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Co-owner of Cucina di Paolo, caretaker of Bench’s ‘Betty’ dies

Paul Wegner, Boise chef and co-owner of Cucina di Paolo died last month. He was 60.

He might be best known for two things: his cuisine — and his relationships. One, with his wife and restaurant co-owner Mary Jean. Another with a Boise icon: Betty the Washer Woman.

Betty is the hard-working mechanical doll atop the sign on Vista Avenue. Rain or shine, day or night, she works away washing clothes in front of Cucina di Paolo. She’s been on the job since the 1950s, but for the last decade or so, Paul acted as her caregiver.

Betty the Washer Woman in front of Cucina Di Paolo in Boise. Photo: Don Day/BoiseDev

Each month, he changed her clothes to match the seasons – and kept her in working order.

“That’s the only other woman my wife will let me kiss, and I kiss her every time I change her clothes,” Wegner said with a laugh in his voice on 94.9 The River last month. “Once a month!”

[Owner of group of Idaho coffee shops dies at age 55]

‘Started with a tub of ice’

Inside the former Maytag laundry building-turned-restaurant, Wegner delighted customers with lasagnas, pot pies, and more in a cozy seating. Cucina di Paolo – Paul’s Kitchen – also features pies and deserts from Mary Jean. Since opening in 2007, the restaurant became as much an icon of the Boise Bench as ol’ Betty outside on the sign.

“We started with a tub of ice and a pan of lasagna and a microwave and gave out samples, and that’s how we started our business,” Wegner told KTVB’s Alex Livingston in 2018.

The Wegners started their business at the public market in Downtown Boise in the 1990s before heading to a bricks and mortar location on Ustick. After Paul took on a stint as sous chef at Cottwonwood Grill, they opened the Vista spot in 2007. Even though the Betty sign started out representing the Maytag laundry, the Wegners embraced her.

In recent years, Betty starred in a yearly calendar, with all proceeds going to local charities – including the Idaho Food Bank and Women’s and Children’s Alliance.

The Wegners talked to Ken Bass and Debbie Courson-Smith earlier this month about the latest edition of the calendar. They said the calender would be the final edition, and they picked the WCA because of its mission of helping people – particularly during the pandemic. Cucina Di Paolo will sell the calendar in the restaurant this holiday season.

Paul and Mary Jean appear on the cover of FOCUS in June 1998 in front of their original location on Ustick Rd. in Boise.

Italy to Boise

Wegner fell in love with Italian cooking during a stint in the military, stationed in Italy. After earning a degree from Boise State in sociology, Paul worked as a chef at The Flicks and operated a catering business.

In 1998, Wegner talked to Boise State’s alumni magazine Focus for a feature on unique businesses.

“Go with your dream, go with your instinct. That’s what it’s about,” Wegner said of starting Cucina di Paolo with Mary Jean. “Say to yourself ‘I see it. I want it, and I’m going to go for it.”

Cucina di Paolo is closed today, but will reopen November 4th according to the restaurant’s phone message.

Don Day - BoiseDev Editor
Don is the founder and publisher of BoiseDev. He is a National Edward R. Murrow Award winner and a Stanford University John S. Knight Fellow. Contact him at [email protected].

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