The Pasta King Honored by Harvest Fair with “Lifetime Contribution to Sonoma County Agriculture” Award
By Tim Tesconi
Arturo Ibleto, who drifted into Petaluma 63 years ago as a penniless immigrant from war-torn Italy, today is one of Sonoma County’s most-beloved and revered citizens, a bigger-than-life character whose outsized personality is matched only by the prodigious portions of pasta he serves.
Although known as the Pasta King, Ibleto, who turns 86 on Oct. 2, is a man of many skills, boundless energy and keen intellect who epitomizes the self-made man. He has been or still is: a cow herder, Christmas tree farmer, butcher, pilot, mechanic, grape grower, vintner, opera singer, limousine driver, caterer and more. He does many of these jobs simultaneously, being everywhere and anywhere people converge, whether it’s the Sonoma County Fair, the Wednesday night market in downtown Santa Rosa or a charity fundraiser for a church or fire department. In between stints preparing and dishing up pasta, he oversees his 50 acre vineyard, meat cutting business and the various other ventures that have made him prosperous.
Ibleto’s deep roots in Sonoma County agriculture, his philanthropy and commitment to building community have earned him many awards over the years. Now, the Sonoma County Harvest Fair is honoring Ibleto with its “Lifetime Contribution to Sonoma County Agriculture” award, which not only recognizes his colorful history in Sonoma County but his remarkable life on the land and his legacy of service to agriculture and the larger community.
“It is impossible to imagine Sonoma County without Art Ibleto whose wonderous personality and generosity have made our county a better and more interesting place to live. Art is a Sonoma County treasure,” said agriculture leader Saralee McClelland Kunde, a director of the Harvest Fair, president of the Sonoma County Fair and a longtime friend of the maestro of pasta.
Ibleto and other agricultural award winners will be honored at the Harvest Fair Awards Night on Sept. 29 in the Grace Pavilion at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds. The Award Night precedes the Harvest Fair, which is Oct. 5-7 at the fairgrounds. The other Harvest Fair agricultural award winners are chef John Ash, Santa Rosa, recipient of the Friend of Sonoma County Agriculture Award; Mark Sanchietti, Santa Rosa, recipient of the Outstanding Young Farmer Award; and Clay Mauritson, Healdsburg, Outstanding Young Person in Agribusiness.
For his part, Ibleto likes to say that being able to give to others is part of what he considers a bella – beautiful – life. And what better way to bring people together than over food, preferably good Italian food, he says.
“When you give, you receive back twofold,” Ibleto likes to say. He believes that food brings all people together, no matter the political party, age, gender or race. He is a Republican, but many of his best friends and most ardent supporters are Democrats who debate politics between forkfuls of Ibleto’s pesto.
For the last half century, Ibleto has made healthy peasant food – like penne and polenta – part of Sonoma County’s culinary culture and a mainstay of the local fund-raiser. Ibleto probably gives away more food than he sells – and he sells tons of spaghetti (pesto or marinara or a combo plate?) at the Sonoma County Fair where his Spaghetti Palace, established 38 years ago, is an institutional landmark.
Ibleto often steps up to offer free pasta, salad and garlic bread at relief benefits or celebratory gatherings, like the pasta dinner to welcome home the Petaluma team from the Little League World Series in Pennsylvania. Or the benefit dinner for the family who lost loved ones in a fiery crash on Highway 101 several years ago. Ibleto has greatly helped innumerable groups by allowing them to raise significant cash at pasta feeds for which he charges little, sometimes nothing.
Ibleto knows what it is like to be hungry because of his experiences as a teenager in Italy during World War II. That experience is at the core of his being, driving a deep motivation to make sure people are well-fed and no one goes hungry. During World War II, he became a “Partisan” or freedom fighter against Mussolini’s troops and later Nazi forces. He recounts that one time he had to hide in a hole in the hills above his hometown of Sesta Godano for eight days without food or water. For years he was reluctant to even tell that story because it’s so painful and he feared that people would not believe him. But he said he is living proof that the human body can survive – just barely – without water for that long.
“When I got out of the hole my legs were like spaghetti and I could barely walk,” said Ibleto. That was the transforming moment when he decided he would leave Italy.
“It was a hell,” said Ibleto. “I really believed in freedom and realized I would have to find it in another country.”
It took him three years following the end of the war to save enough money to leave Italy and come to America, settling in Sonoma County. Today, he is a Sonoma County icon known to thousands and celebrated for the goodwill he spreads.
At an age when most people are comfortably retired, Ibleto is still going strong and has no plans to get out of the kitchen at his “Little Italy” outpost the corner of Stony Point Road and Lowell Avenue near Cotati. It’s here that Ibleto and his staff chop basil for pesto and stir giants pots of polenta or marina sauce.
When asked if he would do anything differently in his life if he had the chance to start over again, he is quick to respond.
“I wouldn’t change anything. It was not easy but I will be 86 and I am still working seven days a week and love what I do. What could be better than that?” said Ibleto, who is grateful for the opportunities that America provided him.
“I think the United States is the best place in the world,” said Ibleto. “It’s a country where everyone has a chance. I only went to the fifth grade but America gave me the chance to work hard and get ahead.”
Ibleto is the quintessential entrepreneur. He was 22 when he left Italy in 1949 to make a new life in America. He eventually arrived in Sonoma County and his first job was picking zucchini on the Ghirardelli Ranch in Petaluma. There he met the farmer’s daughter, Vicki Ghirardelli, who eventually became his wife. Last year, the couple celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary and their 50th year in business. Ibleto and his wife have two grown children, Annette and Mark, who both work in the family businesses, and two grandsons, Ryan and Benjamino.
While working at the Ghirardelli Ranch, Ibleto saved enough to buy a 10 acre farm near Cotati where he opened a butcher shop, established a Christmas tree farm and grew potatoes. He said the potatoes were a one-year venture and a financial disaster.
“There was no market for the potatoes and they all rotted,” said Ibleto.
Over the years he acquired more land and today farms 50 acres of vineyards, pinot noir and chardonnay, selling wine grapes to area wineries and making wine under his Bella Sonoma label.
In 1974 Ibleto established the Spaghetti Palace at the Sonoma County Fair, a move that would make him an iconic figure – the Pasta King - in Sonoma County. The success of the Spaghetti Palace provided Ibleto the impetus to start a retail store on his Cotati property. The store offers the flavorful Italian food – sauces, lasagna, polenta, minestrone and ravioli – that has made Ibleto famous. He takes his pasta and polenta on the road, catering events throughout Northern California. He is a regular at the Wednesday Night Market and the Santa Rosa Farmers Market.
His products have won multiple awards at the Harvest Fair over the years, including for his pesto sauce in 1999, his herbed oil and vinaigrette salad dressing in 2001 and the wine made from his first commercial grapes, which were harvested in 2002 and won a Gold Medal in 2004 under the Bella Sonoma label. The next year he won a double gold on his pinot noir.
He has been a local and national leader in the Sons of Italy and the Italian Catholic Federation. He is a founder and board member emeritus of the North Bay Italian Cultural Foundation.
He has received many honors for his community involvement and civic spirit. Sonoma County Farm Bureau honored him with the Spirit of Sonoma County Award. The cities of Santa Rosa and Rohnert Park have named him an honorary citizen. He has received the Western Fairs Association Blue Ribbon Award for his service to the fair industry and a commendation from the Volunteer Center of America.
Ibleto is one of the few Republicans, maybe the only one, to ever be honored by the Sonoma County Democratic Central Committee for his commitment and contributions to his adopted country and the people of Sonoma County.
The love and admiration that the community has for Ibleto was evident in 2006 when 1,000 people showed up for his 80th birthday party at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds. He, of course, brought the pasta and polenta.
“That was some party,” said Ibleto - all part of the bella life that the Pasta King has carved in his adopted America.
The following are profiles on the other Harvest Fair Agricultural Award winners:
John Ash, Friend of Sonoma County Agriculture
As one of the acknowledged creators of “Wine Country Cuisine”, it is fitting that chef John Ash should receive the title “Friend of Sonoma County Agriculture.” Now an internationally admired chef, author and educator, Ash began in the local culinary spotlight in 1980 when he opened John Ash & Co., the first Northern California restaurant to use local, seasonal ingredients to create dishes that complemented regional wines. Within five years, he had earned rave reviews from Food & Wine magazine—and national recognition.
Ash’s passion for food and wine education is well known. He trains and teaches in his position as Culinary Director for Fetzer Vineyards, as well as traveling frequently to edify enthusiastic students around the world. His knowledge and zeal led to his being named Dean of the Brown-Forman Center for Global Wine Education, an intensive wine education program designed for the wine trade, with particular emphasis on restaurateurs, retail wine buyers and distributors. Ash also works as a consultant within the restaurant and hotel industries.
An award-winning author, Ash has published three books: American Game Cooking (1991) and From the Earth to the Table: John Ash’s Wine Country Cuisine (1996) and John Ash Cooking One-on-One: Private Lessons in Simple Contemporary Food from a Master Teacher (2004). He has also hosted both radio and TV shows.
Mark Sanchietti, Outstanding Young Farmer
Mark Sanchietti is a fourth-generation Sonoma County farmer, having grown up among grape vines on the West Santa Rosa property originally purchased by his family nearly a century ago. He always knew he wanted to follow that path. “I wasn’t forced to do this, I chose to do this,” says Mark. “I enjoy my work, and not everybody can say that. I feel very fortunate.” Clearly he made the right choice—at just 28, Mark farms over 200 acres of vineyards, has five years under his belt with his own farming business, Sanchietti Farming LLC, and has handled four harvests at Santa Rosa Junior College’s Shone Farm.
Mark, who lives in Santa Rosa with his wife Jenny and their one-year old son Mason, started Sanchietti Farming in 2007 after graduating from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. The business provides a full spectrum of vineyard services, from new site development to farming established vineyards. It uses sustainable methods and always strives to be a steward of the land. The venture has seen steady growth, and Mark credits his crew for this success. “It’s not an ‘I’ game, it’s a team effort,” he emphasizes, “and I’ve got a good team.”
Shone Farm hired Mark in 2008. Their 70-acre vineyard was suffering both in yield and quality, and the new vineyard manager turned out to be just what the doctor ordered. Says viticulture instructor and program director Dr. Merilark Padgett-Johnson, who works closely with Mark, “Under Mark the vineyards have made a complete turnaround. His grasp of farming would be exceptional from someone who’s been in the business for decades.”
Mark felt very privileged when he learned the Sonoma County Harvest Fair had named him 2012 Outstanding Young Farmer. “I think it’s a huge honor, I really do,” he says. “My father won this award, as well as a lot of close family friends. I grew up here, so I know what it means.”
Clay Mauritson, Outstanding Young Person in Agribusiness
As a sixth-generation grape grower born and raised in the Dry Creek Valley, Clay Mauritson’s destiny was clear. And for over 15 years now, he has been actively devoted to the Sonoma County wine industry. Even before his 1997 graduation from the University of Oregon, Clay was a member of Kenwood Vineyard’s Sales & Marketing team. He earned his degree in Business Administration with an emphasis on marketing; he minored in Economics. While in college, he also played outside linebacker for the UO Ducks in the 1995 Rose Bowl and the 1996 Cotton Bowl.
Clay, who lives in Healdsburg with his wife Carrie-Anne, their children Brady, 4, \ and Davis, 2,has made many smart choices while developing his career. He remained with Kenwood for five years, and as their Assistant National Sales Manager spent a substantial amount of time on the road making sales contacts. Following Kenwood, he worked with winemakers at Taft Street Vineyards and Dry Creek Vineyards, which gave him the opportunity to develop his winemaking skills and to learn more about winery operations in general.
Clay’s first wine under the Mauritson label was a 1998 Dry Creek Zinfandel, and for the past decade, his full attention has been on the Mauritson Family Winery. The family’s 270 acres of vineyards and solid relationships with other growers offer him access to exceptional fruit from Sonoma County, Dry Creek Valley and Rockpile. Taking full advantage of this bounty, he is clearly on his way to becoming one of California's foremost young winemakers.
Of receiving the 2012 Outstanding Young Person in Agribusiness award, Clay says, "It is an incredible honor. I feel very fortunate to do be able to do something that I am so passionate about. I share this award with my family; it is their dedication to growing outstanding grapes that gives us the opportunity to make great wines.”