Occidental restaurant owner Joe Negri dead at 78
Negri spent nearly 60 years involved in Negri’s, the family’s homestyle Italian Restaurant started in 1943 by his immigrant parents, Joe Sr. and Teresa Negri.
Set against the redwoods in the picturesque west Sonoma County town, the restaurant remains a traditional dining and drinking stop for locals and tourists and for many decades has been a community cornerstone.
While Joe Negri Jr., owned other properties including two horse ranches, restaurants are the family legacy. In the late 1980s, he and his wife, Evelyn, and their three grown children owned the flagship Negri’s restaurant and two other Occidental restaurants. The family currently owns Negri’s and Howard Station Cafe.
“There were two things in his life, the restaurant and the horses,” said his younger brother, Al Negri of Santa Rosa.
“I used to give him a bad time. Every morning, seven days a week, before he’d eat breakfast he’d go feed his horses,” said his brother. “And I thought that was pretty nice.”
Joe Negri was working at Negri’s regularly until just recently, said his daughter, Sandy Negri of Occidental.
“He was still the boss,” she said.
Negri had been determined to attend this year’s horse races at the Sonoma County Fair. He’d wanted to see his horses run as well as to continue a decades-long tradition.
“We went over to the races every day this summer. We had to push him in the wheelchair, but he walked down to his box,” said his wife. “He’s had a box there for 40 years.”
Joe Negri’s closest friend and sometime partner in horse racing is Santa Rosa attorney Jack Demeo. The two men met when they were four years old.
“We were like brothers,” said Demeo.
Their shared love of horses and horse racing began in their teens. “In high school we’d cut school and go to the race track,” Demeo said, recalling the long drive from Santa Rosa High School to Bay Meadows or to Golden Gate Fields.
While in their 20s, the two bought a horse and ever since had shared the ups and downs of owning and breeding race horses, Demeo said.
Joe Negri Jr., was born in Santa Rosa and raised in Santa Rosa and Occidental. He graduated from Santa Rosa High School and Santa Rosa Junior College, where he was a star fullback for the football teams.
Negri had dreams of becoming a professional player and while serving in the U.S. Army in the 1950s played for the Army’s undefeated Fort Ord team. Some of his teammates went on to professional football and after his discharge Negri was recruited by the San Francisco Forty Niners.
“He was in training with the 49ers. He was signed up to play, a week into it when his dad got sick and they needed him to come back and run the restaurant,” said his daughter, Terry Martin of Occidental.
That was what it meant to be born into a restaurant family, she said.
Joe and Evelyn Negri were married 57 years.
“We met at the restaurant. I was doing glasses and silverware in the kitchen and he was washing dishes,” she said.
They married in Occidental at St. Phillip’s, settled in town and raised three children, two daughters and son, Joe Negri III.
After Joe Negri Sr., died in 1970, the close-knit Negri brothers took over the restaurant, Joe behind the bar and Al and Evelyn in the restaurant.
While he was known as a warm bar host and for being quick with a good joke, family members also spoke of Joe Negri as a private man.
“Heart of gold. He was really a strong man, a quiet man,” said Sandy Negri.
All three of the couple’s three children followed him into the family business. Joe Negri III owned and ran Howard Station Cafe. He died of cancer on Oct. 23, 2005.
Negri and his wife took time out for a few vacations over the years, including to Hawaii and Las Vegas, but mostly they worked, said Martin.
After 25 years as partners in the family restaurant, the couple bought out Al Negri and have been running it with help from their children and grandchildren. Evelyn and daughter Sandy Negri still run Negri’s, while older daughter Martin and her husband, Chris Martin, own and run Howard Station Cafe.
Negri also is survived by seven granddaughters who knew him as “Nonno,” an Italian term for grandfather.
Most of Negri’s race horses through the years were homebreds and he loved to get “Occidental” into their names. His Love Occidental ran several times during the last Santa Rosa fair meet.
When one of his horses won during the fair, drinks at Negri’s were on the house.
Services are pending.