Leon Croce’s restaurant hasn’t served a meal in years. But legions of Lodians still remember the quality food, extensive menu, and the man whose passion for the work fueled each dinner service.
Mr. Croce died Oct. 30, 2012, at age 90. His restaurant, Croce’s Cafe off Highway 99, was for many years a Lodi landmark, a culinary destination for diners far and wide — and a reflection, some say, of a more gracious and genial time.
“He was a man of faith, of humor, and there wasn’t a mean bone in his body,” recalled his longtime friend, James Garbolino.
Croce’s was a premier locale for Lodi’s special occasions, from anniversary and birthday parties to gatherings of civic groups.
Presiding over it all was Mr. Croce, who somehow juggled cooking entrees from spaghetti to frog’s legs with regular visits to the dining room to mingle with guests.
Nick Felten Jr., former owner of the Felten’s Topaz Cafe, remembers Mr. Croce as a very personable man.
“Even with an apron on and a crooked hat, he’d walk out of the kitchen and talk to customers,” said Felten.
Mr. Croce’s nephew, Tom Rusk, recalls Mr. Croce treating homeless men asking for a meal like kings when they came to his back door.
He would set them up in the kitchen, pull a waitress in to serve the man, and lay out a spread of prime rib, baked potato, salad and a glass of wine.
“One man’s eyes got as big as saucers. He couldn’t believe this was for real,” said Rusk.
Croce was born in 1922 in Livermore, and moved to Lodi with his parents Atilio and Mary Croce in 1937. The couple ran the Waterloo Cafe in Lodi, a precursor to Croce’s.
Croce joined the U.S. Army Air Corps just after graduating from Lodi Union High School in 1940. He achieved the rank of master sergeant. It was during a firefight in Burma that Croce cemented his Catholic faith. His plane was going down and Croce had to rely on his knowledge of the hydraulics to bring it back in the air, as Rusk remembers.
“God, if you get me out of this one, I’ll pay you back,” Mr. Croce prayed. The plane was able to safely land a short distance away. Croce remained a committed Catholic for the rest of his life.
He attended Mass each day. But he also spent endless hours running Croce’s Cafe.
When Mr. Croce returned from the service, he tended bar and learned to cook at his parent’s restaurant.
In 1952, the Croce family purchased the Volcano Cafe and later renamed it Croce’s Cafe.
One night, the head cook quit in the middle of a busy dinner service. Mr. Croce jumped in, started cooking, and never left the kitchen, said Rusk.
The cafe was among the first to serve fresh seafood in the Valley. Rusk remembers helping out in the kitchen at 13 years old when a call came in that the package had arrived. That package was a box of live Maine lobsters that crawled down the bar when the box was opened.
Mr. Croce was the head cook six days a week. His mother Mary Croce worked as hostess and cashier, keeping the waitresses in line.
Lodi historian Ralph Lea said Croce’s was the place to go on Friday nights for all the fried oysters you could eat.
“There weren’t that many good eating places in Lodi to tell you the truth, so his kind of stood out. His life was that restaurant,” said Lea.
Lodi News-Sentinel publisher Marty Weybret remembers his mother asking him to put on slacks before heading out to an evening at Croce’s.
Heaping plates of Crab Louie, prime rib and pasta awaited diners. Croce’s menu featured hearty Italian American fare at reasonable prices that people were willing to drive some distance to eat.
Garbolino’s late mother and father, Mary and Fred Garbolino, were good friends of Mr. Croce, and they made regular trips from the family’s home in Roseville to eat at the restaurant.
“If Leon knew you liked something, he’d make if for you, even if you didn’t order it,” said Garbolino, a retired Superior Court judge. “My mother loved his risotto with clam sauce. Every time she dropped in, Leon would bring out a platter of risotto with clam sauce.”
When Garbolino complimented Mr. Croce on his veal scallopini, Mr. Croce promptly led him into the kitchen and created a portion, step by step.
“I immediately went back to the dining room and wrote down the recipe,” he said. “To this day, it is one of my favorites: Veal Scallopini a la Croce.”
For years, Mr. Croce was the soul of the restaurant.
But once he got to the point where he had to retire, there was nobody else to take over. Croce never married. So he retired, and sold the property to Chris Ray, who later opened the Wine Country Card Room on the site.
Since retiring, Croce spent his time volunteering.
He attended St. Anne’s Catholic Church, often bringing kids from Acampo to church or driving cancer patients to treatment.
“You couldn’t begin to estimate the good works he did. He did it quietly, or anonymously,” Garbolino said. “His life was his religion and his restaurant.”
Toward the end of his life, Mr. Croce resisted moving out of his home on California Street into an assisted living center.
“He had friends who would check in on him, get him a quart of milk or stop by the post office,” said Rusk.
On Oct. 30, Mr. Croce passed away at the age of 90.
“He was quite a guy,” said Lea. “He took pride in his restaurant. He was somebody to remember.”