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Art Ibleto, Sonoma County’s Pasta King, dies at 94

Many grand and benevolent community leaders have graced Sonoma County since the Second World War, but in a kitchen-aproned and beaming immigrant named Art Ibleto, the region had its only king.

The Pasta King died late Tuesday morning at his home in Cotati. He was 94.

Ibleto had introduced legions of locals to the penne, spaghetti and polenta with pesto and/or marinara that he served at the Sonoma County Fair and countless other public events and caterings. Again and again for decades, he took the initiative to ladle vast quantities of his foods for free at benefit pasta feeds that brought people together to raise substantial donations for all manner of charitable, educational and civic endeavors and for people celebrating victories or confronting tragedy or great need here and overseas.

Famously robust, endearing and fun loving, Ibleto was just days ago still going into his commercial kitchen at the Pasta King complex near Cotati to cook. The self-made man, former teenage fighter in the Italian Resistance, tireless entrepreneur and embodiment of kind-hearted royalty was brought home Monday from Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital. He was taken there by ambulance Nov. 14 with medical issues that included a serious infection.

“When I die,” he said in his 2016 self-published memoir, “I don’t want people to be sad. What a life!”

The barrel-chested and proud Wine Country cultural monarch spoke often of how lucky he was. He could have been killed any number of times while, at 17 and 18 in his native northern Italy, he menaced the Nazis and fascists as a freedom fighter known by the code name K2.

Ibleto counted among his most fortunate days the one in fall of 1949 that, as a 22-year-old immigrant picking zucchini in Petaluma, he met a lovely Sonoma County native, Victoria Eleanor Ghirardelli.

They married in Cotati in 1951 and together reared two children, Mark and Annette, and stone-by-stone built a small empire that encompassed a custom butcher shop, a long-ago Christmas tree farm, the Spaghetti Palace on the county fairgrounds in Santa Rosa, a catering and freezer-case foods operation, vineyards that produce premium wine grapes, rental houses and a partnership in the popular Rohnert Park restaurant, Art's Place. They had been married nearly 70 years when Victoria Ibleto died on Good Friday of 2019, at 87.

Art Ibleto felt lucky, too, that his kid brother, Angelo, now 87, decades ago emigrated from Italy to join him in Sonoma County. Angelo Ibleto has become renowned for the sausages, jerky and other delicacies at Angelo’s Meats in Petaluma and Angelo’s Wine Country Deli, outside of Sonoma. At some of the region’s tastiest festivals and other culinary events, pastas boiled and stirred with red or green sauce by the elder Ibleto paired memorably with the younger’s grilled tri-tips or boneless, stuffed and roasted pig.

The diligent and stubbornly old-school Art Ibleto would often declare that many of the ills plaguing America would vanish were three basic values practiced more widely: common sense, gratitude for the abundant opportunities that come with living in a free country and a willingness to work.

He wasn't the least ashamed that as a kid in Italy he'd gone to school only through the fifth grade. Just the opposite. He held up his success and his stature as one of Sonoma County’s best known businessmen and philanthropists as proof that if he could do it, anyone can.

“I got no degree,” he said in his autobiography, “Freedom Fighter to King,” “but all you need is strong will, passion for what you do and common sense.”

Through the course of his long, extraordinary and deeply textured life, Ibleto served as state president of the Sons of Italy, he met presidents and celebrities, he fed big crowds at benefit dinners for his longtime friend, Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, and he was bestowed just about every local, state and congressional award for his accomplishments and community service.

In the spring of 2018, friend Mike McGuire, the Democratic state senator from Healdsburg, welcomed him onto the Senate floor and presented him a resolution in honor of “a lifetime of achievements and meritorious service to humanity.” In August of 2019, the regional Boy Scouts of America council named Ibleto its Distinguished Citizen, an honor earlier presented to community giants such as Henry Trione, Charles Schulz, Lucille Kelly, Hugh Codding, Benny Friedman, William McNeeny, Gene and Dan Benedetti, Joe Rattigan, Sharon Wright, W.C. “Bob” Trowbridge, James Keegan Sr. and Jr., Rick Call and Rob Giordano.

Ibleto laughed right along with the relatives and others who noticed at the outset of the Boy Scouts banquet at Santa Rosa Golf & Country Club that as he stepped from the elevator, the slacks to his seldom-worn suit fell to his ankles. His usual wardrobe was a Pasta King pullover shirt, a Pasta King apron and sweatpants.

About 1,000 people attended Ibleto’s 80th birthday party in 2006, about 600 his 90th in 2016. Both happened at the county fairgrounds, where he opened his Spaghetti Palace, outside the Hall of Flowers, in the early 1970s.

It was there that many local people first tried green spaghetti — the color of pesto. And polenta.

Ibleto notes in his book: “I get a charge out of people liking polenta. Because 75 percent of people they got no idea what polenta is. So many time, people look at dish of my polenta and they say, ’I’d like the lasagna.’ I say, ’It’s not lasagna, it’s polenta.’ They say, ’What’s that?’ I say, ’Cornmeal.’ They say, ’I don’t like.’ I say, ’Try.’ If they do, they usually say, ’More, please.’ ”

The Pasta King’s pesto and other sauces, his minestrone and other foods and the wines that Sebastopol’s Taft Street Winery makes from his grapes and label as Bella Sonoma have won many awards in Harvest Fair judging.

Arturo Louis Ibleto was born Oct. 2, 1926, in Buenos Aires, Argentina. His father, Augusto, a former national police officer and World War I veteran in Italy, was working temporarily in South America as foreman of a telephone company crew.

Art Ibleto would say that the mother he adored, Maria, was uneasy living in Argentina because her new son was so beautiful she feared someone would steal him. No one did.

He was a still a toddler when his mother returned to northwestern Italy and to the Ligurian hills village of Sesta Godano, near seaside La Spezia. Augusto Ibleto returned from Argentina for good a few years later.

They would have five children and give them all names starting with ’A’. Along with the others, Arturo learned that to eat, one needed to work. He’d recall lugging large stones from a field that his father was to plow and plant.

As young as about 5, Ibleto was charged with taking the milk cow up into grassland a good climb from his family’s home. He recalled singing for hours for two reasons: It helped to make him less afraid of being up there alone, and it let his mother know he was OK.

He’d often say he lost his entire teens to war. He was 13 when, in June of 1940, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, who’d signed a pact with Adolf Hitler, declared war on France and Great Britain.

With both his father and his older brother, Aldo, called to arms, young Arturo Ibleto abruptly became the man of the house. About the time he turned 17, he was drafted into the army of Mussolini’s Hitler-propped Republic of Salò.

All through his life, Ibleto would say he didn’t die soon after he was inducted because he told the truth. He and other newly trained teen recruits stood at attention one day in late 1943 as a general inspected them.

The general would pause before a soldier and ask in Italian, “Where do you want to go, son?” The correct answer was, “Rome, sir.” To go defend the capital.

When the general stopped in front of Ibleto and posed the question, the 17-year-old replied, “Home.” Not long afterward, the insolent private was summoned by a lieutenant and beaten severely.

He was then jailed in preparation for being put on a train presumably bound for a German labor camp. But he escaped to join the Italian resistance movement and to aid the advancing Allies and frustrate the Germans by blowing up bridges and railroad tracks.

He would say he was certain he would have died in dishonor in battle had he not deserted Mussolini’s army, so he figured that answering the inspecting general’s question truthfully saved his life. When recounting his most arduous experiences during the war, he told of lying still in a hole just feet from encamped German soldiers for eight days, and carrying for three days a badly wounded friend.

Ibleto was a 22-year-old war veteran when he bid his parents and siblings goodbye and left Italy for the U.S. on Sept. 14, 1949. At the recommendation of two Italian elders who had worked in Northern California before World War I, he headed for Petaluma.

He found work on the vegetable farm run by the father and uncle of Victoria Ghirardelli. When they married, he left the farm and did all sorts of work before late Petaluma newspaper columnist Bill Soberanes tasted the food he prepared for Sons of Italy functions and declared him the King of Pasta.

Ibleto was just short of 90 when he said for his autobiography, “I hope I leave behind a bit more than I came with. Maybe I help somebody to see that freedom is everything and you can do anything if you work.”

He added, “People they ask me if I do it all over again, what I change? I say nothing. No, nothing.”

He is survived by his son, Mark Ibleto, and daughter, Annette Ibleto Spohr, both of Cotati; his brother, Angelo Ibleto of Petaluma; his sisters, Amabile Castaletti and Angela Zito, both of Italy, and grandsons Ryan and Ben Ibleto, both of Cotati.

Chris Smith and Art Ibleto were friends for more than 30 years, and Smith co-authored Ibleto’s book. You can contact Smith at 707-521-5211 and chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.

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