It began a few years ago, when the school bell rang each day. Angelo Peloni would be serving lunch customers in his casually elegant La Bruschetta Ristorante on Westwood Boulevard, and students from Emerson Middle School would barge in and make a scene.
Peloni, an Italian native who landed on American soil in 1976 with $100 and two suitcases, called the Emerson principal, but not to complain.
"I always like to turn a negative into a positive," says Peloni, who saw something missing in the eyes of those rowdy students. "I had a dream when I was young, and some of these kids at 11, 12, 13, don't have one. I don't know who's responsible -- their families or this society -- but somebody stole it from them."
Peloni made a proposal to the principal. He suggested that he pick five or six students each week who had improved their study habits or behavior, and Peloni would treat them to a free lunch at La Bruschetta.
He had no idea the tales his guests would tell.
The latest batch of six students -- all eighth-graders -- marched across Westwood Boulevard at noon Friday, led by Assistant Principal Carolee Bogue. They paused at the entrance and peered inside, some of them betraying the attitude that got them into trouble, and others looking as if they'd been handpicked to celebrate an early Christmas.
"Awesome," said one.
Francis Collins had been hoping for two years to get the freebie. Collins, who wants to be an attorney, confessed that she has trouble controlling her mouth, but finally got her behavior in check because David Hastings, an Emerson counselor, has inspired her to shoot for UCLA.
Lamont Dupree went from an F to an A in math, saying he's calmed down now that his mother is recovering from a coma she lapsed into after giving birth to his little sister.
Marlon Calix turned his D in math into an A by staying after school and working with a tutor. Ashley Taylor got her behavior under control, Robert Frances apologized to Bogue for mouthing off to her and has been on his best behavior. Eric Lopez has stopped fighting because he's "trying to be somebody."
Peloni, a short, bald man with dark eyebrows and spectacles, greeted the students as if they were dignitaries, congratulated them and escorted them to a big, round table near the wine racks.
"You are the future of this country," he told them as waiter Andrea Inio served a round of sodas.
Peloni told them he missed a lot of meals growing up in Genoa. He used to point to the railroad tracks near his house and tell his mother he was going to see the world and make something of himself. When he got to Los Angeles and saved enough to buy a car, he taped a note to the dash saying he would have his own restaurant one day.
"In my book," he told the students, "we do not come from nothing. You can see, you can hear, you can talk, you can smell, you can breathe, you can run. We have everything we need to succeed."
The menu, with entrees hitting $20, drew whispers, giggles and raised eyebrows, but Peloni let his guests know they could have anything they wanted. He knew how far they had come, and this was their day.
"There's vodka in this?" Marlon asked about a rigatoni dish.
The restaurant was filling up with business folks and other well-heeled customers, adding to the excitement for the students, who were dressed in T-shirts and jeans and other typical campus attire.
Their conversation was all over the map during lunch, ranging from what everyone wants to be -- three football players, a basketball player, an attorney, and a singer or police detective -- to where they all come from.
"They've had to overcome a lot of hurdles," said Bogue, noting that everyone at the table travels to Emerson from a distant neighborhood where the schools are not as good.
"I get up at 4:30 in the morning and leave the house at 5," said Francis, who lives in Watts. Her neighborhood school is dirty, she said, "and nobody learns anything," so the hassle of the long trek to Emerson is worth it.
I'm not sure how the subject came up, but over a dessert of chocolate cake, white chocolate ice cream and strawberry mousse, one student asked Bogue if she had ever seen anyone get shot in the head, like he had.
She hesitated briefly, not sure this was an appropriate mealtime conversation, but said she had once cradled two high school students felled by bullets.
Another of the six students spoke up, saying his father was shot. "He was sort of a drug dealer," he said.
And now it seemed as if everyone at the table had a story about a shooting. The student next to me said he had been shot at and was with a friend who was shot and killed, and he proceeded to go into great and graphic detail about the gang activity in his neighborhood.
This was what Peloni had been talking about when he spoke of a lost generation. The majority of Peloni's young guests have told similar stories of violence and hardship.
"If there's any way more of us can get involved in their lives," he said, "maybe there would be less of this kind of problem."
Bogue, a teacher and administrator for 28 years, helped steer the conversation back to the students' accomplishments, and reminded them that even though they weren't paying, this wasn't a free lunch.
Peloni's generosity came with a price -- he expected them to continue working toward goals, just like he did when he was young.
"The restaurant door is always open to you," Peloni told his departing guests. "Pick up a business card on the way out, and if you ever need anything, maybe you just want to chat or something, please call."
Steve Lopez writes Sunday, Wednesday and Friday.