This post is a guest blog submitted by Lew Baer, a current member of the “Sages of Petaluma” and editor of the San Francisco Bat Area Post Card Newsletter.
Petaluma has boasted of outstanding restaurants over the past century and a half. Some were notable for the delicious meals that were served. Others stood out for the pleasure of just being there. In this last category was the back room at Volpi’s where a beer and a sandwich would transport the consumer back 50 years in time. Today, Volpi’s offers speakeasy ambiance in the bar and home style Italian cooking in the comfortable dining room. Tivoli II, down by the railroad tracks on Lakeville, also had homestyle Italian food with family table service. The Thursday special—bowls of stewed tripe alongside a platter of grilled pork chops—was a particular favorite as were the copious libations from the bar. Yessiree! Drinking and dining were daily specials in Petaluma of the latter 1900s.
A small but popular lunch counter that offered only water, coffee or soda pop to wash down what may have been the world’s best chili was a weekday oasis at the southwest corner of the Boulevard and H Street. Its sign continued to read “Nick’s Chili” for many years after Nick sold out and the Scangarello sisters assumed ownership. The city took umbrage at Nick’s nonpresence, and the sign was duly changed to Millie’s Chili.
Millie and Vickie were twins from Passaic, and in the Jersey tradition they took guff from nobody. I had to smile imagining the guff they gave the inspector, the Planning Commission and the City of Petaluma over the enforced change of name. When I mentioned it, they laughed, “Ha. Ha. Hah!”
Millie made the chili following Nick’s very secret recipe. She also made hamburgers and the occasional sandwich. Vickie made the coffee, cut the bakery pie and served what Millie dished up. Neither were trained in the culinary arts, but Millie followed Nick’s directions to the last bean, and it was scrumptious. Millie’s chili was a bit spicy. It’s flavor came from generous amounts of griddle fried hamburger meat; chili powder and black pepper were discernible. Any secret touch was overwhelmed by the delicious everydayness of its taste.
The chili was served in ten-ounce, ironstone bowls of different pastel colors or atop hamburger patty and bun. The chiliburger was my favorite, and I liked my bread well toasted. Vicki, behind the counter, would see me first when I came in the door. She’d open her mouth in the Rolling Stones way and holler, “Uh oh. Look who’s here. Burn his buns!” Millie would look up from her griddle and holler back, “I’m burning his buns. Ha Ha Hah!”
Sometimes I’d ask for onions and cheese, but usually plain ole Millie’s chili was just right unadorned. Sitting there, knocking elbows with morticians, postmasters and plumbers, we crumbled our two packs of saltines or savored our chiliburgers, eager for the next bite and wishing we could make it last.
The chili bar under both its names made its way into at least two movies filmed in Petaluma, “American Graffiti” and “Peggy Sue Got Married.” For the latter it sported a new paint job courtesy of the production company. It went from white and brick to glitzy retro colors, and the Scangarellos closed temporarily several times. I’d see Millie and Vickie walking up the Boulevard to the market occasionally and would ask, “When will you be burning my buns?” “Soon,” They’d reply. After a couple of brief re-openings, “Soon” turned into “Some day.” But that day didn’t come.
Stay tuned for more guest blogs by the SAGES of Petaluma.