forgot all about it.
“The day before the celebration Zine called and asked where I was making the 100-foot sub? He wanted to know if I needed a permit to block off an area out back or in front.”
Panicked, Paul asked Dave what were they’re going to do? They didn’t have nearly enough people working to make a 100-foot-long sub. Dave said don’t worry about it. He’d take care of it.
“The next morning I came in at 7 a.m. and there were 200 volunteers putting up six-foot tables in a U-shape in the back parking area. Dave had gotten members of the chamber, friends and longtime customers to come in and help.
“It took them exactly 12 minutes and 51 seconds to make a 100-foot-long sub,” Paul laughed. “It was amazing.”
Almost as amazing as the time actor Bradley Cooper walked into Cavaretta’s with his mom a few days before Christmas one year.
“I thought, ‘man that guy’s good looking’ before realizing who it was,” Paul said. “Every woman in the deli just stood there frozen, staring at him. I began talking to his mother while we filled their order. She was a sweetheart.
“Before he left, he went around and took a picture with everyone who wanted one. The guy couldn’t have been nicer.”
On Sunday, Nov. 19 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. they’re throwing a big party at Cavaretta’s for Paul’s 40th anniversary as the guy who bought the place with his brother, Joe, from Dominic who bought it from Sal who bought it from Lou who opened it in 1959. You’re all invited.
“What a great job I have,” said the man who has never forgotten where he came from.
“I get to feed Italian food to a couple of hundred people everyday.”
Dennis McCarthy’s column runs on Sunday. He can be reached at [email protected].