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L.A. At Large

In Los Feliz, Life Will Be a Little Less Sweet

August 01, 2000|BEVERLY BEYETTE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

After 54 years, it's ciao to Sarno Pastry Shop in Los Feliz. On Sunday, the family-owned bakery, where generations of Italian Americans came to buy cannoli and cream puffs, panetonne and Marsala wine cakes, locked its doors. Today, the next-door tenants and their restaurant, vermont, will take over with plans to open an upscale bar in the space.

Times change. Once, there was talk that this stretch of Vermont Avenue between Hollywood Boulevard and Franklin Avenue would be L.A.'s "Little Italy." That never quite happened, although Italian restaurants--Palermo, Il Capriccio, Mamma Mia--are very much part of today's neighborhood mix.

Italian Americans found their way to Sarno's, cash in hand (Sarno's never accepted plastic) for fancy wedding cakes and Old Country treats such as stogliatelle, a flaky pastry filled with ricotta cheese and citrus.

A cultural blend of Los Angeles, the neighborhood is home to Armenians, Filipinos, Latinos and Indians. There's an Indian restaurant, the Electric Lotus, and a retro diner called Fred 62. And there is vermont, the restaurant that for 18 months has shared space in Sarno's 1920s building.

It was in 1946 that Umberto Sarno, an Italian immigrant from Naples, and his wife, Frances, came west for their health. Since 1920 they'd had a bakery in Chicago and, in Los Angeles, had found a suitable site at 1712 N. Vermont Ave., then occupied by the Hollymont Bakery.

The Sarnos lived above the bakery in an apartment where a caryatid still stands guard at street level. Starting out, Umberto bought a few trucks that crisscrossed the city, delivering bread hot out of the oven.

In time, Sarno's prospered and Umberto brought other Italian families over and helped them get started in businesses. And two more generations of his own family would work at Sarno's. In a 1987 interview, Umberto's younger brother Dino recalled that, as a kid, one of his jobs was "to place the cherries on the cookies."

He went on to become the head baker and took over when his father died of cancer in 1974. Upstairs, his brother, Robert, established a law office. And in 1964, back from eight years of voice studies in Italy, brother Alberto opened a small coffee shop next door. One day he stood up and sang for his customers.

They loved it, and so it was that the coffee shop was transformed in 1967 into another L.A. landmark, Sarno's Caffe Dell'Opera. An accomplished tenor, Alberto served up Puccini nightly with the pasta, drawing a clientele that included Sophia Loren, Jimmy Durante, Gina Lollobrigida, Tony Bennett, Mario Lanza and--when he was in town--Alberto's friend, Luciano Pavarotti. Others who could sing, and some who couldn't, came to dine and warble.

Then, in 1987, tragedy struck the Sarnos. One night after closing up the restaurant, Alberto, 59, was gunned down outside his Los Feliz home in a follow-home robbery ambush. The suspect was tried twice; both trials ended in hung juries.

At the time, Dino's daughter, Angela Ghomi, was studying at Art Center College of Design, but she knew the bakery business--she and her two sisters had worked there--and Dino asked her to put her studies on hold to help him. It was one of those times, she says, when "families come together." Calls of sympathy were pouring in, including one from singer Michelle Phillips, who worked in the bakery when she was in high school.

Alberto's widow, Silvana, kept Sarno's Caffe Dell'Opera open until 1991, but it wasn't the same without Alberto. Later, another Italian American tried unsuccessfully to recreate the magic.

Through it all, Sarno's the bakery carried on while nearby businesses came and went. The Onyx, a hip espresso house, morphed recently into the very French Figaro Boulangerie. The onetime site of DeMarco's restaurant, later a bank, is now to be--what else?--a Starbucks. A store calling itself Archaic Idiot opened with an eclectic mix of vintage clothing and memorabilia.

But, clients assumed, there would always be Sarno's. Then, about a month ago, a sign went up in the window. "Thank you, Los Angeles, for 54 years . . . we are closing our doors for retirement." The Sarno family wished everyone "Buona fortuna!"

Some longtime customers were in tears, says Ghomi. "They'd tell us their whole life story, about their wedding cake, about when their children used to come in and my grandmother [Frances, now 94] used to give them cookies." Through the years, customers included Frank Sinatra, John Travolta, Danny DeVito and Leonardo DiCaprio.

Sarno's turned out cakes for wrap parties for the major studios, with Ghomi putting her artistic talents to work on fanciful designs, such as a red, white and blue star-spangled cake for the crew of "Primary Colors."

As the neighborhood changed, Sarno's became a little spiffier. About 10 years ago the dated rock facade was ripped off. The neon wedding cake sign outside remained and the Museum of Neon Art has approached Sarno's about acquiring it.

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