Onetime Italian grocery store to get a new touch of Italian

When the owners of a pizza joint set to open in downtown Tacoma learned the 124-year-old building used to be an Italian grocery, they knew their restaurant had to somehow pay homage to those roots.

Elemental Pizza plans to open by the end of the year in the triangular wedge building at South 17th Street and Pacific Avenue, which it will lease from the University of Washington Tacoma.

Most recently, the building housed Grassi’s Garden Cafe, which opened in 1991 and closed more than a year ago.

The school calls the space the “Pagni & Lenti building” to honor the Pagni & Lenti store, one of the first occupants of the building.

The shop was a gathering place for Tacoma’s Italian-American community, and often a first stop when they stepped off the train across the street at Union Station.

“We’re bouncing around a few ideas about what we can do to evoke some of the Pagni & Lenti history,” Elemental Pizza co-owner James Allard said in a recent interview.

Built in 1890, the building originally was a railroad baggage station. At different times after that it was a drug store, a sheriff’s office, a millinery, a bakery and a harness shop before becoming the Italian grocery in 1903, according to News Tribune archives.

Family records show Pietro Pagni opened the store with a partner in 1900, three years after he came to the United States from a small town in Lucca, Italy.

“The fact that we’re essentially an Italian restaurant and they were an Italian grocery store, that’s kind of cool,” Allard said.

The new tenant hopes to reflect the history of the store, where visitors, new residents and others would go when they arrived by train. Newcomers would ask directions amid bins of pasta, cans of the family’s meat sauce and other goods.

There’s been talk of incorporating that history into part of the new pizza joint’s decor or maybe naming a menu item after the store, Allard said.

He recently met with members of the Pagni family after they contacted the business and arranged to gather at the building.

Peter Pagni and Susan Rowling, grandchildren of the store owner, brought family photos and stories to share.

“It was a gathering place, the way I got it,” Pagni said.

The grandchildren never got the chance to see the store, but they heard all about it from relatives.

“This store was drilled into us,” Pagni said. “This is near and dear to my heart.”

His isn’t the only heart to be intertwined with the store throughout its history. Grandpa fell in love with grandma when she started working there.

The Lentis didn’t co-own the store for long, and the shop eventually became Pagni & Sons, the Pagni family said.

An undated photo shows Pietro Pagni standing under the store’s awning with four other men. They’re in hats. He sports a cap, a butcher’s apron and a handlebar mustache

It was his store through and through until his death in 1931, the family said.

“He ran it,” Peter Pagni said. “He was the main guy.”

The family struggled to keep the business going without him. Descendents aren’t sure when the store finally closed, but think it might have been about 1940 that Tacoma’s Italian Americans lost their social center.

It had been a place where newcomers went for help, where everyone got fed, whether they could afford it or not (which might have been part of the trouble with the business model, the family speculated with a laugh).

A credit slip they kept shows one customer owed $230 in 1931.

The Pagnis won’t have a bill to pay when they show up for Elemental Pizza’s opening, which is expected to open in January, Allard said.

They’ll eat free that night.