Do you remember that horrible feeling of doom, sadness and disbelief? I do. But by the time it happened to me, I was numb to the emotion as it was already familiar. You see, I had experienced that same emptiness, the same sour feeling, just one year earlier. It was November 23, 2000, Thanksgiving day. I was preparing my restaurant for dinner service, at “Laslow’s Northwest,” when the phone rang. It was my cousin Filomena, one of my Uncle Patsy’s children. She had always been like a sister to me.
“Something horrible has happened to our cousins…!” She cried hysterically.
Before I tell this story, let me back up to introduce the characters and what impact they had on my early life.
In 1906, at the age of thirteen, my father came to America from Southern Italy. Seventeen years later his brother, pasquale (Patsy), followed him and after that, they began to sponsor other family members. Their sister Vicenza, who they left in Italy, had ten children: Yolanda, Anna, Anita, Sabatino, Antonio, Vincenza(jr.), Fortunate, Filomena, Pasqualina and Josefina. Though Vincenza chose to stay with her family, my father found ways to bring some of his nephews and nieces to the “Land of Opportunity”. It wasn’t long
before Sabatino, Antonio and Vicenza(jr.) came to build their lives in America. Vicenza married and had two children. Antonio married a wonderful German woman named Ursula. They opened an Italian restaurant in the famous Farmer’s Market in Los Angeles. The third nephew, Sabatino, who this story focuses on, was the catalyst to my passion for pastry and cake design and his demise is a devastation that my family will never overcome.
We lovingly referred to Sabatino as “Sabby.” He was a small framed man with strikingly handsome features, a raspy voice and a thick Italian accent. When he came to Los Angeles, he worked in our restaurants. He was a natural pastry chef. His breads and cookies were reminiscent of the old country and while he worked at “The Villa Capri,” he was called upon to make celebration cakes for “stars of the silver screen”. He made confections for Jimmy Durante, Ursula Andress, Natalie Woods, Frank Sinatra, Andy Williams and many more.
I was a young girl during these years. I frequently accompanied my father to the restaurant. I was so little that my eyes could barely peek above the prep counters of the bakery area, but I remember witnessing Sabby’s art in awe. I swayed with every stroke as he would knead the bread dough and I swooned at the smells and sights that the raising dough emanated. What fascinated me most was his amazing command of the pastry bag. His touch of butter cream in magical swirls, his rosettes of cookies and the creations of sweet words atop a decadent birthday cake were magical. I would watch with wide eyes as his small hands grasped the bag with light, at first, then tense, pressure to squeeze out a perfect amount of cream or batter for the result he desired. He made the bag an extension of himself. I knew then, that there was a place for me in this world of sweet delights and artistic confectionary creation.
Italian Butter Rosettes
½ Cup unsalted butter, room temp
½ cup shortening
1 cup plus 2 Tbl powered sugar, sifted
4 egg whites
½ cup almonds, soaked in ¼ cup amaretto
¼ tsp salt
2 tsp vanilla
3 ¼ cup AP flour
¼ tsp baking powder
Soak almonds a couple of hours up to overnight. Put them with the liquid in a food
processor and grind until smooth, set aside.
Preheat Oven to 350 Degrees F. In a mixer using paddle attachment, blend butter and shortening until smooth. Add sugar all at once, and mix on medium speed just until combined. Add the almond paste.
Combine the egg whites and vanilla in separate bowl then add to mixer and on medium speed small amounts at a time scrape down the sides of your bowl to get it all evenly incorporated. Once all of the whites have been added, you will add the flour and salt and baking powder sifted together all at once and mix just until it comes together, being careful not to over mix. Scoop the dough into a very sturdy pastry bag fitted with a large star tip and proceed to pipe shells onto a parchment lined sheet pan, spacing each cookie approximately 1″ apart. Bake for about 12-15 minutes or until the cookies start to brown on the edges. Sprinkle with powdered sugar or chocolate powder or even sprinkles. If you want to mix it up, once the cookies are cooled you can sandwich them together with Jam, Nutella, ganache or butter cream. Makes approximately 4 dozen cookies
In the mid 1950’s, it was my mother (born in the USA) who had been chosen to go to Italy, marry Sabby and bring him back with a green card. But a pregnancy with my sister changed that prospect and Eugenia, who we knew as Ginny, was sent in her stead. Ginny was one of the kindest people I have ever met. She and Sabby married quickly and later had one child, Rosetta. On holidays we would go to their home for the celebratory dinner. Of course, there were always more people than their home could hold. They would set a table that went through every room in the house. There were always a lot of hand gestures throughout the day, Italian and English were both spoken and everyone yelled at each other to show their love. Food was always more than abundant. The tables were lined with Italian holiday fare as well as the American traditional dishes of turkey, stuffing, yams, etc. As if that was not enough, Sabby had bread, cookies and cakes galore. These childhood holiday memories are some of my fondest.
The years passed, restaurants came and went. My father and uncle passed away in the mid 70’s and early 80’s. Sabby and Ginny opened their own Italian restaurant, “Sabatino’s Italian Bakery and Café,” in North Hollywood. It was a small casual place that was a neighborhood favorite which focused on immigrant Italian food and, of course,
his fabulous pastries. He was famous for giving out his Italian rosettes to children and anyone who craved one…gratis. He was a hard worker who loved his restaurant and his customers.
Many of his regulars were with the LAPD and the LAFD. Uniformed men and women were frequently seen lapping up plates of pasta or diving into Sabby’s decadent lasagna and taking Italian rosettes to-go. Forget the donuts; these police officers were addicted to Sabby’s pastries.
Through the years I visited Sabby’s restaurant on many occasions. It remained my touchstone to restaurants and loved ones of my past.
Now that you have a grasp on their history, I will tell you about the tragedy that happened on November 22, 2000. This part of the story is difficult to tell. It is what bad Hollywood movies are made of. It is everyman’s nightmare, the unthinkable. I still get a hard lump in my throat when I think of the senselessness of it all.
Sabby and Ginny had purchased a home in Belair, California; they were both seventy three years old and ready to begin thinking about retirement. They wanted to renovate their home to reflect their personalities, which meant tearing up their carpet and lying hardwood floor. They hired day worker and Mexican illegal alien, Israel Cebrera Pulido, only 23 years old, for the task. While he was ripping up the carpet, he found drop safes hidden in the floor. Having financial difficulties of his own, he decided to return to my cousins’ home a week later to convince them to open the safes. Unfortunately, for all involved, Sabby and Ginny were unaware that the safes even existed, let alone have the combinations to open them. Without divulging painful and gory details, I will only tell you that Mr. Pulido proceeded to torture, and then kill my two elderly loved ones to a point that, at the wake, the caskets were not able to be open for viewing.
Needless to say, this devastated our family and the community. I am not here to tell you what ultimately happened to the murderer except that he got life in prison. For the purpose of this story, I wanted to share what culinary impact my sweet relatives’ deaths had on me and my family.
The wake was heart wrenching and the funeral devastating. Family came from everywhere. Two of Sabby’s sisters, Anita and Anna, flew in from Italy, not able to speak a word of English. The procession on the L.A. highways was extensive and lead by the LAPD and LAFD. More than 600 people attended the ceremony. We all were in shock.
At the cemetery, I hooked arms for support with my sister and my cousins as the coffins, which lay side by side at the mausoleum, were prepped to be entered into the plot. They began with Ginny’s coffin. Words of grace were spoken as the box was slowly
pushed into the deep dark tunnel. Sabby’s coffin was then raised (the man is always on the outside to protect his woman for eternity) and slid in behind his wife. We sobbed louder and held onto each other tighter. The grave keeper then lifted the square cement “door” and placed it at the entry of the plot. Though the sadness at this point was undeniably intense, the next moment was surreal and ridden with irony beyond belief. When the grave keeper had the cement block in place, he proceeded to raise the decorative marble façade that sealed the tomb. To our shock, he raised a pastry bag filled with cement grout in order to seal the seam. Immediate visions of Sabby’s graceful hand grasping the pastry bag of butter cream filled my mind as I am sure it did in everyone around me. We all clutched each other and fell to the ground sobbing.
When I returned to Portland, I felt different; as if something within me had broken. I had the desire to make a profound statement to the world, but had no idea how. I felt helpless. I decided to study the food and wine history of my southern Italian ancestors. I needed to do a big celebration of dear Sabby and Ginny’s lives and the only way I knew how was through culinary means.
We did a five course dinner at “Laslow’s Nothwest” which we called “Ancient Dinner, in memory of Sabby and Ginny.” It sold out quickly. We featured historical fare and paired it to ancient wines. The people who attended did not know my cousins, but felt like they did once the dinner was over. I told brief stories as we raised our glasses of Aglianico to them and the highlight of the evening was when we darkened the dining room and each person’s flaming Sambuca danced as they raised it in one last toast to the lives of Sabby and Ginny.
Though many years have passed, my life has never been the same since that fateful November day. Though 9-11 was a tragedy on a world scale, 11-22 was a tragedy in our family of equal, perhaps greater, proportion.