MONTEREY, Calif.--Walk into Compagno's, a deli hidden away on a non-descript street far from the tourist bustle of Cannery Row in this coastal city two hours south of San Francisco, and you will instantly be transported into one man's full-blown appreciation of all things military.
Located just a block from Monterey's Presidio, home to the world-famous Defense Language Institute, Compagno's has for years been the go-to lunch (and early dinner) spot for military personnel of all stripes. And though Bennett Compagno, the owner, never served in the armed forces himself, he has become what might be the best friend a soldier, Marine, sailor, or airman ever had in a civilian.
In return for his unerring friendliness, warm welcome, and tasty food, the servicemembers and officers who come here nearly every day while they're posted to Monterey have bestowed upon Compagno an awe-inspiring collection of mementos, mostly given to him when they leave Monterey for their next duties.
From drill sergeant hats to signed photos to combat knives, members of the Marines, Air Force, Army, and Navy have made it clear that Compagno is their friend.
This is a combat knife given to Compagno by Master Gunny Sergeant Mike Dobbs with the inscription, "For your continual friendship and support to my Marines."
While in town for other stories related to Road Trip 2012, CNET reporter Daniel Terdiman discovered Compagno's, and realized that the store, what it contains, and its owner, were worth a story of their own.
Marine Lance Cpl. Jessica Fine (left) and her husband, Marine Pfc. Paul Fine, both students at the Defense Language Institute, eat frequently at Compagno's. According to Paul Fine, the food is "amazing" and Compagno makes soldiers "feel at home."
Throughout Compagno's, nearly every inch of the walls and ceilings are covered with mementos given to owner Bennett Compagno by enlisted men and women, officers, and drill sergeants alike. This set of drill sergeant hats is among Compagno's favorite gifts, as well as some of the first he got after he took over the deli from his father.
One area of the ceiling near the front door is packed tight with the nameplates of various company commanders -- from the Marines, Army, and Air Force -- who have left their post at the Defense Language Institute.
Because Compagno becomes very familiar with many of the servicemembers who visit his deli so frequently, he is fiercely loyal to them, and when tragedy strikes, he makes sure to memorialize them. This is a memory of Navy Seal Nathan Hardy, who was killed in combat in 2008.
Asked about his favorite memory from his years feeding and making friends with the servicemembers who eat at his deli, Compagno recalled a Navy sailor would come by at least two times a week, but never became a friend. The day before the sailor left Monterey, he came in to the store with a present: a photograph of "M*A*S*H" major character Radar O'Reilly. The photo was inscribed, "To Bennett, Thanks for taking such good care of my son Jordan" and signed by Gary Burghoff, the actor played Radar. Now, the framed picture sits on a table right by the entrance.
Because his deli is so close to the Defense Language Institute, Compagno knows that the servicemembers who visit so often have spent significant amounts of time in postings in a wide variety of countries. One way he began to make inroads into the military community in Monterey was by stocking a number of beers from some of those countries, such as Lebanon.