As the adage goes: if it’s not true, it very well could be.
The history of Commellini Junction, a small chicken ranch-turned-restaurant in the Little Spokane River valley, is an Italian recipe of legend: heaps of truth, a pinch of embellishment, a splash of red wine for flavor.
Marilyn Monroe and Dwight Eisenhower signed the guest book, or so the legend holds. Members of the Chicago mafia hid in the guest houses. Canadian bootlegger booze flowed like the brook behind the restaurant.
In its heyday, Commellini’s inspired legend.
Superstars, priests, daredevils and bootleggers were bewitched by Leta Commellini’s chicken cacciatore and swooned on the wicker-covered bottles of her brother Al’s homemade wine.
After the nightly feasts, few had room for spumoni, but they usually had an appetite for dancing, and the terrazo floor was pounded to the swing rhythms of Benny Goodman on the jukebox.
The restaurant still cooks up Leta’s recipes, but spicy flavor is now limited to the roasted pepper appetizer.
Founders Albert and Leta Commellini died a decade ago, leaving their neice, Gina Seghetti, as the owner and unofficial historian of the 100-acre compound on Dartford Drive.
The restaurant building is now rented by a Spokane Valley couple, Rod and Deborah Dickinson, who reopened two months ago. “Oh yeah, it’s a place with an unusual history,” said Rod Dickinson. “We hear the stories.”
Albert Commellini was already a well-known Spokane figure when he bought the site in 1939.
After immigrating from Italy’s Tuscani province in 1907, he worked as a steam boy on a railroad, which brought him to Spokane.
He convinced his sister Leta to join him, and quickly set up the Italian Importing Company at Browne and Pacific.
Leta worked a popular lunch counter next to the business while Al worked the political circles and local real estate market. He lost a county commissioner race in 1933.
For six years, he owned the magnificent Ambassador club, an East Sprague dance hall with two huge terrazo floors, a movie theater and 15 private dining rooms.
Al Capone’s brother Frankie visited Spokane to consider buying the Ambassador, the Spokane Chronicle reported in 1936.
Less than a year later, in the midst of a conflict over a liquor license, the place burned to the ground in a suspicious fire. “Somebody did Albert wrong,” said Gina Seghetti.
Always the businessman, Albert quickly bought the Dartford chicken ranch, named it Commellini Junction and convinced the county bus service to put in a stop. It was once in the Guinness Book as the world’s smallest town on a single light meter.
With the help of a Japanese couple, he began slaughtering 5,000 chickens a week.
But soon crowds began arriving. They were Leta’s regulars at the downtown lunch counter, hungry for her chicken cacciatore. A small barn was converted to a dance floor, and the terrazo tile installed.
By 1941, the place had slot machines and a jukebox. Liquor laws prohibited alcohol sales, so diners brought their own.
Leta’s cooking touch was famous, but Seghetti said she worked magic with a broken heart. She left a boyfriend in “the old country” to immigrate, and returned to Italy six years later to find him married.
She was also a famous conversationalist, and guests demanded the cook visit their tables after feasts. “If she didn’t, they would be hurt,” said Seghetti, 68.
“If you had been there a few times, and you had a relationship, she was charming and warm,” said Spokane Mayor Jack Geraghty, a regular for 40 years.
The place was regularly filled with lawyers, professors and priests. Father Pat Ford of Gonzaga University remembers his teachers at Mount St. Michael’s seminary making rare off-campus visits to Commellini’s.
Along with the high-profile crowd, the place was becoming notorious. Albert Commellini was once arrested twice in the same day, once for having a bottle of bootleg gin, according to Seghetti. She didn’t know the cause of the second arrest.
He regularly brought huge bags of sugar south from Canada to supply Spokane bootleggers, said Seghetti.
The mafia rumor is sketchy but pervasive. A guest house supposedly was used by mobsters from the Capone clan, whose leader visited Commellini’s in the 1930s. Seghetti, a waitress at the restaurant for 25 years, said she knows nothing about that.
“Nobody’s sure what’s true and nobody’s sure what’s the legend that has grown up around the place,” said Gonzaga’s Ford.
Albert Commellini was also a man with a huge heart, according to Seghetti. He bought her a new Ford after she immigrated to “help the family” as a waitress. He set up a soup kitchen during the Depression in the old Schade brewery on Trent.
Mayor Geraghty remembers the restaurant largely as it is today, hidden, where folks could get good, reliable food in a discreet setting.
Geraghty says Commellini’s was the city’s restaurant of choice when corporate executives came to scout Spokane for the 1974 World Expo. In 1972, in the midst of the Cold War, representatives of the USSR came to talk. They went to Commellini’s.
“We used to have county commissioner meetings up there, with huge lunches, always a jug of wine, big salads,” said Geraghty, whose 1951 North Central High senior prom was at the restaurant.
Ford said the restaurant has special meaning for some at GU. Ten years ago, the popular Father Jack Lawlor found he had rapidly spreading cancer.
A handful of his close friends met for “a last supper” at Commellini’s. A few days later, he died. “We still talk about it every time we go out there,” said Ford.
The Commellini siblings continued to operate the restaurant until 1977, when Leta had a stroke. They sold it, and the restaurant has had a handful of different owners since.
Seghetti is overseeing the remodel of a few guest houses and duplexes to rent them. Property taxes, she says, are rising.
The current restaurant owners, the Dickinsons, are trying to compile the restaurant’s oral history. And to keep its tradition.
“Try our chicken cacciatore,” said Deborah Dickinson. “It’s Leta Commellini’s recipe.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 5 photos (2 color)
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