A fire broke out early Saturday at Giuseppe’s Cucina Italiana in Pismo Beach, gutting much of the interior and causing as much as several million dollars’ worth of damage to a restaurant that has been a fixture in the seaside city for nearly three decades.
Cal Fire Battalion Chief Tom McEwen said Saturday afternoon that the blaze was accidental and caused by an appliance. It likely started near the pizza oven toward the middle rear of the dining area, he said.
The dining room and bar area walls and ceiling, along with the furnishings, were destroyed by the flames. The back part of the building, which includes the kitchen, sustained heavy smoke damage. Inspectors still haven’t determined whether the building is a total loss; McEwen said if the floor can be saved, the structure can likely be rebuilt. Damage could range from $500,000 to “multiple millions of dollars,” McEwen said.
One person, a firefighter whose hand was burned, suffered a minor injury.
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Employees working Friday night said they’d left around 1 a.m. after closing. Fire crews responded about 2 a.m. to the 891 Price St. building after an employee preparing to leave reported smelling smoke, McEwen said. Several passers-by also called after noticing smoke, he said.
Pismo Beach police were the first on scene, followed by crews from Cal Fire and several other cities. Only a small amount of smoke was showing at first, but soon after firefighters arrived, heat within the restaurant caused the front windows to fall in. This sent a rush of oxygen into the building that served as an “instant ignition” and caused a full-blown blaze in the front of the restaurant, McEwen said.
Firefighters were able to put out the fire in about half an hour, he said.
Price Street near Giuseppe’s was filled Saturday morning with fire investigators, employees and shocked passers-by, many of whom leaned out car windows to snap photos. The air smelled like a mixture of smoke and saltwater as investigators strung up yellow caution tape. Charred chairs and tables were piled to one side of the structure — even the “Giuseppe’s Cucina Italiana” sign near the top of the restaurant’s roof was burned, though it was still readable.
Giuseppe’s staff members briefly took in the scene before they got to work salvaging what they could and boarding up the gaping front windows.
“It’s devastating,” said bartender Ryan Mansell, who’s worked at Giuseppe’s for about 5 1/2 years.
Cook Andrew Kukawsky showed up for his Saturday shift and found the crowded street and scorched building.
“I didn’t expect this coming to work this morning,” he said.
Abbey Ayre, who worked at the restaurant for about 3 1/2 years before leaving eight months ago, came to see the damage and provide support. She called the staff “family.”
“A lot of people spent a solid chunk of their lives working here,” Ayre said.
Giuseppe “Joe” DiFronzo opened the restaurant in 1988 using a business plan he developed as a student at Cal Poly. DiFronzo owns two other San Luis Obispo County restaurants: Giuseppe’s Express, also in Pismo Beach, and Palazzo Giuseppe’s on Court Street in San Luis Obispo. He declined to comment Saturday because of the emotional nature of the situation.
DiFronzo and his eateries have become a central feature of Pismo Beach and San Luis Obispo County. Loyal customers, officials and fellow restaurant owners came to Price Street to offer their support and see the damage.
“It’s a very important business to our city,” Higginbotham said.
Arlene Gee, a Pismo Beach resident, came to observe the burned restaurant, which she said “means a lot to a lot of people.”
“People will say, ‘Oh, are you home again?’ ” said Gee of friends who would contact her while she was spending time at Giuseppe’s.
Gee said Giuseppe’s was a rare establishment that was popular with both tourists and locals.
“It’s sort of an icon of our city,” she said.