For Seniors : Muralist, Restaurateur Offer Musical Taste of Italy

It’s an exquisite Italian combination--food, art and opera.

The food is brought to you by Gianfranco’s, an authentic Italian restaurant on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Los Angeles with an adjoining food market that sells hard-to-get Italian delicacies. The art is from 77-year-old Giovanni Palomba, who stood on a scaffold painting a scene from Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana” on the facade of the restaurant. And the opera is the product of a dream of Franco Altavilla, owner of Gianfranco’s.

Over a meal of tortellini, cappelletti with artichoke and pasta, Palomba--joined by his wife, Grace, and Altavilla--spoke in Italian and English about the old days and the future of opera on the Westside.

Palomba was trained as a cameo sculptor and muralist in his native Italy, but his fantasy was to be in the United States. “Nobody was free, and I heard about freedom in America. People like me had passion. We brought something from the old country as a gift,” he said.


For the first five years after his arrival 45 years ago, Palomba was a house painter. But after painting a mural for a church in San Pedro, he continued as a muralist until a few years ago, when he had a mild stroke.

“Without paint he cannot live,” Grace Bicaci Palomba says. “He’s very strong for his age, he loves to work and he wishes to die with a brush in his hand, so he was sad for a while.”

Enter Altavilla. He had a dream: to combine his love of opera with his restaurant. Altavilla, who knows the stories of every opera to come out of Italy, started slowly. First, the restaurant sound system played his favorite arias and he sold the compact discs after customers asked him where they could get them. Now, he wants the real thing.

“I want people to step into a little theater where opera singers will perform a few nights a week,” he said.

While Palomba painted the mural, Altavilla turned the restaurant into a slice of Milan. He created a stage area and bought an electronic piano that can simulate an orchestra. He sent for posters from La Scala Opera House to decorate the eating area. Busts of Verdi sit on pedestals around the stage, and drapes of wine-colored brocade will frame the windows. The opening of the opera stage is planned for early next year with selections from “La Boheme.”

“Ever since the Three Tenors (Placido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti and Jose Carreras) concert, there’s more interest in opera. There are a lot of young people in the universities who want an opportunity to perform not only opera but classic Italian songs. And if customers really like it, I’ll bring in string quartets too,” Altavilla said.

Altavilla, a native of Oriabrindisi, Italy, met Palomba many years ago when he was working as a stone cutter and Palomba was painting. They became friends, and when Altavilla planned the refurbishing of his restaurant, he knew he wanted Palomba. Rather than put a neon sign up saying “Opera Sung Here,” Altavilla envisioned a series of panels around the outside of his restaurant depicting scenes from operas.

But there was one problem, and it wasn’t Palomba’s stroke.

Palomba was accustomed to painting murals with an old-fashioned, wraparound scaffold made of wood and pipe. Altavilla wanted to use an electric one that was much smaller and mobile and wouldn’t take up a lot of sidewalk space. Palomba walked off the job.

“I took his hand and pressed the button--up, down--to show him how it worked. Now he loves it,” Altavilla said.

Palomba worked eight hours a day on the “Cavalleria” mural. “I gotta get out to work. I’m from the old-style people,” he said.

After Palomba finishes some more exterior work, Altavilla wants him to do some murals inside the restaurant. Palomba likes the idea of reproducing some of Michelangelo’s work from the Sistine Chapel.

“Opera! Opera!” shouts Altavilla.