The Piazzo Building at 354 N. Virginia Street, also known as the St. Francis Hotel, embodies the story of Reno in a way that few others could. Contained in one three-story brick structure are the stories of a hardworking immigrant family, the memories of generations of athletes, hunters, and sports enthusiasts, a dedicated Reno mayor, and the lives of hundreds of residents and visitors who at various times have called it home.
The story began with Santino Piazzo, who immigrated from Italy to the United States in 1898 and became a naturalized American citizen in 1910. He and his wife, Emma, lived on a ranch at first and had five children-- Louis, Olga, Chester (known as “Chet”), Lincoln (known as “Link”), and Melba. Soon, Santino entered into the produce business, and in 1925, he had this building constructed. On the ground floor, his son Louis ran the Model Fruit Market next to a soft drink parlor called the North Side Candy Store. The second and third floors made up the St. Francis Hotel, which became popular for both long-term residents and travelers.
The family’s lives changed drastically one night in July of 1928 when Santino was driving back from California with a truckload of fruits and vegetables. He apparently fell asleep at the wheel, ran off the road, and was killed instantly. Bolstered by their extended family, the Piazzos kept the building, pitching in to help Emma with management of the hotel.
In 1938, their sons Chet and Link pooled their savings to open a sporting and hunting goods store on the ground floor and basement, naming it The Sportsman. The store quickly became a local favorite, gaining a monopoly on team uniforms and gym clothes for area schools. Longtime residents remember racks of baseball bats in the basement and the strong smell of the hides that the store tanned through its taxidermy services. For years, the retail end was managed by Swede Christensen, who presided over rows of wooden skis with cable bindings, fishing rods and reels, arrays of Winchesters and Remingtons, and anything else a person might need to venture into the vast Nevada outdoors.
The hotel was managed for decades by Santino and Emma’s daughter Olga, her husband Dario Dibitonto, and their son, Sam. After serving in the Army for several years, Sam returned in the early 1950s to run the hotel, and continued in that role until 1987, also in that period demonstrating his commitment to the city and its development as a member of City Council and, from 1971 to 1975, Reno’s Mayor.
The Sportsman eventually moved out, to a building the brothers constructed on the corner of West 4th and Vine Streets, but the Piazzo Building on North Virginia Street remains in the family today, a beautiful Reno landmark with deep and lasting ties to the city’s heritage.