'Nobody goes hungry here. You walk in Los Feliz and you get fed.'
When you walk on North Vermont Avenue in Los Feliz, you can smell tomato sauce in the air.
That might be coming from the pizza at Palermo, the meatball sandwiches at Andre's, the lasagna at Luigi's, the chicken alla cacciatora at Sarno's or the veal scaloppine at the Dresden.
The little commercial neighborhood just north of Hollywood Boulevard is about the closest Los Angeles comes to having a Little Italy these days, some businessmen say. Within a three-block stretch, there are four restaurants that specialize in Italian food, one Italian deli and an Italian bakery.
To be sure, the Italian population in the area has dropped sharply in the past two decades and Armenian, Filipino, Arabic and Indian families have moved in, along with the shops catering to them. But the Italian flavor in eating actually has gotten stronger over the years and reaches its annual peak at Christmastime.
"Nobody goes hungry here. You walk in Los Feliz and you get fed," said Andre Sciarra, whose family-run deli at 1757 N. Vermont Ave. is aptly named Andre's Imported Italian Foods.
While Italian specialties have long been favored by Americans of all ethnic origins, Christmas is a homecoming season on North Vermont Avenue for some Italian families who moved to the suburbs.
"We see people at Christmas we don't see any of the time of the year. People come from Oxnard and Orange County. They come here once a year for things they can't get out there," said Sciarra, whose family bought the shop 12 years ago.
On the sidewalk outside Andre's are two picnic tables topped with red and blue Cinzano umbrellas. Inside, stacked high on the floor, are boxes of panettone, the Christmas cake filled with raisins and citron. Sciarra said he sold more than 1,800 panettones last year and expects to sell about the same this holiday season, along with hundreds of boxes of Perugina chocolates and other sweets.
Sciarra is also getting ready for the big rush on baccala (codfish) and calamari (squid) which are traditionally part of an Italian Christmas Eve dinner. "They want everything traditional," he explained.
Across the street and down the block, baker Dino Sarno and his staff are preparing for the holiday, too. They are working overtime on pastries and confections they don't make at any other time of the year.
Just hearing the names of their Neapolitan-style Christmas treats produces an instant sweet tooth. For example, divina amore (divine love) is made from almond paste and fruits and torrone is candy nugget covered with filberts, almonds and cashews.
Dino Sarno put final touches the other day on a tray of gloriously decorated panettones, each covered with lime-colored almond paste and other icings and crowned with marzipan candies shaped like apples, flowers and boars' heads. He was trying to meet a deadline to ship some out of town.
The Sarno family has had the bakery at 1712 N. Vermont Ave. since they moved from Chicago 40 years ago.
In 1967, Dino's opera-singer brother Albert opened his Caffe Dell' Opera next door. It is a restaurant and coffee house where character actors and neighborhood characters gather to eat pasta mixed with sauteed broccoli and hear performers belt out the hits from Verdi and Puccini. Albert Sarno, a tenor with several recordings on his resume, gets up to sing every night. Other, less sophisticated voices try their luck too--to the general amusement of the audience.
Look for 'Paisans'
"A lot of people come to hang out and make contact. They are always looking for their paisans, " said Dino Sarno. "People are looking for ties and stability. They know we're here."
Sarno's is considered the anchor of the Italian presence in the neighborhood and may have been the magnet for other restaurateurs to move nearby. Whatever the reason for such concentration, the businessmen say they are friendly rivals and don't hesitate to borrow kitchen supplies from each other in a pinch.
"The more people on the street, the more people notice your sign," said Carl Ferraro, owner of Dresden Restaurant for 33 years. Some people mistakenly assume the Dresden, at 1760 N. Vermont Ave., offers German food because of its name. Its menu actually is a mix of such American and Italian dishes as prime ribs and veal scaloppine.
The place was decorated with Dresden dolls and chinaware when Ferraro purchased it; those departed with the previous owner but the name stayed. Meanwhile, the Dresden has developed a following for its sing-along piano bar.
Residents and businessmen say that Los Feliz never was an overwhelmingly Italian neighborhood. However, Italian-American families moved there as ethnic changes took hold in other traditionally Italian areas.
For example, the Little Italy along North Broadway in downtown Los Angeles was absorbed by Chinatown and its remnants include Little Joe's Restaurant and St. Peter's Roman Catholic Church and community center.