Smoke from Bobcat Fire pockets north of Mount Wilson was smudging a fading sunset with purple and gray last Saturday, just as music began floating into the parking lot outside Bulgarini Gelato in Altadena. Tucked into a small cluster of shops beside Rite-Aid, the Italian eatery was hosting fingerstyle guitarist Joe LoPiccolo’s solo residency on the light-strung patio it shares with Nancy’s Greek Café.

LoPiccolo has long been a fixture on the Southland restaurant-hotel-winery circuit, where he’s developed a repertoire of jazz, flamenco, classical and pop. The Pasadena resident says he regards owner Leo Bulgarini, with whom he first collaborated four years ago for a “Jazz and Gelato” event at Whittier Public Library, as a kindred creative spirit.

“I’m trying to take these classic Italian songs and change them through the cultural lens of Los Angeles,” LoPiccolo later explained. On Saturday, that included reimagining Neopolitan folk songs such as “Santa Lucia.” “Instead of playing them traditionally, I might play opera songs that Pavarotti did as a samba or a mambo or a cha-cha or a bolero.”

A peach moon subtly illuminated the sky as families with children lined up for gelato and diners conversed over wine. LoPiccolo was stationed about 10 feet away and several fellow musicians gathered nearby, the better to savor the luscious tone of his flamenco guitar. (The instrument was created by luthier German Vasquez Rubio, who designed the white guitar featured in Disney’s Oscar-winning film “Coco.”) The setting’s simplicity fostered new appreciation of public performance. Just listening to live music—in the night air, pressing against the skin—felt refreshingly civilized.

During a break, a masked LoPiccolo, who also teaches music at Mount San Antonio College in Walnut, said the coronavirus pandemic shutdown this year forced him to reassess who he is as an artist.

“When you start out, you dream of making a career as a musician and surviving, right? Fast forward, 30 years later I’d gotten to this point where I didn’t really have to hustle at all. I got a lot of calls and the last couple years I was averaging 120-140 gigs a year. But then I was able to take a beat with this and slow down. When all those gigs stopped in March, for the first few months I didn’t play any guitar; I played piano and drums. I started writing again. It allowed me to step back and think about who I was as a student at Cal Arts, in that womb of creativity.”

That led to an epiphany about finding more balance between work that sustains the body and work that feeds the spirit, with gratitude for all of it.

“We’ve all lost gigs. In Pasadena we’ve lost so many venues that had music. I’m so grateful for the way they’re treating me and giving me the latitude to do whatever I want. I can play as though I’m playing in a concert hall.” 

Joe LoPiccolo

6:30 to 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays
Bulgarini Gelato, 749 E. Altadena Drive, Altadena