The call comes into the Pomona fire station at least once a week: "Hi, it's Mary. You guys busy?"
When the answer is no, Mary Ardito climbs into her white sport utility vehicle and makes the five-minute drive to Los Angeles County Fire Station 187, armed with the sorts of homemade baked goods that have won awards and ribbons at the county fair.
For more than three years, Ardito and her husband, Jim, have joined the firefighters at their kitchen table, a gathering that started with a shared enthusiasm for good food but deepened into a family-style relationship.
Coffee and dessert are shared and savored as the conversation drifts from family updates and weekend plans to good books and the future of the Oakland Raiders, the pro football franchise that left L.A. a decade and a half ago.
Mary Ardito has come to know the firefighters' favorite dishes and sometimes prepares full meals when family members visit the station. And the firefighters have been quick to return the favors.
When Jim Ardito, 81, had a stroke and underwent surgery to remove two tumors on his bladder, firefighters checked in on him. When Mary Ardito, 66, had a cyst removed from her right wrist, four firemen from the station took flowers.
"We kind of look out for them, and they look out for us," Capt. Eddie Lozano said.
Ardito, 66, agrees. "I've adopted them, and they've become our family."
The friendship began when Ardito was heading home from a cake-decorating class. It was 10 p.m. -- too late to swing by a neighbor's house -- and she couldn't bear to throw away her class project, so she thought she'd try the nearby fire station.
The firefighters were halfway through their 24-hour shift when a knock came at their door. "Hello. Would you like a cake?" Absolutely. "Would you like me to come back next week with another one?" Sure.
After a few weeks, Ardito was invited to stay a while. When the cake-decorating classes ended, she continued to appear at the station, always with something sweet to share. Eventually, her husband joined her and the gatherings began. As they ate together, the couple listened with interest to the day's ordeals: a dog trapped in a car, a woman pleading to be saved.
When it comes to the fire station, Ardito usually sticks to dessert. "Pretty soon you get to know people's allergies, what they like and don't like -- of course, they never say they don't like it," she said one afternoon while spooning cream into pastry puffs in the kitchen of her small mobile home.
After the cream puffs were arranged in a carrying case and sprinkled with powdered sugar, her husband took them to the car. Ardito checked the station's shift schedule that she keeps on her refrigerator and called ahead to make sure the crew was there. A half-mile drive later, the couple pulled up to a brick fire station where dozens of cadets stood outside getting training on fire hose techniques.
Firefighter Roland Dykes was the first to greet them. "My favorite!" he said, spotting the cream puffs.
Ardito laughed. "Roland always comes out to get the goodies."
Inside, the Arditos got a hug from Capt. Russ Blackschleger and firemen Mario Natividad and Bob Stumm. As chairs were pulled up to the table, Dykes dived into a cream puff. "Delicious," he announced.
Lost in the moment, the firefighters began clicking off other treats that come out of Ardito's kitchen: Red velvet cake. Lemon pudding cake. Rum cake. Pineapple upside-down cake. Carrot cake.
"What about that fondue?" Blackschleger asked.
Dykes nodded, of course. "Yeah, the fondue."
Ardito cocked her head for a moment, confused. "Oh, you mean the fondant!" she said. "That's the stuff you roll out to go around the cake."
"Is that to protect the cake?" Natividad asked.
"Well, you can eat it, but it tastes terrible," Ardito said.
As usual, after an hour had passed, the leftovers were stored for the incoming shift, hugs were exchanged and the Arditos left with their carrying case, promising to return soon.
"The truth is, they don't need to bring anything," Blackschleger said. "What's special about these guys is they take the time to stop by and say thank you."
The sweets, he said, are simply the icing on the cake.