Alameda in history: The Rattos

Alameda in history: The Rattos

Michael Lano

Philosopher and cultural critic George Santayana said: “To successfully navigate your future, you must know your past.” And Alameda, thankfully, has had several prior generations pass on knowledge and links to the Island’s celebrated and remarkable past.

There are several great family dynasties still in evidence here, including the amazing and diverse Ratto family, one of Alameda’s first families. After last month’s article on Bay Farm Island’s original homes and history, one of the Rattos I’d reached out to finally got in touch.

Robyn Ratto wrote in about her husband Richard, who’s the grandson of Caterina and Benedetto Ratto, one of the very first home and farm owners on Bay Farm. Richard, who now lives between Auburn and Grass Valley and works for Ace Hardware in Rocklin, had a lot to say about his family.

“I’m flattered and happy people want to know some of our family stories,” Ratto said. “They were very instrumental and important in both Bay Farm Island and overall Alameda history. I never thought too much about our family being one of the real founding families of Alameda. But they were. Our family has always had a really compelling story.”

The Rattos were among Alameda’s earliest settlers on Bay Farm Island. Richard’s grandfather, Benedetto, came to America around 1906 from the city of Camogli in Northern Italy, while his grandmother, Caterina, hailed from the nearby town of Varazze, near Genoa. They originally came to Alameda by way of Canada.

Caterina and Benedetto Ratto had one of the earliest farm homes on Bay Farm, and it was a welcoming place for their farm workers, friends and neighbors. From what they passed down to Richard, theirs was a great era, and for generations, they lived off the land, needing very little. Bay Farm was a very safe and peaceful place, one where neighbors knew each other and were friendly and helpful to one other.

Later on, a few other Ratto families who may or may not have been related settled on and around St. Charles Street. But most of the Alameda Rattos actually were related, he said, however distantly.

“Our family is so large I have distant cousins and nephews many times removed,” he said.

As the Ratto clan grew, keeping track of different family members posed a challenge – even for the Rattos themselves, Richard said. A sports coach Richard had at Alameda High School called him Jim, the name of a relative who had graduated the year before.

“I know it gets confusing and we have had a lot of Bob, Rob and Ben Rattos,” Richard Ratto said. “Since we had so many Robs, some added a letter to make it Robb, (and) others went by Bob to help differentiate them.”

Ultimately, some of the Rattos moved away from farming, though others continue to farm (the Ratto Bros. farming operation is now based in Modesto). But, while some members of the family moved to other East Bay cities, they never lost their Alameda roots or love of family and this city, Ratto said.

Here are some of Richard Ratto’s family stories, in his own words.

The Cerrutis

There were two well-known Cerruti brothers. One was John, who I was friends with. John Cerruti wasn’t interested in the farm or farming, but he kept that farm going just for his dad, who I remember well. When his dad was outside with his hat pulled down, he looked just like Hoss Cartwright (from “Bonanza”). So you knew when Old Man Cerruti was around.

The Cerrutis had a major incident one day when John’s father was quite elderly, and nearly blind. He’d wanted his son to take him to Ratto’s Deli (in Oakland), but his son was late. So the patriarch somehow lifted up the heavy discs on the huge family tractor and drove it all the way from Bay Farm to the Main Island, then right through the Posey Tube, and (he) picked up what he needed at Ratto’s Deli. Alameda police picked him up while he was trying to drive back. The police chief called John Cerruti and told him to please come and get his father.

Not really on the menu

When I was growing up, 523 was our telephone prefix. But over where (Ratto’s) Deli was located, their prefix there was nearly the same, at 532. So very often, deli customers would accidentally dial 523 (which rang to our phone) and my mom would politely take those incoming orders down, even though she certainly didn’t have to. She wasn’t affiliated with Ratto’s Deli at all. But since she spoke Italian and was caring and sensitive to other people, she could easily understand the orders from the old timers speaking in Italian, who ended up calling our home phone by accident. She’d then take those orders over to Ratto’s Deli or call them over directly to the deli! As a result, each year at Christmas time, she’d get a big box of very fancy cookies or great desserts from them as a big thank you for all her kind help.

Once I was home from college and a woman called up. I picked up the phone and she rattled off all that she wanted to order: prosciutto, mozzarella, salami and other items. I hung up after telling her she had the wrong number. But my mom was very upset, saying to me, “You’re not supposed to do that! Take the order.” I thought she was going to hit me with her heavy skillet that day.

Honored for their war service

There are seven or eight Rattos and four or five Peratas honored on a war memorial plaque in Italy near my grandmother’s hometown. We went there with some friends and my cousin a while back and were overwhelmed. We were told as soldiers, when they said duck, all the Rattos stood up and looked fearlessly. The memorial is also near Carezza. Beautiful country along the water and it was great seeing our families honored there.

There was another side to World War II, over here. My dad served in World War II and my uncles Ben and Tony also served with him. But it was awful that my grandparents were under house arrest primarily because my grandmother didn’t speak English. I worked on the farm, so I was the one who needed to learn English. They were scrutinized by the local military for a long time, which was difficult for the family. At the time, we were living near what is now the South Course area off Maitland Drive. Nearby were frightening gun emplacements, which would later (be torn) out to make way for the planned golf course. They weren’t necessarily treated badly by the government and military per se, but they were extremely strict on them for at least six months with their moves and activities watched. Eventually, the government finally figured out that my grandparents were part of the scenery here, so the scrutiny eventually slowed down. Thankfully it wasn’t like the Japanese internment camps.

Old rivalries

My grandmother was known as Little Katherine, because was just 4’11”. The absolute worst thing for her later in life was that her son Tony married Frances, a wonderful lady from Sicily who we think was remotely part of some old internal family rivalry. Little Katherine wouldn’t speak directly to Frances unless Tony was present. And then she’d only speak to Frances through Tony or occasionally, through my mom. Silly, but that’s the old way. (The old rivalries) die hard or not at all. And sometimes there were other family rivalries where even they forgot or didn’t know why or how they started or why they should be mad at (someone). I’d sometimes ask, “Didn’t this stuff end a long time ago?” But even they couldn’t recall at times.

Final days of the farms

I went to Alameda High School, graduating in 1967. The Main Island folks tended to look down at those living out on Bay Farm, dismissing them as mostly farmers. It was still primarily farms there, except for where Maitland Drive was, extending to Godfrey Park where the Raiders training camp was. The first new houses were built on Azalea and Begonia avenues, as the city officials felt they could make more money from building new family houses than the long-standing farms. That helped spell the end for the farms, unfortunately.

The city tried getting rid of all these farm homes by burning them, but they didn’t know my grandfather was a bit ahead of them, unintentionally. He didn’t know the difference between stucco and paint. So when they tried to burn down my grandparents’ beloved family farm home like a pillbox, it wouldn’t burn and survived. The fire department tried burning it three times, but it wouldn’t come down so they eventually used a Headache or demolition ball to destroy it.

When the Soares family sold and left their farm, the writing was on the wall for Bay Farm.

When the builders began building all the new houses there, my Aunt Clara was one of the first to move there, to a new home on Begonia Drive. It had become clearer that they wouldn’t be able to sell houses with the farms still around, even though they once had coexisted for many years without a problem. The Cerrutis sold their farm, so my family sold everything, even the farm. That left only Ben and Don; they sold everything and moved their farm to Modesto to make a living there off their radishes, green onions and lettuce.

Follow up to last month’s column: Regarding last month’s piece on Bay Farm Island’s classic farm homes, thank you for all the comments have received. My apologies, Marian, for misspelling Imelda Merlin’s name, and thanks for correcting that.

Frank Contreras wrote that the “Bay Island” name was given as far back as 1778 from the Official Historical Atlas Map, which is really something. Thank you, Mr. Contreras and Jim Mackey, for all your additional great history recollections.

I’ll try to find out more about Encinal High’s famous coaches, George Read and Jim Kruse, living on Bay Farm in the sixties. And Dennis Evanosky might be one of the few area historians who has studied the Native Americans who lived here and all that they accomplished, so I will try to connect with him on that topic soon.

I’m definitely going to write about the great Phyllis Diller, who lived here. Alameda Museum did a fantastic job with their recent tribute event. We were lucky to have her living here, and we're lucky for that museum.


Submitted by Frances Kawaguchi (not verified) on Fri, Oct 3, 2014

We lived on Broadway near Calhoun in 1980. Next door was an elderly retired Ratto couple. Her name was Marie (I never knew her husband's, except that we'd hear him speak Italian to his friends.) They were at least in their 80's. We never really got to know them except when we once locked ourselves outside of our place and asked to use their phone to call my in-laws who had a key to the place. It seems that Marie grew up in Alameda and lived on Broadway. I suppose they were living in the house she grew up in. Anyway, back then, Broadway had four lanes, two going in each direction, so it was quite a busy street. Marie said she remembered when Broadway only two cars would go down the street..PER MONTH!

Submitted by Catherina Franc... (not verified) on Fri, Oct 3, 2014

Richard Ratto should get his facts straight. Obviously, he does not know what he's talking about. I'm surprised you'd even publish this gibberish without fact checking. My mother, Frances Ratto was born in Pittsburgh, CA (CONTRA COSTA COUNTY) and only spoke English. Therefore, she needed an interpreter to speak with her beloved mother-in-law. No rivalries there. This article and especially Richards comments are inaccurate, stupid and insulting.

Submitted by Francesca Ratto... (not verified) on Sat, Oct 4, 2014

I'm the daughter of Frances and Tony Ratto. It was quite hurtful to write about my Nonni's life: "The absolute worst thing for her later in life was that her son Tony married Frances". My mom, Frances Ratto was an amazing woman, the most generous and giving woman I have ever met. Nonni only spoke Italian and my mom was not fluent in Italian because she was not born in Sicily. She needed my dad with her to interpret Nonni's conversation with my mom.... A truly beautiful Ratto story to write about would be about my dad.

Submitted by Nadine (not verified) on Sat, Oct 4, 2014

His grandfather is from Alpicilla.

Submitted by Denise Ratto-Mina (not verified) on Mon, Oct 6, 2014

My name is Denise Ratto-Mina and the article written by my brother, Richard and his wife Robyn, have a few errors in it. My grandfather, Benedetto Ratto came to Alameda via Ellis Island, NOT Canada and the absolute worst day(s) of my grandmother's life was the day her son Lawrence and the day her daughter Mary died.

Submitted by Michele Ellson on Tue, Oct 7, 2014

Hey folks: Just wanted to say thanks for the additional information.

Submitted by lolibeth alameda (not verified) on Thu, May 21, 2015

I live here in the Philippines and I want to know more of my husband's family clan and how they got in here. I only knew of their great grandparents who became politicians in the town of Surigao Del Sur.