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At 89, the “Pasta King” still reigns

Art Ibleto has led a life filled with plenty of challenges, from a childhood spent under the totalitarian regime of Benito Mussolini in his native Italy, to severe injuries suffered while working at a factory in Petaluma. But when life handed him lemons—well, he made pasta.

And boy, has he made pasta. Over the past 45 years, he’s built an empire in Sonoma County based on this hearty staple that encompasses a catering business, a restaurant, packaged products, and booths at both the Sonoma County Fair and Wednesday Night Market in downtown Santa Rosa. Along the way, he also established a vineyard called Bella Sonoma, just for good measure.

Life under Mussolini

Ibleto grew up in Italy, where pasta is the staff of life. He was raised in Sesta Godano, a small town just a few minutes from Italy’s picturesque Cinque Terre region, along the rugged Italian Riviera coastline.

But life in Italy at that time was tainted by the rule of Mussolini and later the trauma of World War II. Ibleto so detested Mussolini’s regime and the war going on around him, he became a “freedom fighter” dedicated to thwarting Mussolini’s troops and Nazi forces. “I swore that, if I came through alive, I would leave,” he remembers.

From zucchini to spaghetti

Several years after the end of the war, a family friend invited him to come in California. His first job in Sonoma County was picking zucchini. “It was a killer job, bending over all day.” But with his characteristic optimism, he worked hard.

Next, he was offered a job at a fish processing plant in Petaluma that produced animal feed. He suffered a near-fatal accident, when a cooking pot exploded and “burned me from my belly button on up,” says Ibleto. “But I didn’t complain because it could have been worse.”

In 1958, Ibleto and his wife joined the Petaluma lodge of Sons of Italy. He went on to hold several offices for the lodge, including two terms as president. In the 1970s, Ibleto proposed to a group of seven local lodges called the “United Lodge” that they run an Italian food booth at the county fair to raise funds for other organizations.

After a few years, the lodges decided not to continue operating the highly successful, but labor-intensive “Spaghetti Palace.” Ibleto took over, creating what has become a 40-year tradition at the fair.

Earning his title

Ibleto’s fame as a purveyor of authentic, affordable Italian cuisine continued to grow, spawning a booming catering business. “People started to call and say ‘Art, I am getting married,’ or ‘we’re having a funeral, will you cook for us?’” says Ibleto.

Ibleto became known particularly for his nonprofit work; many times he has simply donated his services and food to causes ranging from a funeral honoring a sheriff ’s deputy to a benefit for victims of the recent earthquake in Nepal. “I feel good when I do something for the community,” says Ibleto.

Ibleto’s simple approach to cooking has never varied. “I start by using the best pasta possible,” says Ibleto. “Then you have the sauce. We make fresh, home-made sauce every day. You gotta remember the flavor of food; it doesn’t happen by chance.”

For many years, the traditional pasta with marinara (red) sauce reigned as everyone’s favorite, but somewhere along the line, pasta with pesto (green) sauce became equally in demand. Ibleto’s pesto sauce was awarded a gold medal at the 1999 Sonoma County Harvest Fair.

Making several generations of pasta lovers happy

He’s also received a gold medal for his herbed oil and vinaigrette salad dressing at the 2001 Sonoma County Harvest Fair and a double gold medal in 2005 for pinot noir made under his Bella Sonoma label.

Today, the business is very much a family affair, with his daughter running the office and his son the meat department. His two grandsons, ages 19 and 16, help with catering.

At 89, Ibleto still works every day in his business, whether he’s cooking, making deliveries, or hosting his booth at the Wednesday Night Market. He continues to earn his well-deserved title “The Pasta King.”

Says Ibleto: “We have a lot of sad stories in our lives and bad times, but when you come to food—if it’s good food—you enjoy it and it makes it you happy. It changes people’s lives. And they start loving you because you are providing it.”

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