Remembering Enza Sorrentino · 1943-2019

Top row: Enza with rock fish; ravioli in marsala mushroom cream; insalata caprese; lasagna bolognese. Bottom: saltimbocca; lobster couscous; pesto; Enza serving pasta

A funeral mass will be celebrated on Friday, October 11th, at 10 AM at Our Lady of Fatima, 3218 W Barrett St. in Magnolia.

What I remember most about Enza Sorrentino, who passed away last week at the age of 76, is the unconditional love she had for her family and all her friends. There were other Italian Mammas in Seattle, but only one Mamma Enza from Sicily. The world was a better place with Enza in it (certainly better fed!) and it is a lesser place without her.

Her early life was not easy, not that anybody’s life in Italy in the devastation that followed World War Two was easy. Five children by the time she was 30. Her first job was as a bookkeeper for a prominent left-wing union in Sicily. Enza became a staunch socialist. Socialist in the best sense. A passionate supporter of workers rights, of women’s rights, of human rights. Although she was by nature quite shy, she was no one’s fool. She fiercely guarded her children and resisted anyone who would cross her. But always with a great sense of style. She owned a white chef’s coat, but rarely wore it; she was more comfortable wrapped in a silk scarf and looking like she just stepped off a movie set or a fashion runway.

It was the restaurant business that grounded her, gave her a calling. “A guest,” she would often point out, “A guest is a sacred trust.” And to serve that trust, she used her astonishing gifts as a cook. She was not a prima donna, she thought most TV chefs were little more than trained monkeys, yet she knew somehow that the food that came out of her kitchen was as good as it could be. Would she have preferred a fancier kitchen, with more space, more burners, more line cooks and prep cooks? Perhaps. But the cramped quarters didn’t deter her talent, the constraints made her all the more resourceful.

She wrote almost nothing down, not because she improvised everything, nor because she was secretive but because she knew her culinary procedures by heart.

She didn’t work from recipes; she just knew. How many scoops of flour to dump into the mixer to make bread, how much water, salt, yeast; how long to knead the dough. The same for pasta, the same for sauces. No secrets, just knowledge. The Thermomix was her friend, a fancy home appliance that made splendid béchamel for her lasagna. A simple food processor purchased on Amazon to make her pesto. To the end, she would sit on a stool in the kitchen, building hotel pans of lasagna layer by layer; rolling out gnocchi (a task that took her no time at all), or assembling saltimbocca. Repetitive, even boring work. But attention to detail, because details it mattered. Not tweezers but flavors. Her dignity came from the work itself, from the discipline.

She carried the procedures in her head and the techniques in her fingertips. Her instruments were flour, semolina, olive oil, salt, and basil. The notes on her culinary scale. She composed effortlessly, as did Mozart, with a natural sense of rhythm and melody. Not to show off but to nourish. Natural talent: painters like Michelangelo, composers like Vivaldi, like Verdi, like Rossini, like Bellini. A natural culinary athlete, if you will, like a quarterback who can see the whole field in their mind, who can predict who’s going to be where, and who has mastered the ability to throw the ball to a precise spot.

Enza loved Seattle, she truly did. But she never forgot where she came from, Sicily. The land that taught her how to cook.

Sicily itself is an island that rises from the Mediterranean like a giant pebble kicked by the toe of Italy. It’s roughly the size of Vermont, or of Western Washington. Ringed by rich blue waters, its fishing villages teem with fresh seafood. Inland, the island is covered with dense forests, fertile hillsides, small farms, and ancient vineyards. For centuries, it has been viewed by Greeks, Romans, and Phoenicians as a strategic military outpost; it evolved as a cultural and culinary melting pot of astonishing diversity.

Bringing the spirit, flavors, and hospitality of her native Sicily to Seattle, Enza was a culinary ambassador who celebrated Italian food and family. Mondello has long been recognized as one of Seattle’s best Italian restaurants; in 2017 it was named one of the top ten restaurants in Seattle by Seattle Met; Eater has called it a neighborhood gem. Why? Well, first, there’s the food itself—natural, traditional and authentic—a lavish menu of local ingredients prepared in-house. Even better is the cheerful family ambiance and legendary Sicilian hospitality.

At Mondello, you’re always a welcome guest. And when Mamma said “Mangia!” it was an offer you did not refuse. Could not refuse, must not refuse. Enza is watching over us. Eat, she says. Mangia!