Wait. Bimbo’s Sauce?

It was a sad day in 2001 when Tacoma lost a local treasure (literally) because some Tacoma natives might claim that to bottle Bimbo’s sauce, is to bottle liquid gold.

20160220_BimboSauce_0179In 1921, Vittorio “Bimbo” Perniconi opened Bimbo’s Italian Restaurant at 1516 Pacific Ave. in downtown Tacoma. Inside the brick building the walls were lined with booths, each complete with a personal-sized jukebox. In the back, a large payphone booth stood stoic. However, customers didn’t flock to Bimbo’s for the ambiance; they came for the thick, red sauce that accompanied the restaurant’s many Italian dishes.

No one quite knows what made Bimbo’s sauce so good, but longtime Bimbo’s patron Bunny Critch of Des Moines endeavored to find out long ago, and still remains unsure.

“We sent a friend, who was a chef, there on a mission to figure out what made the sauce so delicious and different from every other spaghetti sauce we had ever tasted,” Critch said. “He went, tasted, and claimed it was a heavy dose of oregano. He also thought they browned the ground meat until it nearly burned. I’m not sure.”

For more than 80 years, Bimbo’s served law enforcement, criminals, politicians, businesspeople, celebrities, and the average Joe of Tacoma. In 2001, the restaurant was sold to the city of Tacoma by Perniconi’s great nephew, Jerry Rosi, to make way for the Greater Tacoma Convention Center, which incidentally found a different home.

Rosi didn’t just sell the land; he sold the Bimbo’s name and the coveted recipe for the now-infamous Bimbo’s sauce. The sale left the people of Tacoma yearning for it, and many may still be wondering to this day what became of the sauce.

20160220_BimboSauce_0275While rumors point to a written copy of the famous recipe residing in a safe at Tacoma City Hall, Rosi said it isn’t quite as dramatic as that. It also lives in his mind, and even if the written recipe got out, only he and his two children can properly prepare the sauce. Now he makes his family’s coveted sauce once a week and it is sold by the quart for customers at Stadium Thriftway in Tacoma. Many people put in orders — and it gets snatched up quickly.

“We do all the prep and all the clean up for him,” said Cindy Hileman, store director and deli manager at Stadium Thriftway. “We have everything set up for him so all he has to do is come in with his secret ingredient, which is his blend of spices.”

Hileman said each $13.99 quart of Bimbo’s sauce comes with a hearty helping of nostalgia for long-time Bimbo’s fans.

“They want to come in and tell us their stories; we listen and we talk to them,” Hileman said. “It’s so impressive how community-based that restaurant was and how much it touched people and was a part of people’s lives.”

Critch agrees, “No trip to Tacoma would be complete without it.”

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is an assistant editor at South Sound magazine. Email her.
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