A restaurateur’s battle with Yountville over the disappearance of a familiar Old Town masthead took an angry turn – and the Town Council indicated it may force him to restore the “MARKET” lettering of the historic grocery to the storefront next month.
Frank Altamura, who five years ago founded the Ciccio restaurant inside the former Tonascia Market building on Washington Street, jousted last week with town leaders over whether he was allowed to remove the six large block letters from the wooden façade in June – and whether the lettering truly belonged on the century-old local landmark or was added as late as the 1970s, as Altamura contends.
The debate appeared to swing decisively against Altamura when the council asked Yountville staff to write a resolution ordering the market-themed banner returned to the building, which housed various groceries and delis for decades but has served as a restaurant since 2000.
It was a sharp turnabout from an August decision by Yountville’s zoning board to grant Altamura its after-the-fact blessing to take down the letters, after the restaurant owner cited their lack of historic value and the confusion he said they sowed among visitors expecting to find a grocery.
Council members are scheduled to vote Nov. 7 on the requirement to bring back the market lettering, and Altamura would then have 10 days to comply.
Altamura made clear that the grocery-themed signage will return, if it does, only under severe protest.
“I gotta be honest with you: You guys have loaded this up pretty good,” he told the council, denying any attempt to circumvent his town permit by taking down the masthead. “You’re not being factual; you’re not being fair. You’ve loaded up the staff report. A lot of the story isn’t true, and I’m not appreciative of that.”
At the heart of the dispute is whether the white “MARKET” lettering atop Ciccio’s red-painted wooden front is an essential part of the structure, which stands in Yountville’s Old Town area on the northern section of Washington Street.
Opened by an Italian immigrant, Tonascia Market did business in Yountville from 1916 to 1983 and spent most of its history in the modern-day Ciccio building, a throwback to a more rustic pre-tourism town with its gabled roof, porch and square wooden columns. Afterward, several other grocery and deli owners occupied it before it was converted into Gordon’s Café and then, in 2012, to Ciccio, a dinner-only Italian eatery.
Since workers removed the lettering in mid-June, Altamura has insisted that no photos exist showing it belonged to the building in its early years. It was an argument he had previously made in an unsuccessful 2012 appeal to the town, during which the Napa County Landmarks group filed a letter agreeing the masthead was likely a much later addition to a structure from the 1910s.
Warm feelings for the market-related signage are not enough to merit their preservation, or to stop an owner from removing them to restore a site’s historic value, according to Altamura, who said the lettering had been removed and repainted at various times in the last 40 years.
“If you think, ‘Oh but it’s cute, it adds to the charm of Yountville,’ that’s really playing a word game,” he told the council. “You got the report from Landmarks, and you wouldn’t have unless you thought it would go your way – and it didn’t. Now it’s ‘Well, we don’t really care what they say, and we don’t really care about our (Old Town regulations), the rules we have about (architecture) from 1870-1920, so we’re gonna make it up as we go along.’”
“You guys have discretion, but it can’t be discriminatory and it can’t be prejudiced. You can’t just start changing rules as you go along. It’s just not fair.”
Mayor John Dunbar took offense at any accusation of bias by Yountville officials.
“You’re being very disrespectful of our staff, and I’m not going to tolerate it any further,” he shot back at Altamura. “You’re accusing us of being factually inaccurate. I’m asking you to stick to what you can prove is accurate and factual in your presentation.”
When Altamura declared the “MARKET” lettering had not been “painted over” but merely had not yet been replaced pending the town’s ruling, Dunbar replied incredulously: “Are you really saying you did not remove the lettering? Is that really what you’re saying right now?”
“Yeah. We have not replaced it yet,” Altamura replied.
Regardless of how historical – or not – the familiar signage is, Altamura still must meet the terms of his use permit unless Yountville changes its stance, said Town Attorney Gary Bell. “It clearly states that no other modifications are allowed, other than painting it up there,” he said. “So removing it would be an unauthorized modification.”
Council members also dismissed Altamura’s contention that the “MARKET” lettering misdirects visitors seeking groceries or otherwise harms the resident eatery.
“I don’t know how that confusion is affecting this business that’s only open five days a week for four to five hours a night,” said Margie Mohler. “Nobody is dropping off their dry cleaning at The French Laundry.”
Dunbar chided Altamura for not presenting plans to remove the Ciccio storefront’s labeling in advance, contrasting his actions to those of the owners of the former Vintage 1870 dining-shopping complex, which gained Yountville’s permission to rename itself V Marketplace in 2007.
“We are open-minded about these things – but not when, in my opinion, you blatantly violated your use permit conditions with the intent of using the process to ultimately get where you wanted to be,” the mayor told Altamura.
“I would have been open to that conversation had you been willing to follow the rules the way they are set out for everybody. I don’t feel like you did that.”