The ABC’s of SMWE

The latest maneuver from Ste. Michelle Wine Estates resembles a deke (a hockey move to fake out your opponent). You think the guy’s going to go right but he goes left.

Well, everybody’s watching SMWE: where will they go next? The industry thinks they’re going to sell off pieces of the mothership (vineyards, production facilities, headquarters real estate). Instead, this week, they announced they’re buying. Buying A to Z Wineworks, based in Dundee, Oregon. (That’s a stylized view of their vineyards above, taken from the A to Z website.)

Per the press release, “Amy Prosenjak, President and CEO of A to Z, will join Ste. Michelle as President of Oregon Brands, overseeing the company’s combined operations in the state.”

Those Oregon brands, in addition to the A to Z label, are Erath and Rex Hill. Very solid, old-school wineries.  A to Z and Rex Hill produce about 400,000 cases annually, while Erath is around 300,000 cases annually, so SMWE’s combined Oregon portfolio starts at roughly 700,000 cases annually. (For comparison, SMWE sells ten times that much Washington-grown Riesling alone.)

But that’s not the point. The existing Oregon portfolio should be seen as a seed, which may expand quickly, if indeed that’s the plan. Says Ryan Pennington, SMWE’s vice-president for communications, “We intend to grow from there.”

So perhaps SMWE’s private-equity owners in Manhattan are plotting twin tracks: selling off existing excess and adjusting the sails of the Washington operation while simultaneously exploring some of the more obvious opportunities for expansion. Using its muscle in the industry (it’s the third-biggest wine company in the country), it could easily glide into Oregon, whose (aging) wine industry founders have long been seen as rugged individualists and stubborn artisans.

In France, where the wine business has roots in ancient traditions, Bordeaux is the region of grand estates, while Burgundy is noted for its fragmented vineyards. So far, there’s been no attempt by the aristocratic families of Bordeaux to become owners in Burgundy as well.

But no such tradition exists in the New World. SMWE’s tentative hop across the state line may not be a deke after all but the first step in a whole new order.

The Saint’s Deal With The Devil

David Dearie. Photo courtesy SMWE.

They say you shouldn’t gulp your wine, but, gulp, this is a bit of a surprise.

Ste. Michelle won’t say what’s going to happen with its iconic Chateau (visitor center and amphitheater), let alone its extensive Woodinville wine-making facilities or even the wooded acreage behind the winery, all of it zoned for residential development. None of that stuff is no longer central to its brand.

And just what is that brand, anyway? In addition to Ste. Michelle, SMWE includes 14 Hands, Columbia Crest, Erath, H3, Intrinsic, Liquid Light, Patz & Hall, Northstar, and Spring Valley Vineyard, in addition to partnerships with Marchesi Antinori (Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and Col Solare), Ernst Loosen (Eroica), and Michel Gassier (Tenet). SMWE is also the exclusive importer for Antinori wines and Nicolas Feuillatte Champagnes.

Ah, but what about sales, you ask. Aren’t sales essential to a brand? It was, after all, by opening a dedicated sales office in every state 50 years ago that Ste. Michelle became such a powerhouse.

Well, standby, here comes the “gulp.” Ste. Michelle’s parent company, SMWE (now owned by a private equity firm in Manhattan) has decided to outsource its sales operations to its longtime distributor, Southern Glazer. (The official announcement is here.)

SMWE’s CEO, an affable Australian gent named David Dearie, told me yesterday, in a conversation on the Chateau grounds, that Ste. Michelle’s sales force will remain intact (for now). But it’s pretty clear that the “national strategic alignment” is eyewash.

The new parent, Sycamore Partners, is obviously hard at work dismantling its new toy.

Just a couple of weeks ago, the company put the Woodinville headquarters acreage on the market and announced they were moving the wine-making operations “back” to eastern Washington. (Not a bad idea, actually.) But what about the visitor center? What about the amphitheater and summer concert series? And what about the Woodinville headquarters itself? More efficient wine making at Canoe Ridge pales in comparison to the value of nearly 100 acres of prime real estate. What developer wouldn’t smack their lips at the wooded hillside on the west side of the former Stimson estate?

You just know the bean-counters in Manhattan, who have no expertise in agriculture, wine production, or wine marketing (Sycamore’s investments to date have all been in retail merchandising), are sending each other memos like, “Why is the wine business so complicated?” The answer is too long for a blog post, but yes, it’s incredibly complicated. No sooner do they have a good idea than they run it up the flagpole and wait for our mate David Dearie to salute.

So, indeed, why should an outsider (who earns a commission on every case sold) not be in charge of selling your product? Because the distributor doesn’t care about the wine itself; the distributor’s metric is “How many bottles did you move?” It’s the winery job to be concerned with what’s in those bottles, and that’s what’s getting lost. Gulp.

Ste. Michelle says she’s leaving town

Chateau Ste. Michelle in Woodinville. Photo Richard Duval.

After nearly half a century in Woodinville, SMWE is making a run for greener pastures.

That’s Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, the latest corporate umbrella for the Northwest’s largest wine company. ‘Twas in February, 1973, that Wally Opdycke (a business analyst for Safeco) and Joel Klein (winemaker from California) flew to Connecticut and convinced Louis Bantle (chairman of US Tobacco) that he should invest $150 million in an unproven venture: a winery in Washington State. But Bantle wrote the check, and, in the ensuing decades, Ste. Michelle was able to launch an entire industry.

Also during that time UST was acquired by Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris and Marlboro, and the inevitable shakeout took place last year: Altria sold SMWE to a private equity group named Sycamore Partners for the bargain price of $1.2 billion.

Now [drumroll], Sycamore is making its first big move, putting the 180-acre Woodinville property (the Chateau itself, the tasting room, the banquet facility, the barrel rooms, the gardens, and the amphitheater) up for sale. White wine production will be transferred back to eastern Washington.

No price mentioned in the announcement, but you have to wonder who might be interested. No other winery is big enough to make use of the property … unless it’s a developer smacking their lips over the prime piece of real estate.

Two Girls from Amsterdam

On this #HolocaustRemembranceDay, let us honor two little girls from Amsterdam. Anne Frank (whose name is now known worldwide) lived on the Merwedepleen; Ali Isaac lived around the corner in the Jekerstraat. As it happens, both had older sisters named Margot.

To avoid the Nazi occupiers of Holland, Anne went into hiding for two years (and kept a diary that would become famous); Ali evaded capture as well. Both were ultimately discovered, and both ended up at Bergen Belsen during the freezing Hongerwinter of 1944-45. Along with thousands of others, Anne perished (typhus). But Ali somehow survived, and 18 months after the war ended she was able to rejoin her sister (my mother) in the USA.

Statue of Anne Frank on the Merwedepleen in Amsterdam.
The original Dutch version of Anne Frank’s diary
Alice Elisabeth Isaac in 1943, photographed by Annemie Wolff. Copyright held by her granddaughter, Monica Kaltenschnee.

Mermaid v StarbucksCares v Facebook?

This is weird. Earlier today a website called (that’s “cares” not “scares”) claimed the Mermaid would be dropping her surcharge on “alternative” milks (e.g. almond, soy, etc.) but add a surcharge to traditional dairy. Argument being that many if not most non-White customers (Blacks, Asians, other BIPOC) are sensitive to lactose and that SBUX doesn’t want to discriminate against them.

The announcement also announced that the Mermaid would introduce a new “Justice Cup” to its lineup.

Shortly thereafter, an official release from Mermaid Central on S. Utah St. called the StarbucksCares story a hoax. No such thing as a price increase on regular milk. No such thing as a “Justice Cup.”

No reply from’s project manager as yet, but I put the official denial into a Facebook post and was quickly informed that it violated community standards.

Good grief.

To be updated as necessary.

Well, here are the first couple of updates. First, Business Insider:

Next, the spoof is acknowledged by the perpetrators:

Switch4Good Claims Credit for Starbucks Spoof

“Starbucks’s plant-based-milk upcharge is an unfair and racially targeted overcharge,” said physician and expert in racial bias in nutrition 

LOS ANGELES, Calif., DECEMBER 9, 2021 – Switch4Good—a nonprofit dedicated to educating about the benefits of going dairy-free—together with the Yes Men, experts at exposing corporate wrongs, today mounted an elaborate “brandjacking” campaign against Starbucks, calling out the coffee giant for dietary racism

Thursday morning, a convincing spoof site,, and video announced that Starbucks would drop its upcharge on plant-based milks, and instead raise prices of dairy-based drinks. The initiative was launched with a magnificent new themed cup—the Justice Cup—a corporate social responsibility masterpiece that allows consumers to proudly, and vapidly, show their concern for racial equity. 

The spoof immediately grabbed headlines from news outlets like Business Insider and the Daily Caller, among others.  

The “initiative” reflected the fact that 65% of the world’s population cannot digest dairy—a condition known as lactose intolerance, which disproportionately affects Black, Indigenous and People of Color communities, as a fake spokesperson with the title “Starbucks equality innovations director” explained.  

However, Starbucks was quick to deny it was doing the right thing, and said the company has “known about ethnicity-related lactose intolerance for many years.”  

“We assure our most valued customers that we would never place the burden of a dairy upcharge on them,” the company told Yahoo! News. “We categorically deny the accusations of ‘dietary racism’ in this false announcement. Starbucks is and always has been a vigorous defender and promoter of people of all the colors.”  

Cue the record scratch…wait, what? “People of all the colors?” Did Starbucks really say that?  

As it turns out, it didn’t. That, too, was part of Switch4Good’s spoof. 

The absurd Starbucks denial was part of Switch4Good’s campaign to highlight the dietary racism of plant-based upcharges. The facts are completely real: lactose intolerance disproportionately affects communities of color—95% of Asians, up to 80% of Black and Latinx people, and more than 80% of Indigenous Americans cannot digest dairy, versus only 15% of white people.  

“While sadly it isn’t true that Starbucks is changing its policy, what is true is that profiting off of people of color who are only trying to maintain their health is systemic racism,” said Milton Mills, MD, an urgent care physician in Washington DC who has published several research journal articles addressing racial bias in federal nutrition policy. “By the numbers, more people of color are forced to pay extra, which makes it not just an upcharge but an unfair and racially targeted overcharge.” 

Switch4Good advocates dropping dairy not only for health but also for environmental reasons. Starbucks—the real Starbucks—openly acknowledges that dairy products are the single biggest source of carbon dioxide emissions across its operations and supply chain, and the second highest contributor to water withdrawal.  

“Starbucks has ignored our efforts to encourage them to right this injustice, so we had to resort to another way to communicate this important issue,” said Switch4Good executive director Dotsie Bausch. “When people choose plant-based milk, they’re doing something for their health, for the responsibility we all have to our planet and they are standing up for justice for all beings. These reasons should always be more important than a corporate bottom line.” 

Switch4Good has a history of advocacy for food justice. It has petitioned the USDA to remove dairy from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA), and testified on Capitol Hill. It succeeded, alongside other NGOs, in getting soy milk recognized as nutritionally equivalent to dairy in the DGA, and is currently working to ensure schools have access to, and reimbursement for, soy milk. Its multidisciplinary and multicultural coalition that includes BIPOC clinicians, dietitians, activists, athletes, and other thought leaders, works to pressure lawmakers into enacting fairer, healthier nutrition policy. 

Seattle’s Best Holiday Fruitcake: Maria’s Panettone from Gelatiamo

The panettone at Gelatiamo

You can buy an industrial “Christmas” panettone for under ten bucks, something made in a factory last summer that sits on the supermarket shelf waiting for December. (It will taste like sweetened sawdust.) You can try to make your own at home, but it takes 27 hours, start to finish, waiting for the yeast to rise, and rise again. You have to add spendthrift amounts of butter and egg yolks; you have to watch times and temperatures like a hawk, and when it comes out of the oven it’s still so delicate that it will collapse like a soufflé unless you hang it upside down, like a bat, on a skewer. Then, once it cools, it still has to “mature” for about a week so that its aromatic ingredients (the citrus, the rum, the vanilla) can develop their full flavors and fragrances.

It is, as the New York Times pointed out a few years back, the Everest of baking projects.

Panettone dough is wildly sensitive, demanding and occasionally infuriating, following its own unique logic and schedule. Built up in stages, it can’t be rushed or made to wait. It requires an investment of ingredients, a deep understanding of fermentation and attention to pH levels, along with constant attention.

Give it all that, and a panettone can still go wrong. Bakers from Pasadena to Pittsburgh say that’s exactly why they’re so obsessed with the high-maintenance dough: No bread is more difficult, or more rewarding, to get right.

Maria Coassin, an Italian artisan baker, shapes dough for a panettone.
Maria Coassin, an Italian artisan baker, shapes dough for a panettone.

Maria Coassin, the owner of Gelatiamo in downtown Seattle, can produce no more than 100 panettone a day, essentially by hand, with good cheer and artisanal dedication. She finished baking the first batch today, and already has 1,000 loaves pre-ordered. What’s not spoken for in advance goes on sale to the general public this Thursday, Dec. 2nd.

Coassin grew up in a family of bakers in the small town of Maniago, just over 10,000 people, midway between Venice and Trieste in northeastern Italy and known throughout Europe for the local industry: knife-making. The Giulian Alps tower over the flood plains of the Po River. The cows are milked for cheese, and the pigs, fed on the whey, become prosciutto. The mountain streams provide a ready and reliable source of energy to mill grain, stoke forges, and turn lathes.

To manufacture highly sophisticated automobiles, for example, you need a work force familiar with precision tools, and most of Italy’s racing cars (Maserati, Lamborghini, etc.) are built in the region. But those workers need to eat, too, and the Coassin Bakery has prospered for five generations. With loving parents and five older brothers, Maria was well looked-after, but she realized early-on that the family business was limiting. Pastries and gelato, she knew even then, would be her field.

Not yet 20, she married an American airman stationed at the nearby Aviano Air Force Base, moved to California, and took a job with McDonald’s so she could learn English and become versed in American business practices. When her husband retired from the military a few years later, she’d climbed the corporate ladder from mopping floors and washing dishes to assistant manager. She was ready to set out on her own, but didn’t want to stay in California. They flipped a coin: Seattle or Atlanta.

She signed on with an educational supply company in Seattle while she looked for a spot to open her own business. Two brave souls opened gelato shops, by which time Coassin had a name ready to go: a made-up word that’s the Italian equivalent of I Love Sushi: “Gelato Ti Amo,” or Gelatiamo. (To an Italian speaker, it sounds as if you’re saying “Let’s go eat gelato.”)

Her gelato shop (and it’s primarily a gelateria, not a bakery) has now stood on a busy downtown corner for two decades, but it almost didn’t get started. Coassin had almost no financing, so she cashed out her share of the family bakery business; it came to $200,000. Her father pitched in another $50,000 to help her buy equipment. (Reminder: this was serious money 25 years ago.) In fact, he came to visit the first year, in 1996. “What can I do to help?” he would ask. It was a cold winter, not much demand for that sexy but little-known Italian newcomer, gelato. (Lots of customers thought it was cream cheese.) So Coassin’s dad started making panettone.

The name, by the way, is an Italian suffix, “-one” (OH-nay), something bigger, grander. So polpetta, meatball; polpettone, meatloaf. Minestra, soup; minetsrone, fancy soup (lots of vegetables). Pane, bread; panettone, fancy bread for the holidays. More brioche than fruitcake, not dense like a German Stollen, but bread-y, sweet, yeasty, with plenty of run-soaked raisins, and candied orange zest and lemon bits.

In her two tiny convection ovens, in the bakery below her ice cream shop, Coassin can only bake 16 panettones at a time, but she gets a lot of satisfaction from knowing that her brothers in Italy are doing exactly the same thing at the same hour. FaceTime conversations are not unheard of. And after all that effort, maybe 1,500 one-pound loaves of panettone, priced at $20 apiece. (A special treat, Gelatiamo’s panettone filled with zabaglione-flavored gelato, is sometimes available by the slice.) Add it up, and it might seem barely worth the effort. But it’s a fifth-generation thing in Maniago, and a 25-year Seattle tradition now, and Coassin won’t give it up.

“You have to remember that we are not a full bakery, we are a gelateria and pastry shop,” Coassin said in an email. “We still do things they way my dad taught me 25 years ago adjusting our family recipe to ingredients and equipment here!”

A couple of years ago, she tweaked the blend of flours a bit so the dough would be more elastic and the panettone lighter. More sweet goodies have been added. “Maria’s Panettone” is a triumph. Barely 1,500 loaves, remember. Same price as always, $19.95, and she ships anywhere in the country.

And if she’s sold out by the time you get down to Third & Union, here’s a list, compiled by the Washington Post, of panettone bakers who also ship.

Food, Wine, Friends

Founded in 1975, the Enological Society of the Pacific Northwest was the oldest volunteer-organized wine appreciation group in town. Rechristened the Seattle Wine Society in 2004, it continued to sponsor monthly wine dinners and an annual wine judging whose excruciating fairness was better suited to the days when Washington and Oregon combined had fewer than 100 wineries (many owned by paranoid individualists barely on speaking terms). But its leaders recruited international wine authorities as judges, and their influence helped put the Pacific Northwest on the map.

Life goes on, conditions change, and many volunteer organizations took advantage of their non-profit tax status to change direction. Not the Enological Society. “Our work here is done,” the Board of Directors decided, and they literally closed up shop. They had $30,000 or so in the bank, but didn’t spend it on fancy trips for their top brass; instead, they gave the money to the educational institutions they’d been funding for years, a lump sum to be distributed (as scholarships) over the coming years. That was in 2013.

The founding board came straight out of Seattle’s Blue Book (Dorothea Checkley, George Taylor, Nancy Davidson Short, Betty Eberharter), with a mission to guide its members “in viticulture, enology, and the appreciation, enjoyment, knowledge and proper usage of wine.” Its mission accomplished, it fell to international business attorney Mel Simburg, serving a term as president, to decommission the Seattle Wine Society.

Gerry Warren

Under the guidance of an early recruit to the cause, Dr. Gerry Warren (a clinical professor of medicine and bioengineering at the University of Washington), the Society provided its 3,000 members with monthly educational programs, wine dinners featuring wine regions across the globe, and an annual wine festival, all of it run by volunteers. Chapters were added in half a dozen outposts, from the Tri-Cities to Spokane. The annual Festival became a focal point for a growing body of wine enthusiasts, not the least of them the internationally renowned judges. Over the years, they included Paul Pontallier of Chateau Margaux; the Italians Angelo Gaja and Piero Antinori; the American historian Leon Adams; writers Roy Andries de Groot and Gerald Boyd; California wine makers Joe Heitz and Warren Winiarski; UC Davis professors Maynard Amarine, Denny Webb and Ann Noble. Their palates, unfamiliar with the unique wines of the Northwest (especially in the early years) were always impressed by the quality of the top bottles; they were also unafraid to criticize flawed wines.

Today, the number of wineries in Oregon, Washington and Idaho has grown from fewer than 100 to well over 1,000 in Washington alone. The Wine Society’s casual, chatty summer wine fair has morphed into the tony Auction of Northwest Wines, one of the nation’s biggest charity auctions. The Washington Wine Commission (which didn’t even exist when the Society started) runs a two-day Wine & Food Festival; there’s also a privately run Seattle Food & Wine Experience. There are smaller festivals in every valley and hillside of the wine country, and wine-maker dinners at restaurants across the region. And no shortage of independent, benchmark judgings, either, from the Platinum Wine Awards run by journalists Andy Perdue and Eric Degerman of Wine Press Northwest, to the high-profile Seattle Wine Awards (and its companion, the Oregon Wine Awards) run by sommelier Christopher Chan, who brings in a panel of top-name judges.

John Bell, an engineer who spent his career working at Boeing while he made wine in his Everett garage, is among those who regard the Wine Society’s work with fond nostalgia. Until this summer, Bell owned a successful boutique winery, Willis Hall; he’s also a longtime Society board member who appreciates what the Society has done as a catalyst for wine education and appreciation, “to the point where that mission has now been taken up by a plethora of individuals and groups.”

For the first time in over a decade, three dozen of the “old crowd” gathered recently to reconnect over a luncheon of chicken with papardelle at the elegant Women’s University Club. Many of the founding board members were on hand, chatting about early memories. like the shoebox in which membership records were kept on 3 x 5 cards. When the Society was launched, wineries weren’t allowed to have tasting rooms, assuming you could even find the vineyards or the production facilities. It took an act of the state legislature to legalize the pouring of samples. Today, of course, Washington grows more wine grapes than any state but California, and the industry generates hundreds upon hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue. The folks at today’s event (average age perhaps 80) savored treasured bottles they’d brought from the own cellars, as befits the Society’s “volunteer” ethos.

Warren noted that the Society was based on three principles: an almost academic approach to the then-novel subject of wine appreciation; the importance of promoting a local wine industry; and to have a good time while pursuing the first two goals. Having achieved that, it was time to plan for a “soft landing” and close up shop.

“We are proud of our accomplishments,” Bell said. “It’s the end of an era, but it was truly a bright era, wasn’t it?”

Nina’s Open House Tomorrow

The kitchen at the old El Gaucho

Nina Mikhailenko, the prodigiously gifted Russian-born artist, will host an open house tomorrow (Saturday, Oct. 23rd) to showcase her latest work.

If you’ve enjoyed a drink or a meal at any of Seattle’s El Gaucho locations, you’re already familiar with Nina’s paintings. Her style has its roots in a late-19th century Russian movement called Peredvishniki, a loose group of itinerant artists who rebelled against the formal restrictions of the tsarist academy. Instead they painted populist themes: peasants, religious celebrations, landscapes. Her most successful works are commissions: murals of life on Pampas, bullfights, chefs, cigar smokers, jazz musicians, tango dancers, well-fed urbanites, rare wine bottles.

Details on her Facebook page, which includes a video. The open house runs from 1 to 7 PM at 9315 56th Avenue S. Excellent vodka and Russian treats; watch this YouTube to find out all the details. Or go to for a preview of her latest work.

Disneyland for grownups

A lively Parisian street scene opens Act II of La Boheme. Photo © Philip Newton

It was the first live opera performance in Seattle in 18 months! So it was a good thing that the music and plot of Puccini’s La Bohème were familiar. It was a little like going to Disneyland with your friends from summer camp. You practically want to hum “It’s a Sad World After All.”

So the challenge, in Seattle Opera’s production, is to offset the on-stage misery. The young bohemians (poets, painters, composers, philosophers) may be starving and freezing, but they’re determined to get through yet another discontented winter. Spoiler alert: the sweet-natured seamstress Mimi–sung by soprano Karen Vuong–doesn’t make it to April, despite her friends’ frantic, last-minute efforts. Colline (Cairo-born bass-baritone Ashraf Sewailam) even sells his beloved overcoat to buy medicine, to no avail.

The story of these passionate scamps isn’t all about heartbreak, though. Paris in the 1890s was plenty raucous, full of bright colors and brazen sexuality, captured in director David Gately’s staging. The courtesan Musetta, especially–soprano Ginger Costa-Jackson–revels in being surrounded by a “scent of desire” in her delightful aria, By now Ginger Costa-Jackson has become a staple of Seattle Opera casting. Her waltz-time aria,“Quando m’en vo,” is often portrayed as the song of an innocent adventurer in a slinky silk gown, but Costa-Jackson plays her as a scheming hussy (with a heart of gold, of course; she sells her earrings in a last-ditch attempt to save Mimi).

A good thing that the audience knows what’s coming. This Bohème doesn’t slow down to showcase the opera’s big numbers; instead, it showers the audience with musical exclamation points and dramatic sparkles from beginning to end. The set may have been shipped over from Milano for Seattle Opera’s 1965 production, and the costumes (by Martin Pakledinaz) have seen three decades of use, but it all fits the “comfort mode” of nursery school familiarity. No complaints.

Remembering Enza Sorrentino

Enza Sorrentino, a traditional Sicilian chef whose deft touch with Italian pasta seduced a generation of Seattle diners away from canned spaghetti & meatballs and bogus fettuccine alfredo, passed away two years ago today; she was 76 years old.

She was born in Sicily in 1943 and grew up in Palermo, among the small farms, vineyards and fishing villages of the Mediterranean coast. She moved to Seattle after the birth of her first grandchild and joined three of her children here; for the next 15 years she would cook in much-loved neighborhood restaurants like La Vita è Bella and Mondello, serving as a culinary ambassador and bringing the spirit, flavors and hospitality of Sicily to Seattle.

“Mamma Enza,” as she was sometimes known, was the matriarch of an extended restaurant family. She arrived in Seattle from her native Sicily, in 2003, to help her oldest son, Corino Bonjrada and his business partner, Giuseppe Forte, run a popular sidewalk café in Belltown, La Vita è Bella.

“There is so much more in Italy than spaghetti, risotto and pizza,” was Mamma Enza’s motto. It was the opening salvo in her mission to broaden Seattle’s appreciation for Italian cooking.

Howard Schultz was an early customer in Belltown; Martin Selig and Gordon Bowker were among her fans. Italian opera stars arrived at her restaurants in Queen Anne and Magnolia. Jeff Bezos made a reservation.

Enza Sorrentino was born in the lean, post-Mussolini years, in Marsala, a small town on the west coast of Sicily. Her father was a teacher, her mother an office worker, but her grandfather had owned a restaurant. Enza grew up in the impoverished landscape of postwar Italy and jumped at the chance to escape; she married and moved to the French-speaking Morroccan capital of Casablanca for a decade. Returning to Sicily, she took a job as a bookeeper for the region’s biggest union, the CGL; thanks to her language skills she assumed a prominent role in the union’s international relations. But it was a political position, hence quite perilous. As the legend goes, after witnessing more than one Mafia hit, she walked away. Still, with five children to look after, she needed work. So she took a job as a dishwasher in a restaurant.Here’s where it gets interesting. One day, the cook didn’t show up, and Enza stepped in to prepare the restaurant’s lasagna. “Who made this??” the dumbfounded customers asked. So Enza was promoted.

Not that she wasn’t already an accomplished home cook. For years she’d been feeding her own family of five and their friends. But this was different. Now she had to cook for dozens of customers every night. Now, it seems to me that there are only a few jobs that require everyday, 24-hour attention. Not digging ditches; you knock off at sundown. One is a single mom raising a family of five. The other is running a restaurant. But Enza was anything if not resilient. And anything but lazy. She made pasta by hand; she once cut up an entire lamb with a blunt dinner knife. She was the least fussy of cooks, but demanding for all that. In Palermo, she ran a popular nightclub, standing up to regular shakedowns from both underworld dons and agents of the law. In Seattle, no such problems, so she never returned to Palermo except for brief family visits. Here, once she bought something from a vendor, she used it, used it all, no waste. She would turn up at the restaurant at 6 AM to bake two dozen loaves of bread; she would roll 200 meatballs by hand before lunchtime; she made her own sausage, her own pasta, her own pizza dough, her own sauces. Whenever she was physically able, she turned up at the Saturday market in Magnolia to sell her wares; she knew everybody.

She loved to go out. She particularly loved going to the opera to hear the great Italian composers. She had a love-hate relationship with restaurants; she would complain about high prices, tasteless entrees, and indifferent service. But when she found a place she liked, she was loyal to a fault. The chicken-liver mousse at Le Pichet. The fish & chips at Steelhead Diner. The tuna sushi at Shiro’s in Belltown and Sam’s in Ballard. Shiro, we should mention, was a longtime friend and next-door tenant at La Vita è Bella.

Over time, her five children provided her with seven grandchildren, who could, of course, do no wrong. And on whose behalf she would spare no expense. Her own shopping was limited to the bargain counter at Macy’s, Ross Dress for Less, and her favorite, the Goodwill. Still, like all Italians, she knew the value of the prestigious brands: Gucci, Prada, Rolex, Dior, Chanel.

She is still remembered by a generation of diners spread across Seattle (granted, many in Magnolia) who admired her lasagna, worshiped her gnocchi and ravioli, relished her linguine with clams. She was always touched by expressions of support, but she didn’t tolerate fools; many a vendor escaped her wrath only because, even after almost two decades in Seattle, she had failed to master the English-language intricacies of an Italian insult.

As it happened, some of the cooks at Mondello neither read nor speak English, so Enza would look over the tickets in English and call out the orders in rapid fire Italian. The Spanish-speaking cooks always knew just what to do. Her own English remained halting. She was not, like some of Seattle’s Italian restaurateurs, a front-of-house person. Though she was grateful for their compliments, she did not seek the attention of her customers by spending a lot of time in the dining room; her place, she knew, was the kitchen.

“Mangia,” she would say to her guests. You must eat! “Mangia!”