John Patroni Was Princeton’s “Padrone” During Prohibition Part II

In an earlier post I wrote about Mario Vellutini who worked for John Patroni, also known as “Big Daddy”. Patroni owned the aptly named Patroni House, a prohibition roadhouse that once stood where the Half Moon Bay Brewery is located today in Princeton. Not only was the Patroni House centrally located– but Mr. Patroni was a key figure, as in “the man”.

Patroni also took pride in the food he served and cleverly outwitted the competition.

“When the Prohibition agents headed for Patroni’s,” Mario Vellutini told me, “somebody called from Redwood City to warn him.” (Redwood City was and is the county government seat.)

Thus John Patroni avoided the stinging penalty of too many raids. A raid could also mean that a roadhouse– or “resort” owner like Patroni had failed to honor the custom of the time by making certain the appropriate officials got their regular “salary”.

“Patroni gave big meals at low prices,” Vellutini divulged, “and if people stayed for the weekend he gave them discounts.” Mario recalled seeing 500 people in Princeton at one times–a tremendous crowd. Those were the days when folks traveled to the Coastside to dine on the delicious local mussels.

Louis Miguel–whose father built the beautiful Palace Miramar Hotel, now gone–once told me his family’s restaurant “served mussels 12 months a year. There was no such thing as poison mussels like there is today.”

Until it was time to serve them, the shellfish were kept fresh in the ocean, held in sacks, tied with rope. Miguel said his family “never got the mussels until low tide. People nowadays get mussels up high where they get a lot of sun and moon and that’s what poisons them. But in those days we served them all year ’round and nobody got sick.”

The Patroni House building was owned by John Patroni but it was located on real estate belonging to Coastside landowner Henry Cowell. Cowell, recalled Mario Vellutini, kept raising Patroni’s rent, ultimately igniting a feud.

The “padrone” hit upon a plan to outwit Cowell and avoid the steep overhead by buying the adjacent property. One night, under cover of darkness, Patroni moved his entire building over to the the newly purchased land. Outraged, Cowell retaliated by building his own restaurant next door to Patroni’s.

But, chuckled Vellutini, “While people lined up to eat mussels at the Patroni House, nobody went to Cowell’s new place.”

Note: Mario gave me this photo. it’s of the beach between Miramar & El Granada and shows some men on motorbikes. mario.jpg

Princeton’s John Patroni Was Princeton’s “Padrone” During Prohibition

Larry_2.jpg Mario Vellutini in the front yard of his El Granada home.

I used to watch Mario Vellutini bending over in the fields bordering Highway 1 in El Granada. That’s where wild daisies the color of butter grew in abundance, waist-high.

Wearing baggy gray trousers and a worn hat, the thin, pale old man searched for clumps of wild mushrooms where the ground was rich. For dinner he cooked them with chicken, country Italian style.

One day while Mario was gathering mushrooms I went to talk to him. I hoped he would tell me secrets about Prohibition, when the Coastside was home to shadowy figures, rumrunners and bootleggers– and a madam or two who called the shots.

He didn’t disappoint.

(A little history about Mario: He was 17 when he left his home in Italy in 1913 for Half Moon Bay–where he got to know every Coastside field, working on ranches from Pescadero to Montara.)

He delighted me when he talked about his close relationship with John Patroni, a powerful man during Prohibition. Patroni owned the popular Princeton restaurant called the Patroni House–the old roadhouse was torn down in the 1950s and today the Half Moon Bay Brewing Co. stands near the site.


Some people called the husky Patroni “the padrone” for he was the boss of Princeton-by-the-Sea in the 1920s and 1930s when the sale, possession, and drinking of any kind of alcohol/liquor/whiskey was illegal.

(Can you imagine enforcing this one?)

John Patroni was the Coastside padrone but Mario Vellutini, who, when he was in his early 20s lived at the Patroni House, called the padrone, “Big Daddy.” John Patroni was the kingpin and a wealthy rumrunner, Mario Vellutini, who lived at the Patroni House, told me.

A narrow thoroughfare separated Patroni’s lively roadhouse from what is known today as Pillar Point Harbor but in the 1920s the high seas weren’t interrupted by a breakwater system. During Prohibition rumrunners used the pier across the way to unload whiskey at night.

Mario worked for Big Daddy, and rumor has it that Vellutini watched out for the best interests of his boss, making certain that nobody was cheating him.

Those were heady times for the Coastside, famous up until then for the endless fields of artichokes. But the artichokes took a back seat to Half Moon Bay which became better known as one of the biggest supplier of illegal booze on the West Coast.

When the Prohibition agents headed for Patroni, the 81-year-old Vellutini said, somebody called from Redwood City to warn him.

Thus John Patroni avoided the stinging penalty of too many raids. A raid could also mean that a roadhouse or a owner like Patroni had failed to honor the custom of the time by making sure the appropriate officials got their regular “salary.”

To be continued.