A Madison Avenue marketing firm couldn’t have created someone like Sonoma County’s Art Ibleto, a genuine, bigger-than-life character who has been warming hearts and stretching stomachs for 50 years as the much beloved Pasta King.
But Art is much more. He’s a farmer, meat cutter, grape grower, winemaker and the driving force for good in his adopted home of Sonoma County. Over the last five years alone, Art’s charitable pasta feeds have raised more than $500,000 for good causes, ranging from the Healdsburg animal shelter to surviving victims of a fiery Highway 101 crash.
Art will be 88 years old on Oct. 2 but has no plans to stop dishing up his pasta and doing the charitable outreach he believes he is destined to do.
“The Good Lord is keeping me on earth so I can keep making pasta and helping others where there is a need,” said Art. “After all, I can’t cook pasta in heaven.”
Art’s remarkable agricultural legacy and his many community contributions have earned him a prominent place in Sonoma County Farm Bureau’s Hall of Fame. The annual award recognizes agricultural leaders who have been a guiding force in preserving, protecting and propelling Sonoma County’s $4 billion farming industry.
Art follows other legendary leaders like the late Saralee McClelland Kunde who was inducted into the Farm Bureau Hall of Fame last year and Richard Kunde, Saralee’s husband, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2008. Other recipients include Henry Trione, Kip Herzog and Angelo Sangiacomo as well as the late Gene Bendetti, Larry Bertolini and Bob Kunde.
“I am honored to follow Saralee, who was my good and dear friend, and all the other men and women who are in the Farm Bureau Hall of Fame,” said Art.
Art will be inducted into the Hall of Fame at Sonoma County Farm Bureau’s Love of the Land Celebration on July 17th. The event, starting at 5 p.m., will be held at the Kendall-Jackson Wine Estate and Gardens in Fulton.
Also being honored at Love of the Land are Fred and Nancy Cline of Cline Cellars in Sonoma, who are receiving the Luther Burbank Conservation Award and the Gambonini dairy family of Petaluma, who are Sonoma County Farm Bureau’s Farm Family of the Year.
Love of the Land is open to anyone who wants to join in honoring Art Ibleto and the other award recipients while enjoying fine Sonoma County wine and food and the good company of those who work the land. Information about registration is available online at Sonomafb.org or by calling 544-5575.
Art has not stopped working since he drifted into Petaluma 65 years ago as a penniless immigrant from war-torn Italy to become one of Sonoma County’s most-beloved and revered citizens. He works seven days a week, confessing he is more likely to be cooking pasta for a charitable cause than attending Catholic Mass on Sunday.
“The priest tells me he never sees me in church. I told him I have a deal. I’ll cook for you if you pray for me. It works for both of us,” said Art.
For his part, Art likes to say that giving back 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.
“When you give, you receive back twofold,” he said.
For the last half century, Art has made healthy peasant food – like penne and polenta – part of Sonoma County’s culinary culture and a mainstay of the local fund-raiser. Art probably gives away as much food as 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 40 years ago, is an institutional landmark.
But Art often steps up to offer free pasta, salad and garlic bread at community fund-raisers.
Art knows what it’s like to hungry and in need of help 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 help others and make sure 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. But he said he is living proof that the human body can survive – just barely – without water for that long.
“When I climbed out of the hole my legs were like spaghetti and I could barely walk,” said Art. That was the transforming moment when he decided he would leave Italy and always value the gift of life.
“It was a hell,” said Art. “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. In 1949 he arrived in Sonoma County where 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. They’ve been married more than 62 years and have two grown children, Annette and Mark, who both work in the family businesses, and two grandsons, Ryan and Benjamino.
After working at Ghirardelli Ranch, Art got a job at Royal Tallow, an animal rendering company in Petaluma. Rendering is not a job for the faint of heart or the weak of stomach. The work involved skinning and quartering rotting carcasses of cows, sheep, horses and other assorted critters and throwing them into giant caldrons to be cooked down for various by-products.
“I once was the chief cook for a 90 ton sperm whale,” said Art, explaining his role in getting a dead whale into the rendering pot.
The stench of the cooking flesh at Royal was enough to make a grown man vomit. But Art said the pay was good and he was grateful to have a job, even it was one that most people would consider the worst job in the world.
“There are no bad jobs as long as you earning money,” said Art.
After working and saving, Art and Vicki bought a 10 acre farm near Cotati where they opened a butcher shop and established a Christmas tree farm. Over the years, they acquired more land and investment property. Today their holdings include 50 acres of vineyards, mostly pinot noir. The wine grapes are sold to area wineries with some of them used to make wine under Art’s Bella Sonoma label.
In 1974 Art 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 the impetus to start a retail store on the Cotati property. The store offers the flavorful Italian food – sauces, lasagna, polenta, minestrone and ravioli – that has made Art famous. He takes his pasta and polenta on the road, catering events throughout Northern California and is a regular at farmers markets.
The Farm Bureau Hall of Fame Award is just one of the many honors and accolades that Art has received for his community involvement and civic spirit. Two years ago the Harvest Fair gave him its “Lifetime Contribution to Sonoma County Agriculture” 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.
The love and admiration that the community has for the Pasta King 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.
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 88 and I am still working seven days a week and love what I do. What could be better than that?”