• • •
There are four Ernest Ongaros in the saga
of Ongaro and Sons Plumbing, Heating and
Cooling. In 1932 Ernest V. Ongaro started the
firm in Fairfax, in the building that now houses
the popular live-music venue 19 Broadway. The
firm prospered and in 1938 it moved to its current location just off San Anselmo Avenue in
Soon, Ernest V. and his wife, Anita, had
three sons: Donald, Richard and Ernest P. But
tragedy struck: in 1989 Don was killed in an
auto accident, and in 2005 Rich died in a plane
crash. That left Ernest P., nicknamed Ernie,
running Ongaro and Sons.
Before Don Ongaro’s passing, he and his
wife, Beverly, had added two sons to the family, Dean and Mitch. Meanwhile, Ernest P. and
his wife, Joan, contributed a daughter, Laurie,
and two sons, Ernest J. (if you’re keeping
count, we’re now at three Ernests) and Paul;
both are now working for Ongaro and Sons. And
prior to his demise, Rich and his wife, Diane,
brought forth Brian, who works for Ghilotti
Construction (see next family profiled in this
article), and Shannon. Meanwhile, Dean and
wife Cindy produced another pair of fourth-
generation Ongaros, Donald and Amy.
It was in 1996 that Ernie Ongaro and his
wife, Debbie, delivered the fourth Ernest to the
Ongaro clan — Ernest J. Ongaro (this second
Ernest J. was nicknamed “Ejay”), followed by
their second son, Paul. Adding to the dynasty,
Mitch and wife Liz produced Laura, Elise and
Daniel (none are Ongaro employees; Daniel is
still in high school).
But make no mistake, fourth-generation
And yet despite all this kinship, back in
members Ejay and Donald both now work
for Ongaro and Sons. You’ll find them in the
trenches learning the business literally from
the ground up. As for who owns and runs the
company now? “That’s simple,” says Dean
Ongaro, Donald’s dad. “The cousins do. Paul,
Mitch, Ernie and myself; we’re all owners.”
And from the look of things, they’ve been
running it quite well. In 2001, Ongaro and Sons
purchased Crane & Son Plumbing & Heating, a
firm that has served Sonoma County for more
than 70 years. Over their 85 years in business,
Ongaro and Sons have performed plumbing,
heating and air-conditioning contract work
at George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch in Lucas
Valley, at San Domenico School in Sleepy
Hollow and for the San Francisco Theological
Seminary in San Anselmo. And for decades,
Ongaro and Sons have been the go-to service
guys for San Quentin State Prison.
1932, founder Ernest Ongaro had set down an
intriguing edict: If you wanted to be on the
family payroll, you had to work someplace else
first. “The reason for that was simple,” third-generation co-owner Dean Ongaro explains.
“My grandfather wanted us to first experience a
crummy boss; then we’d all appreciate working
for a family who somehow manages to get along.
Heck, we’re Italians, so one way or another
we’re gonna work it out.”
• • •
In 1889, at age 18, James Ghilotti left Italy to
work in the diamond mines of South Africa.
After four years of toiling and saving his money
he returned to Italy, but soon grew restless.
James had an uncle in America who invited him
to come live in a far-off village in California.
Over 100 years later, James Ghilotti’s leg-
acy, Ghilotti Brothers Inc., is one of Northern
BE ON THE