Simone Marengo gave Berkeley macaroni

Daniella Thompson

The West Berkeley Macaroni Factory, 2215 Fifth Street (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2004)

4 September 2007

A hundred years ago, a sizable population of refugees fleeing the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire made the East Bay its permanent home. Among the new arrivals were many Italian families, a good number of whom settled in West Berkeley.

One shrewd capitalist immediately recognized in this new demographic trend a business opportunity that was too good to pass up. His name was Simone Marengo, and he was an old-timer, having been a West Berkeley homeowner since 1891 or ’92.

A debonair figure, his stocky 5’2” frame invariably clad in a custom-tailored three-piece suit and a homburg hat on his head, Marengo (1867–1941) was a man of substance and authority, later to become known as West Berkeley’s unofficial mayor.

Simone Marengo (courtesy of Scott Marengo)

San Francisco Call, 18 July 1908

He learned capitalism the hard way. Born in the Cuneo province of Piemonte in northern Italy, Simone completed only the third grade of elementary school before his father apprenticed him to a baker, for whom he slaved carrying immense sacks of flour. His conscription to the army was a welcome release from years of back-breaking labor, but halfway through his mandatory year of national service, Simone lost his father. Aged 20, the young man had to provide for his mother, three sisters, and younger brother. America beckoned, and the family sailed to New York.

Arriving in San Francisco in 1888, Simone found work as a window washer. Before long, he had figured out that the road to affluence could be considerably shortened if he let others do the work. As a window-cleaning contractor and manager of the Progressive Window and House Cleaners Company, he prospered. By 1892—a mere four years after his arrival in the Bay Area—Simone was listed on the Alameda County assessor’s rolls as the owner of a house at 2216 Sixth Street in West Berkeley.

Simone Marengo’s house, 2216 Sixth Street (courtesy of Carlo Marengo)

The Marengo house was a spacious two-story Victorian with a well and watermill in the rear. In this house, Simone and Natalina Marengo reared six children, five of whom survived to adulthood. In 1906, their extended San Francisco family found refuge in and around this house, while the Army erected a tent village on the adjacent open land.

That year, Simone’s holdings listed in the assessor’s rolls still consisted of the one lot on which his house stood. By 1907, however, he was the owner of three houses on the 2200 block of Sixth Street and a lot at 2215 Fifth Street.

One can only conclude that Marengo recognized the growth potential of Berkeley and capitalized on it without delay. His San Francisco business having burned out, Marengo devised a new stream of income in his own neighborhood. The two other houses on Sixth Street were rented to newcomers. For the empty lot on Fifth Street, he had a grander idea: the new population had to eat—why not manufacture pasta?

The West Berkeley Macaroni Factory was originally clad in channel siding. (Oakland Tribune, 20 April 1907)

On 20 April 1907, the Oakland Tribune printed a photo of the just-opened West Berkeley Macaroni Factory, a two-story building with a false front, channel siding, and rows of windows on the front and side fa�ades. The accompanying article revealed that the factory’s construction had begun the previous November, and that it covered an area of 46 ft. by 60 ft. and was equipped with the latest “improved” machinery. “The firm,” announced the Tribune, “has been doing business in Oakland and Berkeley for 19 years. S. Morengo [sic], the manager, is a baker by trade and sells to retail and wholesale companies 5,000 pounds daily. The establishment manufactures all kinds of paste and employs fifteen skilled workmen.”

Whether the firm existed at all prior to the 1907 opening of the factory remains to be discovered. In his prior 15 or 16 years as a Berkeley resident, Simone Marengo never manufactured pasta. In the city directories he was variously listed as a laborer, window cleaner, or house cleaner. In 1896, he operated a general merchandise store on the corner of Seventh Street and Bristol (now Hearst Avenue). His chief associate and successor in the macaroni factory was Peter “Papa Pete” Costamagna, a San Francisco storekeeper a few years older than Marengo who had arrived in the U.S. in the mid-1880s. The skilled workers were new immigrants from Italy. Most likely, the firm’s r�sum� was a yarn that Marengo fed to the newspaper for effect and credibility.

According to his son Carlo, who still lives in West Berkeley, Simone Marengo was an articulate man with almost no trace of Italian accent. A natural promoter, he visited local schools to tout the nutritional benefits of pasta. Costamagna, who settled at 728 Allston Way, was listed in the 1907 directory as “helper” and the following year as “driver, S. Marengo.” In 1921, Marengo and Costamagna would become in-laws as the former’s son married the latter’s step-daughter.

Like many entrepreneurs, Simone Marengo was more engrossed in creating the business than in running it. In 1908, Costamagna took over as manager, and a year later, he brought in Giuseppe Bertol�, a pasta maker recently arrived from Italy, who lived at Costamagna’s house. The business became known as Costamagna & Bertol�, and Marengo’s role was reduced to that of landlord.

Costamagna & Bertol� receipt from the 1910s, written in Simone’s hand. (courtesy of Carlo Marengo)

The firm’s stationery listed the types of pasta manufactured: “maccaroni [sic], spaghetti, vermicelli, tagliarini, mustaciolli [sic], ditalini, riginette, lasagnette, lasagne, stars, barley and all kinds of fine paste.”

In 1914, Giovanni Coppa came in as co-owner, and the firm incorporated as West Berkeley Macaroni Company. Eventually “Papa Pete” retired, and the company continued under the ownership of Bertol� and Coppa.

Meanwhile, Marengo wasn’t sitting idle. Through his eldest sister and her husband, he discovered investment opportunities in Redding, CA and began doing business there in 1906. Among his acquisitions were buildings, town lots, and ranchland.

The saloon of the Palm Hotel, Redding, CA (courtesy of Carlo Marengo)

The most notorious of his Redding properties was the Palm Hotel at 510 Division Street—a two-story structure with a saloon on the ground floor and rooms arranged in a row along a balcony above. This establishment catered to the miners who would come into town after long stints in the nearby gold and copper mines. Behind the hotel lived a troupe of prostitutes—in 1910 there were ten, three of whom were French and none Italian—who were available to the hotel’s clients, apparently as independent operators. Marengo derived his income—often in gold dust—by supplying accommodations, food, and oceans of beer.

Simone Marengo (left) at the Palm Hotel (courtesy of Carlo Marengo)

On the hotel’s permanent staff was Mrs. Marengo’s brother, Thomas Olivieri. The Marengos’ two eldest sons, Victor and George, served stints as barkeepers. Around 1918, the hotel burned down, with suspicion of arson falling on a disgruntled prostitute who had been evicted by Simone. Carlo Marengo says that his father replaced the hotel with a brick building, which he leased to the local Buick agency.

Back in Berkeley, the Bertol� & Coppa pasta factory came to an end in the mid-1920s. Coppa retired, and Bertol�, who continued to make pasta, moved to Oakland. For a while, the building was occupied by a company calling itself Radio Food Products, but the health department closed the operation because the boiler tanks had rusted. In the late 1920s, the building was used by a chemical works. Having been expanded in the rear years earlier, the structure was now clad in wood shingles.

Nursery Cans and Containers Co., 1930s (BAHA archives)

During the Depression, the former macaroni factory stood empty, and many of its windows were broken. Simone Marengo finally leased it to the Nursery Cans and Containers Co., which obtained defective food cans from nearby canneries—like the Heinz factory on San Pablo Avenue—and recycled them for potting plants.

Even during the hard times, Marengo knew how to come out ahead. He allowed his tenants to remain in their houses even when they were unable to pay the rent, figuring that it would be better for the houses to remain occupied. In his back yard, he grew vegetables and chickens for the family table. He made his own wine in the cellar, annually buying a ton and a half of grapes for the purpose. After the grapes had been repeatedly crushed to obtain every last drop, the leftover skins were fed to the chickens.

Simone Marengo and family c. 1925, after the death of his first wife, Natalina, and before he married the second, Maria. Back row, l–r: daughter Tessie Loss, son George and his wife Lillian, Simone, daughter-in-law Sylvia and her husband Reno, son Victor Hugo. Front row: Tessie’s son Harry, daughter Eda Marengo, Reno’s daughter Barbara. (courtesy of Scott Marengo)

Always a bon vivant, Marengo frequently entertained family and friends at gatherings where food, wine, and song abounded. His closest friend was John A. Carbone, the “Orchid King,” whose large flower nursery was located on Fifth Street, directly behind the Marengo house.

Following Simone’s death, his heirs disposed of his various properties. The former macaroni factory was sold in 1948 to the Berkeley Pump Company, which removed the windows on the side walls and stuccoed the exterior.

Berkeley Pump Company (BAHA archives)

Of the various Marengo properties on the block, the former macaroni factory is the only survivor. In January 1991, the building was designated a City of Berkeley Landmark, Structure of Merit. It was restored in 1994 and serves as the office of an environmental consulting firm.

This article was published in the Berkeley Daily Planet on 7 September 2007.


Copyright © 2007–2019 Daniella Thompson. All rights reserved.