It seems to Paul Nunneri that he blinked and 30 years flashed by. That can happen when a leap of faith morphs into a labor of love.
“It has flown by, but it’s been good. It’s my life, you know,” Nunneri said of three decades as an owner of Cavaretta’s Italian Deli on Sherman Way in Canoga Park.
So banners and balloons will decorate the place Friday as Nunneri’s crew, loyal customers and Chamber of Commerce officials drop by to share in the celebration.
The place is about as old school as a west San Fernando Valley small business can get. Lou Cavaretta opened the store in 1959, after moving to the the Valley from Boston, and it soon became a beacon for Italians who moved from the Northeast and upper Midwest for some California sun.
Nunneri showed up in 1980 as a jack of all trades, putting together some of the best meatball and sausage sandwiches around, whipping up the homemade marinara sauce and fresh lasagna that have pretty much become legendary — and even working a cleaning-crew shift.
Three years later, when Cavaretta decided to retire, Nunneri bought the place. It was a no-brainer that proved a smart move.
He didn’t change a thing. The store still looks and smells just like it did the first time I visited in 1972, after moving out from New York and settling at the former Oakwood Apartments a few blocks away. The shelves are still stocked with the imported tomato products, pastas and sweets, as well as Italian wines and beers.
“We kept a good thing so the customers would know we’d give them the same good products,” Nunneri said. “A lot of people from back east say this reminds them of New York. And we enjoy feeding the community.”
Nunneri, now 58, plunged into the business world at a young age and still remembers the excitement of becoming boss.
“Here I was 24 years old, and I felt like it was a dream come true,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it was happening. I didn’t think any further than that day. I had some good people to help me out. I was always thankful for that.”
David Weisberg was a regular in the 1980s but went to work behind the counter in 1985, sticking around for 10 years. He started a catering company in 1995, then became Nunneri’s partner in 2000. He’s the one who organized the anniversary festivities.
For the celebration, Cavaretta’s is rolling back prices, holding raffles and, of course, doing lots of kibitzing with the locals.
The seven employees have become a second family. “It’s like adopting kids,” Weisberg said. “You are going to take care of them and support them.”
He notes that his partner still quietly gives back, volunteering at West Hills Hospital and donating food for various community events.
As for Nunneri, he wouldn’t mind another 34 years behind the deli counter.
“It’s a big milestone for me. It’s hard to believe it’s been that long,” he said. “I never forgot how great I felt the first day, so as long as can keep doing this, I’ll keep doing this.”