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Sing for Your Supper

Night life: A contractor known to burst into song at construction sites now runs the reborn Sarno's, serving Puccini with the pasta.

February 21, 1997|DENISE HAMILTON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Act 1 ended in tragedy: Alberto Sarno, longtime owner of the eponymous Italian restaurant that pioneered operatic arias at your table, was shot dead in a 1987 ambush at the doorstep of his Los Feliz home.

But the curtain now rises on a jubilant Act 2: Mario Storace, a fellow paisano, opera singer and family friend, has reopened the Los Angeles landmark on North Vermont Avenue as Caffe dell'Opera.

Carrying on the Sarno's tradition, Storace serves up hearty Italian food and live opera most evenings, holding court over his dominion much as Sarno once did.

A tall, broad-shouldered builder and master craftsman of 59 who hails from the Abruzzi region in central Italy, Storace greets guests, buses tables, carries out plates of pasta puttanesca and tiramisu, and sings--a classically trained bass-baritone exploding from his chest and projecting in strong gusts through the packed room.

"People were missing the place," said Storace, taking a break from his maestro duties one Saturday evening. "Many of our friends didn't have a place to go, so they encouraged me. And the Sarno family has really helped me a lot."

Storace leases the restaurant from the Sarno family, which still owns the ornate 1920s building and the pastry shop next door--run by Alberto Sarno's brother Dino. In a convenient arrangement, the Sarno bakery supplies bread, pizza dough and desserts to Storace's eatery.

Caffe dell'Opera isn't the only opera restaurant in Los Angeles. Vitello's Italian restaurant in Studio City features opera. And the Miceli's restaurants in Hollywood and Universal City have singing waiters.

But it was Alberto Sarno who pioneered the concept 40 years ago at his storefront restaurant on Vermont, drawing homesick Italians from all over Los Angeles.

In a crime that shocked the opera and restaurant community, Sarno was killed late one night on the way home. The killers shot him once in the chest and but failed to take $224 from his pocket.

His wife, Silvana, found him slumped on the doorstep of their home several hours later. In 1989, a Superior Court jury acquitted the man accused of ordering an accomplice to kill Sarno in a robbery attempt.

Silvana Sarno kept the restaurant open for a while, but it closed in 1991.

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It was serendipity that led Storace to reopen Sarno's last year.

The opera-singing contractor was building a restaurant in Santa Monica that went bankrupt. In lieu of payment, Storace ended up with all the restaurant chairs, tables and kitchen equipment.

Around the same time, the Sarno family asked Storace to bring its historic building in Los Feliz up to earthquake standards. As Storace went about reinforcing the masonry, he saw the empty restaurant and asked the family if he could store his newly acquired restaurant equipment there.

One day while drilling holes, Storace had the bright idea: Since he had all the accouterments in place, why not reopen the restaurant and feature opera again so that he and his friends would have a place to go? The Sarno family greeted the proposal with enthusiasm.

The new Caffe dell'Opera rides the resurgence of Los Feliz as a vibrant arts, shopping and entertainment district where stars such as Madonna and Brad Pitt keep homes.

Storace has remodeled, exposing the red brick walls and vaulted ceilings and uncovering original frescoes of ships plying the Mediterranean. The restaurant also has an updated menu.

But it has several of the old Sarno's piano players--including Danny Guerrero and Cecil Godkin--as well as many Sarno's patrons, who now bring their children or even grandchildren and are delighted to have their watering hole back, albeit under a different name.

Zaven Manjikian of Beverly Hills started coming in 1963, when he was a student at UCLA. He was crushed when Sarno's closed. Then he heard about Storace.

"I was very eager for it to open. It's authentic, never contrived. And there are such characters," said Manjikian, who makes the pilgrimage every other weekend.

Caffe dell'Opera also draws crowds with stagings of entire operas--in period costume. This Sunday, the restaurant will present "Pagliacci." The performance and prix fixe dinner are $35.

Several weeks ago, the entire chorus--about 80 singers--from the L.A. Opera showed up for dinner after their Music Center performance, Storace said.

One unusual draw at Caffe dell'Opera is Hisato Masuyama, who favors Deanna Durbin show tunes but can also sing falsetto soprano, including "any soprano aria that doesn't go above a high C."

Singers don't have to audition. This is an egalitarian place where anyone can get up and perform after whispering his or her selection to the piano player, whose mastery of the keys is exceeded only by his versatility.

The open-mike quality of Caffe dell'Opera means that some nights, some of the singing is exquisite, as classically trained voices let fly. But others are "third-rate, fourth-rate, have-beens and may-have-beens," in the words of one patron.

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