The Pasta King Trusted Us—On Our Honor

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Art Ibleto, the Pasta King of Sonoma County, died Tuesday at age 94. (Pasta King)

Inside the spacious kitchen shed at his Cotati home where he made his famous pasta, Art Ibleto taped a sign to the large industrial refrigerator:

WE TRUST YOU. PLEASE TAKE WHAT YOU NEED AND LEAVE THE MONEY ON THE TABLE. —PASTA KING.

For drivers who’d notice the “Pasta King” sign from the rural Sonoma County road and pull into in Ibleto’s driveway, the door to the kitchen was always unlocked. The fridge was always full of penne, marinara, pesto and lasagna. And when Ibleto wasn’t around to take people’s money, the desk was nearly always covered with folds of cash next to the touch-tone landline phone and old Rolodex, accompanied by notes of appreciation.

Ibleto, who died Tuesday morning at the age of 94, was the kind of person for whom this honor system was natural, instead of novel. For all of Ibleto’s philanthropy and civic service to the Sonoma County community that he adopted as a young immigrant from Italy, one fact sticks with many of the Pasta King’s fans most: he trusted you.

Piles of cash on the desk of the Pasta King at his Cotati kitchen.
Piles of cash on the desk of the Pasta King at his Cotati kitchen. (Gabe Meline)

The word “iconic” is overused these days. But Ibleto was, without question, a Sonoma County icon. The man was everywhere—at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds where he built his “Spaghetti Palace” in the early 1970s; at Santa Rosa’s Wednesday Night Market; at all manner of charity feeds and bakes and luncheons and parties, many for which he donated his time and food; at special events, celebrations, weddings and funerals; and back at his home kitchen in Cotati, where he’d greet visitors in a thick Italian accent: “Ciao bella! You like pasta? Red or green?”

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Ibleto’s life wasn’t always so public. As a teenager in Italy drafted into Mussolini’s army, he escaped and joined the resistance forces as an underground freedom fighter, planting explosives on roads and railroads to thwart fascism’s spread across Europe. At 22, he immigrated to the United States and settled in Petaluma, trusting not only the people in his new chosen home, but in hard work, common sense and a we’re-all-in-this-together belief.

Over at the Press Democrat, Ibleto’s longtime friend and biographer Chris Smith tells the details of the Pasta King’s long life, including his business ventures and philanthropy. It’s worth a read.

A sign on the Pasta King's refrigerator instructed visitors to leave cash for their purchases.
A sign on the Pasta King's refrigerator instructed visitors to leave cash for their purchases. (Gabe Meline)

But Ibleto touched even those who hadn’t the faintest awareness of his stature in the community. Often, he ignored his own honor system and simply gave pasta away for free—to those down on their luck, or to people he thought looked too thin—a gesture that was rarely forgotten.

The whole reason I’m writing this, probably, is because I was one of those people once, a skinny kid without the $6 for a plate of pasta at Santa Rosa’s Wednesday Night Market. Later, when my wife and I got married, it only made sense to hire the Pasta King to cater our wedding; even later, when we had a daughter, we occasionally brought her by Ibleto’s place so he could see the results.

The Pasta King with the author's daughter
“Your name Lena? Good Italian name! What kind of pasta you like? I give to you, you no pay!” (Gabe Meline)

And of course, there was his loud, deep laugh. When, a few years back, I found myself without the proper change to leave on his old wooden desk for some lasagna, I knew I couldn’t cheat his trust. So I wrote him a letter when I got home and enclosed the missing amount of two quarters, taped to the letter, with two stamps to cover the extra weight.

Ibleto never put the quarters in his till. Instead, he taped the letter to his refrigerator, along with the quarters and the stamps, in what many presumed was a display of the general public’s allegiance to the honor system.

I learned the real reason later, when a friend reported stopping in and saying he knew the sender of the quarters. Ibleto pointed to the stamps, amused.

“He your friend? You see what he did?!” Ibleto said. “He spent 88 cents to send me 50 cents! Maybe I have a bridge to sell him!”

And then, after a long, heavy laugh, he looked up and said, “So. You like pasta? Red or green?”

And that was the Pasta King. It truly won't be the same without his huge, gracious presence here in Sonoma County.

Learn more about the Pasta King here.