Ciccio restaurant building

Ciccio, a restaurant on Washington Street in Yountville, is located in a building that originally housed an Italian market starting in the late 1910s. The “MARKET” lettering was recently painted over, raising the question as to whether it deserved protection as a historic feature.

Submitted photo

A restaurateur who had a prominent “MARKET” sign removed from outside his century-old downtown building seeks Yountville’s permission to make the change permanent – and also argues he never should have been required to ask the town in the first place.

Six blocky capital letters, painted white, had long marked the original purpose of the wooden building in Yountville’s Old Town district on Washington Street. But workers painted over the lettering in June, and the owners of Ciccio – an Italian restaurant with no grocery service – are seeking Yountville’s after-the-fact approval, saying the familiar signage that covered the old market’s façade is a decades-younger addition not covered by the site’s historic protection.

Ciccio’s co-founder, Frank Altamura, in August persuaded Yountville’s zoning board to accept the loss of the building’s market banner, saying the letters may have been painted as late as the 1970s. He also pointed to confusion he said the sign continues to sow among passers-by who expect a place for snacks and drinks, not a place for quiet sit-down dinners.

The source of the apparent clash between historic form and modern function is a survival from a rough-hewn Yountville known for farmland rather than fine cuisine – a structure with a wooden façade, gabled roof and a porch lined with square wooden columns. The Tonascia Market, founded in town in 1916, did business there through 1983, and other groceries and delicatessens called it home until its conversion into Gordon’s Café in 2000.

As Gordon’s, and later in its current Ciccio’s branding, the eatery has retained the painted signage pointing to its former use. But on June 13, town staff members saw primer being painted over the “MARKET” masthead by workers who said the building was receiving “routine maintenance,” and that the lettering would be repainted onto the barn-red siding, according to a staff memorandum to the Town Council.

The next day, Altamura contacted town staff to ask how to avoid replacing the market lettering and was told he would need a design review and permit changes to leave his storefront unadorned. No new lettering appeared at Ciccio’s entrance, and Yountville issued a violation notice June 16 requiring Altamura to restore the masthead or apply to make the change legal.

Altamura sought to gain the town’s blessing for the sign removal, citing both practical business matters and historic value.

“After operating Ciccio restaurant in this building for more than four and a half years, we find that the ‘MARKET’ sign is confusing and misleading to visitors and tourists,” he wrote the town July 11. “… Individuals are constantly coming into the restaurant believing it is a place to purchase everything from water to cigarettes.”

Ciccio already had gained a surprising ally in Napa County Landmarks, a group advocating the preservation of local historic attractions.

In 2012, Altamura unsuccessfully sought Yountville’s permission to remove the “MARKET” lettering. His application included a statement from Stacey De Shazo, then a Landmarks program manager, told town officials the seemingly historic decoration likely was added in the 1970s – well past what she called the building’s “most significant time” that set its design apart from modern storefronts.

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While questions linger about the age of the market masthead, Yountville officials have called for preserving the restaurant building as it stands, saying the lettering is now closely identified with the property and that no photo evidence of the landmark exists for nearly a half century – from about 1920 to 1978.

“Even if the ‘MARKET’ lettering was first applied to the building sometime after 1920, it may still hold local or regional significance,” the town’s planning and building director Sandra Liston and analyst Nathan Steele wrote the council in a follow-up memo Thursday. “The lettering recalls an earlier era of Yountville and is reflective of its small-town charm, which is one of the goals of the (Old Town) district. … As more of the town is redeveloped, these ties to the past hold special significance.”

In August, the Zoning and Design Review Board sided with Altamura and ruled the removal of the sign to be valid. The Town Council is scheduled to vote on that ruling Tuesday night, although Altamura requested a delay – the matter already had been postponed from Sept. 19 – because he would be out of town, officials wrote.

If the sign removal is allowed to stand, town officials suggested, Yountville could require Altamura to install a plaque nearby to explain the building’s historic value – including its many decades as a neighborhood market.

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City of Napa/Town of Yountville Reporter

Howard Yune covers the city of Napa and the town of Yountville. He has been a reporter and photographer for the Register since 2011, and previously wrote for the Marysville Appeal-Democrat, Anaheim Bulletin and Coos Bay (Oregon) World.