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!”

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