Richmond’s Coziest Red Sauce Italian Comes Courtesy of a Mexican American Family

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A plate of spaghetti topped with shrimp and mussels in a creamy sauce.
The spaghetti di mare is one of the most popular dishes at David's Pastas & Pizzas, an Italian American restaurant in Richmond. (Courtesy of David's Pastas & Pizzas)

In many ways, David’s Pastas & Pizzas is your prototypical red sauce Italian joint. Tucked away in a stretch of working-class Richmond populated by auto shops and unmarked warehouses, the restaurant has built up a strong local following for its thin-crust pizzas and heaping platters of chicken parmesan and fettuccine Alfredo. It’s the kind of place where the whole family can fill up on nostalgic, comforting carbs for $40 or $50.

Of course, this is the Bay Area, so it shouldn’t come as any surprise that the kitchen team working behind the scenes is entirely Latino—or, in this case, that the whole restaurant is owned and operated by a Mexican American family with deep roots in the Richmond-San Pablo area.

Co-owner David Guillen, Jr. says the way his father, David Guillen, Sr., got into Italian cooking is a classic immigrant tale: Shortly after arriving in the United States in the late ’90s, the Jalisco native landed a job as a dishwasher at an Italian restaurant in Orinda—a gig he secured thanks to the recommendation of some Salvadoran neighbors that he’d befriended. David Sr. had never had any particular interest in Italian food prior to that, but he started studying the recipes in earnest, slowly working his way up the line until he became the lead cook. Eventually, In 2017, he and his brother opened their own restaurant, Famiglia Italian Restaurant, in Pinole.

Now, David Sr. has split off to open a small Italian family restaurant of his own. David Jr. works the front of the house and manages the business side of things, but the recipes are David Sr.’s alone—a culmination of his 20-plus years of slinging ravioli and spaghetti carbonara. Open since December of last year, the restaurant also occupies a somewhat rarefied niche here in the East Bay: The menu focuses almost exclusively on the kind of red sauce classics that dominate the Italian American enclaves of the East Coast but have become something of an endangered species in these parts. 

Raviol and sliced chicken in a pool of creamy, orange marinara sauce.
Cheese ravioli comes in a glistening pool of creamy marinara. (Courtesy of David's Pastas & Pizzas)

So, one of the most popular dishes at David’s Pastas & Pizzas is its extra-creamy, extra-garlicky version of fettuccine Alfredo—the kind of retro pasta dish you’d be hard-pressed to find at any of the Bay Area’s stylish temples of Cal-Italian or hyper-regional Italian cooking. Another is David Sr.’s own invention, the “Richmond Special,” which coats a massive portion of penne, sausage, chicken and shrimp with his signature creamy marinara (i.e., marinara sauce spiked with lobster bisque). The restaurant also serves a hearty and satisfyingly workmanlike version of chicken parmesan—a couple of enormous, oozily cheese-laden cutlets piled atop a boatload of red sauce penne.

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Indeed, if red sauce Italian is a dying art in many parts of the Bay Area, David’s Pastas & Pizzas is just one example of how Mexican Americans and other Latino cooks are the ones helping to keep it alive. David Jr. says he knows of at least two or three other Latino-run Italian restaurants in the Richmond-San Pablo area alone. They all offer the same kinds of Italian American classics you can find at David’s.

This is partly just a matter of catering to local tastes. David Jr. estimates that a little more than half of his customers are Latino, many of them second-generation folks in their 20s or 30s. “Hispanics in Richmond, we all love pizza,” he says, recounting how when he was a kid his family would supplement his mother’s Mexican home cooking with frequent excursions to Domino’s, Pizza Hut and Little Caesars. Even though his dad worked at an Italian restaurant, “fancy” Italian food was never part of his life.

A family portrait: a young man with his arms around the shoulders of his parents on each side of him.
A family photo: David Guillen, Sr; David Guillen, Jr.; and Maria Guillen Cruz. (Courtesy of David Guillen, Jr.)

In fact, David Jr. says, the Guillens had to whittle their menu down from the dozens of pasta dishes in his father’s repertoire, prioritizing the ones that locals would be familiar with. But even with a menu made up almost entirely of crowd pleasers, David Jr. finds he always has to encourage customers to step a bit outside of their pizza-and-lasagna comfort zone—to try the carbonara, for instance, or the seafood-loaded spaghetti di mare.

To further cater to their customer base of Mexican families, the Guillens have started tapping more directly into their Jaliscan roots. A few weeks ago, they started offering a brief “cenaduría” menu on Friday and Saturday nights, serving the kinds of dishes that you might find in the Guillens’ hometown of San Juan de los Lagos in Jalisco. David Jr. explains that his mother, Maria Guillen Cruz, cooks all of the Mexican specials.

So far, the rotating menu has included things like red pork pozole, crispy tacos and tortas ahogadas, or “drowned sandwiches,” the sauce-drenched specialty of the state of Jalisco. Guillen Cruz’s version—a nod to a specific torta stand in San Juan de los Lagos—features roast pork loin, onions, queso panela and an unconscionable amount of spicy chipotle-tomato sauce.

A sandwich drenched in bright orange sauce.
The restaurant's torta ahogada is a specialty of the owners' hometown of San Juan de los Lagos in Jalisco, Mexico. (Courtesy of David's Pastas & Pizzas)

In the Richmond-San Pablo area, it actually isn’t unusual for a restaurant to serve a full-fledged Mexican menu right alongside a comprehensive lineup of pizzas. But the Guillens say they aren’t trying to compete with the dozens of high-quality taquerias and taco trucks in the area. Instead, Guillen Cruz is staying focused on a small number of Jaliscan specialties like the wet tortas, which are relatively rare in the Bay. The idea is to allow the Mexican families who come in on the weekend to enjoy a nice, home-style meal while their kids can still get a pizza. 

Even just the name “cenaduría,” referring to a kind of informal supper club in Mexico, is nostalgic for a lot of the restaurant’s customers, David Jr. says. So many of them tell him it reminds them of the late-night food stands they used to visit in their hometowns.

Starting in September, the Guillens will be bringing that hometown feeling to the Richmond flea market on Sundays with a new side venture, Tacos Doña Mari, named after Guillen Cruz. Their specialty will be tacos encebollados, a kind of thinly-sliced-steak-and-onion taco that David Jr. hasn’t seen much of in Northern California. He’s hoping it’ll wind up being the Bay Area’s “next quesabirria”—the next big thing.

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David’s Pastas & Pizzas is open Mon.–Thur. 11am to 9pm and Fri.–Sat. 11am to 10pm at 1025 13th St. in Richmond.