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We Are Where We Eat: Giusti's on the Delta

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(Walnut Grove, CA)
Thursday, June 7, 2012

Mark Morais is nimble on uneven floor planks scraped for ten decades by bar stools, dirty boots and high heels. He stops to ask how many in a party. The bad news it's 20 minutes for a table.

The entrance to Giusti's Place is the bar. It fills fast before the strict start of lunch at 11:30.  Working fast, Morais has a system. He takes names on scraps of paper. At Giusti's, they don't take reservations or credit cards. If you need cash, there's an ATM next to the juke box.

Customers figure it out. After all, Giusti's since 1910 has been the hub of Delta life. "I call this place the Walnut Grove Country Club," says Christopher Lee, a lawyer and fruit grower. "If you want to find somebody, you can usually find them here -- another farmer, or a pest control advisor, or a grape buyer, or a pear evaluator.  It's an old roadhouse, and it's kind of like an old shoe. 

Giustis 1For Morais, however, the day began hours ago in Giusti's kitchen. He arrives early dressed for the day -- cargo shorts, a Giusti's polo shirt, and reading glasses way down his nose.

The kitchen teeters two stories above the Delta's watery landscape below - which is barely five feet above sea level. On the stove's back burner is a banged up stock pot holding a Delta specialty -  Portuguese Beans.

(download the Giusti recipe for Portuguese Beans)

"You've have to have Portuguese Beans in an Italian restaurant 'cause there's a lot of Italians around here and a lot of Portuguese, too. Keeps 'em all happy, Morais says." What makes the beans Portuguese is a smoky sausage red from paprika - "lots of linguiça."

As the beans settle into their pre-lunch simmer, Morais passes through a swinging door into a dining room he's known all his life. Giusti's was once two buildings.

"The building we're standing in now was the home where my grandparents lived," Morais says. Deerheads hang on the wall with original art and old signs. "Our old original dining rooms had big long community tables where everybody sat and whatever was brought out to you was what you ate."

Many Giusti's customers are regulars. Some come every day. Some come on a weekly basis -- by car and by boat. They dock on Snodgrass Slough. They climb the stairs up the levee past fig trees planted by Morais's grandfather.

Giustis 2Diana Param makes the 40-mile drive from Sloughouse, California at least once a week for lunch. "I've been coming here for 40 years. Big yachts would tie up here, come in and be guests. You could not get in the door."

Randy Baranek is from I'm a fourth-generation Delta farm family. He's at Giusti's a lot to "eat lunch and have a good time."

Since 1910, Giusti's has never closed, not even during Prohibition. "I know my grandfather was a character and bootlegged booze through here," Morais says.

The bar remains the holding area before snagging a table. It's cluttered with signed photos of football greats, Perry Mason-author Erle Stanley Gardner, a skin-flick actress. Fifteen hundred baseball caps dangle from the ceiling. But the most important thing behind the bar is a cash register sold to Egisto Giusti, Morais's grandfather, in 1910. The receipt is still stuck to the bottom of the til.

"This drawer has a lot of miles on it," Morais says. "Well, it's had a lot of money through it." But it IS old and shows it with a sign of the times in which it was made. "The reason why we ring it up so many times is it only goes up to $10," Morais says. "So if you have a $100 tag, you've got to ring it up 10 times." Ring, ring, ring.

Giustis 3By appearance, Giusti's is a dive -- but a dive with fine wine and high-quality ingredients - benefits of the surrounding Delta agriculture.

"We've been doing that farm to table stuff forever," Morais says. "I get local asparagus, tomatoes, pears. We'll serve cherries for brunch. Strawberries we use, too, right next door."

As for the Portuguese Beans, they're ready just as cars jam the levee road and the lunch decibel cranks up. Mark Morais marvels that customers find the place. "You drive by this building and you go, hmm. But that's just the way it is around here. If you change something like this, you lose some of the warmth and character."

Can Giusti's live another 100 years? Morais thinks so. His three grown children are already involved in the business.

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