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This Downey Pizza Parlor Is a Time Machine That Takes You Back to 1964

10:49 AM PDT on June 15, 2022

    Welcome to Local Gems, our new monthly restaurant column presented by White Claw, the official hard seltzer of L.A. TACO. Each month we’ll honor neighborhood institutions that make delicious food and have stood the test of time all over Los Angeles. Read, order, share, and don’t be afraid to rep your community’s local gem in the comments.

    No one who grew up in SELA eating at Frantone’s can recall their first time at the “Pizza and Spaghetti Villa” because visits were so omnipresent. Birthday parties. Little league lunches, family dinners, school pizza parties, first dates, proms, engagement parties. Baby showers. Holiday gatherings. Anniversary celebrations. Fundraisers. Hell, even wakes. Every milestone triggered a visit to Frantone’s. Eventually, the old school Italian American restaurant simply became part of the backdrop of life in southeast Los Angeles. 

    Italian immigrant Sleme Tesoriero and his wife Rose opened the first Frantone’s on Telegraph Road in Downey in 1964. Primarily based on Rose’s recipes, the early menu was small: pizza, sandwiches, and a few pasta dishes⁠—one of which put Frantone’s on the map. 

    “The Wednesday Spaghetti Special is what made Frantone’s famous,” said longtime manager Debbie Sue Montgomery. “People would drive in from all over or come in after work in the factories for a big plate that cost $1.99 back in the day.”

    The restaurant now has a giant menu, literally. The wall-sized menu is the first thing you see when you walk in the front door. It features all of the family-owned restaurant’s original dishes, plus many comfort foods⁠—everything from fried chicken with spaghetti and linguini with clams to lasagna and veal parmigiana. But really, most people come for the pizza. The dough recipe hasn’t changed in 58 years, and it’s been made by Albert Aguirre since April 1976. 

    Frantone’s core employee team comprises people who have been with the restaurant for more than 40 years. Aguirre works alongside his brother Michael, who was hired in April 1975. Night manager Dan Selenak has been with Frantone’s since October 1972. Frantone’s was Montgomery’s first job. She was hired during her sophomore year of high school in May 1978 and has been there ever since. Her mother worked at the restaurant for 20 years, and her sister’s been with Frantone’s since the mid-90s. Frantone’s also remains family-owned. In the 1970s, Sleme passed the business onto his sons and son-in-law, who expanded Frantone’s into Norwalk and Cerritos.

    The Norwalk location is now closed, but Frantone’s remains a beloved institution to writer Myriam Gurba’s family. Growing up in Santa Maria, Gurba’s father often took her and her siblings on pilgrimages to Norwalk, where he was raised. After visiting family, the trip would inevitably turn into a drive down memory lane and a visit to Frantone’s. 

    “My dad is very nostalgia-driven, and he’d take us on these long, winding drives where he would share his geography with us and tell us the lore of his life,” Gurba said. “Restaurants were a common part of this tour, and Frantone’s was one we visited frequently. It’s weird. I can’t tell you my first memory of Frantone’s, but it’s one of those restaurants I’ve gone to across my lifespan, and I have memories of eating there with people who are now deceased, including my grandma. I imagine probably even before I had a memory. My parents were taking me to Frantone’s.”

    Gurba still vividly recalls being a little girl and going to Frantone’s with her Grandma Hope. When her grandmother passed away, her wake was held at Frantone’s. 

    “We ordered pizza, we ordered spaghetti, and then we reminisced. And it felt very, very comforting to be reminiscing there of all places because that place had been integral to all of our lives. It seemed appropriate to be mourning somebody's life but also celebrating their life at a place that had sustained us throughout our other milestones. If you experience life milestones in a restaurant, that restaurant gets cemented to those family memories⁠—and Frantone’s holds a lot of memories,” Gurba said. 

    This is certainly true for my family and me, and Frantone’s was a place where Vasquez family lore was created. Frantone’s was one of the first restaurants my dad ever ate at in the U.S. after migrating to SELA from Mexico in the 1970s. My parents went on their first dates at Frantone’s. On my birthday each year, my mom would tell me how she could eat an entire large Frantone’s pepperoni pizza when she was pregnant with me. 

    It seems Gurba and I are not outliers in our devotion. Montgomery said one Frantone customer regularly drives in from Bakersfield for two large pizzas. Another customer, Frances Dusharme, has been a regular since Frantone’s opened in 1964. Dusharme even celebrated her 90th birthday at the restaurant. But when her husband passed away, Dusharme could no longer visit Frantone’s because she was unable to drive. Montgomery is a close friend of the 93-year-old, so she helps her get her Frantone’s fix by delivering pizza to Dusharme’s home.

    I posted a query in Downey Facebook groups, asking people to share fond memories of Frantone’s. The stories came flooding in. Weekly Friday night family dinners. First jobs. First loves. A wedding reception. A family reunion where a surprise pregnancy was announced. A woman named Sharon Livingston said that from the ages of 2-to 18, her family went to Frantone’s several times a month. Her dad always ordered extra so that they had several days’ worth of cold pizza for breakfast. Livingston continues this tradition every time she visits Downey. Before her four-hour drive home, she stops at Frantone’s so that she can have cold pizza in the morning. (It should be noted that the free “dough puffs” Frantone’s provides to dine-in customers are also universally loved. These pillowy bites of fried pizza dough are rolled in sugar and arrive at the table warm along with the check.)

    While many love the food, Gurba says she can’t recall ever feeling “an incredible amount of enthusiasm” for it. 

    COVID has been rough. Montgomery said she was worried about elderly customers and worried Frantone’s wouldn’t survive. Business has gone up in recent months, but the manager said the future of Frantone’s is unknown. The family members behind the business are getting older, and their children have careers of their own that don’t include Frantone’s. Montgomery and the other longtime employees are also rapidly approaching retirement age. 

    “My family, like so many families in Southern California, are very loyal customers, and we become this sort of cult clientele,” Gurba said. “Once you find your historic watering hole, you keep going to it, no matter what. It stops being about the food if it ever was about the food. My family developed a loyalty to Frantone’s, and it became one of those establishments that just felt like ours because it was part of this region and this terrain that defined us. There are also many sentimental attachments to how the place looks and feels.”  

    Outside of a few minor changes⁠—replacing picnic tables with booths and chairs⁠—Montgomery says Frantone’s looks exactly the same as when she was hired 44 years ago. Same checkered tablecloths and the same red damask wallpaper and wood paneling. Same hanging baskets of fake plants and plump Italian chef statues tucked away in random corners. It’s like stepping back in time and a version of Downey that no longer exists. The neighborhood and the community have changed drastically since Frantone’s opened on Telegraph Road nearly 60 years ago when Downey was a middle-class white suburb. As white flight occurred all over SELA, the Tesoriero family’s foothold in the region only grew—and so did their roots in the community. 

    Frantone’s pizza is a mainstay at school events and Downey fairs and festivals, and the restaurant is known for donating to organizations and sponsoring local sports teams. Frantone’s has become synonymous with Downey, and Montgomery says it’s both sweet and sad to spend so much time in one place, watching customers pass through various phases of their lives. 

    COVID has been rough. Montgomery said she was worried about elderly customers and worried Frantone’s wouldn’t survive. Business has gone up in recent months, but the manager said the future of Frantone’s is unknown. The family members behind the business are getting older, and their children have careers of their own that don’t include Frantone’s. Montgomery and the other longtime employees are also rapidly approaching retirement age. 

    Whatever happens, Montgomery said it makes her happy to know that she’s spent the last 44 years of her life working at a restaurant that has helped to shape and define Downey. 

    “I think it means something that we have been here for so many years, and we operate like a family,” Montgomery said. “I know the names of people who come in the door. I know their families. Sometimes I see them coming, and I just start putting food out on their table because I already know what they’re going to order. I guess what I would want people to remember about me is that I made them feel at home.”

    Frantone's Pizza & Spaghetti Villa

    9148 Telegraph Rd, Downey, CA 90240. Closest Metro lines and stop: Bus Line 62 - "Telegraph/Serapis" or Bus Line 266 - "Lakewood/Telegraph."

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