Tasting the Old Country

Buono’s Authentic Pizza turns 40

The Buono’s Family (l to r): Georgio, Oreste (Andrew), Teresa, Antonia, and Frank
Buono. (photo by Tim Ricks)

You may not realize it, but when you sink your teeth into the dough and sauce of a hearty slice at Buono’s Authentic Pizzeria, you actually taste a recipe brought over from the old country that is more than forty years old.

The well-known pizza shop is celebrating 40 years in San Pedro, but the history of the ingredients and technique began long before, in a land far, far away.

“My dad used to make bread for his whole town back in Ischia,” says owner and general manager of Buono’s, Frank Buono. “On my grandfather’s side, their expertise was baking. My grandmother’s side was in the restaurant business. So, we were all born into this business.”

It was his grandparents who began a cycle that would continue from Ischia all the way to San Pedro, decades later. “This exact location was an Italian market and deli fifty years ago, owned by my grandparents,” says Buono, about the San Pedro store located on the corner of 15th and Gaffey Street. “When we came over from Italy, my father bought it from them and made it into the pizzeria it is today.”

It was in 1967 that Frank Buono’s father, Nicolaniello Buono, moved to America and brought his wife, Antonietta and their four children, Frank, George, Oreste and Teresa. More than forty years later, all four children proudly represent the business in various roles.

“We use the same sauce that my grandmother made and sold when it was a market and deli. We try to use as much locally grown produce as we can, fresh spices, and we peel the garlic ourselves.”

Nicolaniello Buono, who passed away this September, taught all of his children an approach to pizza that is rooted in authenticity and quality. “He left a legacy of teaching,” says Buono. “He taught a lot about making this phenomenal pizza dough. It’s a two-hand procedure and it’s something we’ve always done.”

Although Buono Sr. retired early, he never stopped coming to the San Pedro and Long Beach locations, poking the dough and sampling the sauce to ensure it was up to par. Up until his passing, he grew an herb garden that was vast enough to provide fresh basil and parsley for all three restaurants.

Over the years, there have been new additions to the menu, recent remodeling of the San Pedro location and they’ve opened two more shops in Long Beach. Despite these changes, some things have stayed the same.

“We’re always looking for ways to improve, but the dough and sauce have not changed,” says Buono. “We use the same sauce that my grandmother made and sold when it was a market and deli. We try to use as much locally grown produce as we can, fresh spices, and we peel the garlic ourselves.”

Although this artisan approach to food has come into increasing popularity in recent years, Buono is proud to be an artisan by nature rather than because of trends. “Rustic artisan bread is in vogue, brick ovens are in vogue, using locally grown is in vogue; these are all things we’ve been doing for forty years,” laughs Buono.

“Unless it’s a thin crust, all of our dough is formed and flattened by hand. No machines, no rolling pin.” Buono says it’s the quality that has kept customers coming back every time. He recalls the early days when there were no chain pizzerias, just family-owned businesses. “When we opened, we were so popular that there would sometimes be an hour and forty-five minute wait,” he recalls. “There were only mom and pop shops in town, and people came here because of word of mouth.”

Despite local competition, Buono’s still has a solid base of customers. In the past four decades, Buono has seen first dates, marriage proposals and families who have made the pizza a family tradition.

“I drive here from Orange County just to eat their pizza,” says Buono’s customer Leticia Cervantes. “I work with kids and I was taking one of my kids to eat and she said, ‘We can just eat anywhere,’ and I said no. We’re going somewhere special. We’re going to get real pizza.” Cervantes says she frequents not only the San Pedro shop, but the other two locations in Long Beach as well.

Some customers have been patrons from the beginning. “This is the best pizza in the world,” says customer Frank Zaragosa. “I’ve been eating pizza here at Buono’s since I was five years old and now I’m 43.” Zaragosa grew up with 14 siblings and eating at the pizzeria was a favorite pastime, one that he now enjoys with his five children.

“This is why I love this business,” says Buono. “We’re in the business of making people happy.”

Furthering the business of making people happy, Buono’s takes part in a variety of philanthropic efforts. For the past 14 years, elementary and high school students have participated in Buono’s annual Youth Poetry Competition. Dozens of schools participate and students write Italy-centric poetry for trophies and pizza-related prizes. Buono’s is also a sponsor of the annual Labor Day race across the Vincent Thomas Bridge, Conquer the Bridge and they’ve sponsored the Long Beach Marathon for 20 years.

“These are things that are personally important to me and as a family,” says Buono. It’s a way the family can give back to a community that has given them their livelihood. In the future, Buono says they hope to expand and keep the family business thriving for future generations. Of the four children of Nicolaniello Buono, there are six children in the new generation. The oldest is 15-years-old and already hard at work bussing tables at the Willow Street location. The Buono legacy is in good hands. spt

Buono’s Authentic Pizza is located at 1432 S. Gaffey Street, (310) 547-0655. Long Beach locations: 250 W. Ocean Blvd., (562) 432-2211 and 401 W. Willow St., (562) 595-6138. For more information, visit www.buonospizza.com.

Repairing The Ring

photo by John Mattera

Although the Korean Friendship Bell’s home has always been on the bluff in Angel’s Gate Park, the very first time it was rung was almost 6,000 miles away in Seoul, Korea. United States and Korean officials ceremoniously rang the bell before it made its voyage across the Pacific on the Fourth of July, 1976.

The creation and erection of the bell was unlike any monument in the US. The bell was given by the Republic of Korea on the bicentennial celebration of American independence. In creating this bell, they tapped a lost art. When the 17-ton bell was cast, it had been over a thousand years since a bell of that size had been cast in Korea. The bell was modeled after the Bell of King Seongdeok, which was cast in 771 AD.

When the bell arrived in the Port of Los Angeles, it took two weeks to unload 28 cargo containers of materials. Korean stonemasons and carpenters worked 14-hour days to construct the belfry, platform and steps.

Finally, in October of 1976, four months after its first ring, the bell was officially dedicated, and struck on American soil.

Now, almost four decades have passed with little or no maintenance to keep the bell in good condition. Bird excrement is caked onto the belfry, there is obvious deterioration of the protecting layer on the bell and deviants have even marked the inside of it with graffiti. For nearly a year, the bell could not be rung because the link needed repair. The link is the wooden structure holding the bell to the belfry, which had fully broken causing the bell to twist.

The bell was in obvious need of a protector. That’s where Ernest Lee and the Korean Friendship Bell Preservation Committee come in.

The committee of 33 formed in 2006 with hopes of getting the bell back to its former glory.

“The bell called out to us,” says Lee. “ When you see the bell, you feel heartbroken with the shape that it’s in, and still awestruck with its beauty. Rather than just aching about it, we thought, let’s do something about it and have a long term plan.”

Rarely seen photographs of the construction of the Korean Friendship Bell belfry circa the mid-1970s. (photos provided by Korean Friendship Bell Preservation Committee)

While there are organizations that are designated to take care of city or federal landmarks, Lee says they don’t have the trained personnel to do it. Bell making is a particular craft, so the committee did their research.

“We found the company that originally worked on the bell,” says Lee. “All but one of the masters had passed away. We spoke with the surviving member of the group who, in 2011, sent his protégé here to give us an estimate to refurbish the bell.”

The budget based on his estimate: about $360,000.

Lee explains that the reason for the high price tag is that all of the key time frames for maintenance were missed.

“The salt air and strong winds of the area obviously don’t help,” he says. He stresses the need for caution with restoration. “First we want to do no harm. We have to work in careful and steady steps.”

Indeed, if the restoration is done hastily using craftsmen who are unfamiliar with the art of bellfounding, they may do irreversible damage. Besides it being an ancient craft, the bell is also covered with intricate artwork and an inscription engraved in relief on the bell. The bell is made of copper and tin, with gold, nickel, lead and phosphorous added for tone quality.

“The bell was designed to be an instrument,” says Lee. “It has a narrow tube inside and the bowl at the bottom for acoustic resonance.”

Korean craftsmen designed the belfry. Everything about the pagoda-like structure that houses the bell was done with purpose and symbolism. Creating the bell itself was not something that was done easily in Korea. Casting a bell that large is uncommon, and in the first attempt it was broken. The total cost for the bell and structure was over a million dollars, paid for by the Korean government.

With all of the painstaking attention to detail that was administered in its creation, it’s no wonder that there is a laundry list of repairs that the landmark must undergo to regain its full brilliance.

“We need to carefully sandblast the outer bell and fill holes,” says Lee. “There is bird-proofing that needs to be done, painting and the wooden striker needs to be replaced.” They already fixed the link in 2011, just in time for its 35th anniversary.

The road to getting the rest of these restorations will not be an easy one. The group of volunteers has worked tirelessly to get donations. One fundraising campaign was inspired by Lee’s friend and mentor, San Pedro icon, John Olguin.

“He used to say, ‘I’d rather get a dollar from a thousand people then have one person write a check for a thousand dollars,’” says Lee. “We fundraised all over San Pedro and Los Angeles, asking that people give a dollar donation for the bell.”

In following Olguin’s saying, they hope that with individuals reaching into their own pocketbooks, they will feel personally invested and connected to the cause.

The committee has about $280,000 for restoration. $5,000 came from residents in San Pedro and Koreatown and $275,000 has been allocated by the South Korean government. Although grateful for the large influx from the South Koreans, Lee believes that it’s time for the American government to take the reigns.

“We’re hoping that the city council will assist in matching what the South Korean government has donated,” says Lee. “It’s time to say it’s ours, we’ll take care of this magnificent gift.”

The committee is planning a fundraising golf tournament this spring to raise more cash. With the bell being such an iconic San Pedro landmark, Lee believes community members will step up.

“The meaning comes from the memory that attaches to it,” says Lee. Many San Pedrans find that meaning in the memories of family picnics on the great expanse of grass in front of the bell, flying kites, or even one of the many weddings that take place at the bell’s steps.

Deterioration of the wooden bell ringer (left), on the ceiling (bottom left), structural column damage and bell corrosion (right) due to improper upkeep and weather has taken its toll on the bell. (photos by John Mattera)

For Lee, the bell symbolizes an important friendship between two countries.

“If it were not for the United States involvement with Korean independence, I may not be here today,” says Lee. Lee’s parents emigrated from South Korea, which benefitted from the U.S. involvement in the 1950 Korean War. The U.S. defended South Korea against North Korean invasion, splitting the two countries at the 38th parallel or Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).

According to the Department of Defense, the total American military casualties resulting from the Korean War were over 50,000. Since the Korean War ended in 1953, South Koreans have fought alongside American military in both Vietnam and Afghanistan.

The bell’s symbolism holds a significance that’s not lost on the committee.

“I feel as the other committee members do,” says Lee. “Honored and privileged to have this opportunity. We’re also painfully aware of the grave responsibility.”

They hope to start restoration as early as May, but funds will dictate their timeline. Their wishlist for the future includes the lower parking lot connecting to the bell and more wheelchair accessible areas. “I know there are Korean War veterans who are disabled and would like to get around up here.”

Most of all, Lee hopes to restore the bell so that future generations can see it as it was when it first traveled nearly 6,000 miles across the Pacific to the bluff at Angel’s Gate Park. spt

For more info, visit www.kfbpc.org or email info.kfbpc@gmail.com.

Fixing The Pirate

Janice Olivieri photographed at San Pedro High School (photos by John Mattera)

The sun and rain wreaked havoc on what should have been the pride of San Pedro High School. A historic statue of the school’s mascot, a grand pirate, had seen better days. The hands should have been holding a sword and a hook, but instead were just sad stumps, cut off at the wrists. Holes throughout his body and deteriorating feet made him a spectacle. The 21-foot tall fiberglass statue was the victim of natural elements or vandalism, probably both.

The checkered past of the statue goes back close to fifty years and various locations. It was posted at the Harbor for many years, then in front of a store called The Sea for a time. It was then put in storage until nearly ten years ago, when the San Pedro Boosters worked to get it restored and placed on the grounds of SPHS. Yet, without upkeep, and close to a decade of deterioration, the pirate was in need of some serious TLC. San Pedro High School student and Girl Scout, Janice Olivieri, would be the one to give it the care it needed and restore it to a symbol of pride.

“It was terrible before,” says Olivieri. “During football games, the away team walks right by it and it was embarrassing, not intimidating.”

Olivieri had been looking for a project to earn her Girl Scout Gold Award, the highest honor a Girl Scout can receive, equivalent to an Eagle Scout honor in the Boy Scouts.

“You need at least 80 hours of community service to even get it,” says Olivieri. The guidelines alone for the award proposal are over twenty pages. “I had been brainstorming and thinking about doing a drama camp for kids, or maybe some sort of eco-green project.”

Olivieri realized that restoring the statue would be a way for her to earn her Gold Award while giving back to her school.

Of course, she didn’t realize that restoring the statue would take well over the required 80 hours of community service. It would take closer to 100 hours, and nine months of physical and mental work.

The project also cost a few thousand dollars, which was put up by a group of SPHS alumni who graduated from the school in the 1940s. Current SPHS principal, Jeanette Stevens, put Olivieri in touch with the 1940s group who agreed to donate money for the restoration.

“We met Janice and her mother and Janice went through all the background planning for the project,” says Chuck Norton, member of the 1940s alumni. “Janice wasn’t a regular student, she’s an honor student and a real go-getter.”

Olivieri proceeded to put all of her free time into the project. She patched holes and found help where she could. Her neighbor worked on surfboards, so she enlisted him to help in repairing the fiberglass feet. Olivieri’s mother, Shari Elders, spent almost every weekend with Olivieri assisting her mission. They used about 60 pounds of fix-all, countless gallons of paint and a cherry picker to reach the higher parts.

The newly renovated Pirate Statue

It was a lot of hard work, but Olivieri and Elders laugh remembering one day when the cherry picker conked out… with Olivieri close to twenty feet in the air.

“I was just stuck there by the pirate’s shoulder for an hour,” says Olivieri, who had to wait for maintenance from the cherry picker company to arrive. “The whole football team was practicing, so they were just running by me and saying hi as I stood there stuck.”

Elders had a positive attitude about Olivieri’s project from the beginning, but not everyone had such high hopes for the pirate.

“It was painful sometimes,” says Elders. “To have her working on it and people would stop and say, ‘Wow, that’s a lot of work, why don’t you just tear it down.’ It was like having a losing team and just thinking, Okay, we really have to win this one.”

Olivieri kept her head up, despite the negativity. “Most of your life, you have people saying, ‘You can do whatever you put your mind to,’ and I just knew I had to keep pushing and tell myself, ‘I can do this, I can fix the pirate.’”

Spending her weekends and school holidays painting, Olivieri did have moments when she wished it could be finished sooner. “There were times when I was like, every single day, I’m so sick of seeing this pirate,” says Olivieri. “Why didn’t I just do a camp? But it was completely worth it in the end.”

The football game just before homecoming, Olivieri was recognized for all her hard work in fully restoring the pirate to his previous grandeur. Elders can’t help but get emotional as she remembers the event.

“They made an announcement and I was behind her and I could see all these people standing and cheering for her and what she had done,” says Elders. “It makes me really proud.”

The group of alumni who raised and donated money for the project created a fund for others to donate to, as well. The fund will provide for upkeep of the statue and ensure that Olivieri’s hard work is maintained.

Olivieri will graduate next May, and her time will be over as a San Pedro High School student. But the mark she’s made won’t soon be erased. There is a 21-foot tall, eye-patched pirate, gleaming with fresh paint, who will ensure that Olivieri’s dedication won’t be forgotten. spt

ON THE COVER: From Renegade To Legit

Professional skateboarder and Channel Street Skatepark regular, Robbie Russo, shows off his moves. (photo by John Mattera)

Cars and semi-trucks rumble overhead, while traffic through the busiest corridor of the Port of Los Angeles roars by at street level. Approaching the area underneath the 110 Harbor Freeway, the hum of traffic lessens. Replacing it are the sounds of wheels and wooden boards grinding against concrete and metal. The grittiness of the area seems contradictory to the sounds of teenage chatter, laughter and hands slapping other hands as skaters glide past each other. This is the Channel Street Skatepark.

Ten years ago, it seemed an unlikely location, but today it’s an obvious choice. “Skateboarding is loud,” says Andy Harris, one of the founders of the Channel Street Skatepark. “This is the perfect spot. No one is bothered by the sounds of skateboarding.”

There are no houses in the vicinity, and it’s behind a strip mall of businesses. “We don’t even hear them,” says John Bagakis, general manager of Big Nick’s Pizza, one of the businesses in the strip mall. “They’re good kids, and they come in and buy slices, and ask for water on hot days. We ask them not to ride on the sidewalks or inside the plaza, and they’ve been pretty respectful of the rules.”

Although the location is perfect, it didn’t always meet everyone’s approval. Harris, Robbie O’Connell, Bill Sargeant, Robert Yamasaki, Scott Smith and Gabe Solis were some of the local skaters who saw the desolate area as a shining gem. The group had no permits and had not created a non-profit. The land was owned by Caltrans, who had not given permission. But after fruitless years of trying to get the city to build a skatepark, they decided to go down the do-it-yourself path. The inspiration came from San Diego.

“We went down there and saw the skatepark at Washington Street and we were like ‘Wow, we have the same setup,’” says Harris. “So we came back to this spot, and started building bumps.”

The Washington Street Skatepark is a series of smooth concrete humps and bowls, and looks similar to what the Channel Street Skatepark is today. When they started building small bumps, no one noticed. When they got a concrete truck down there, it was a different story.

“They all showed up at the same time,” says Harris. “Harbor Department and the Department of Building and Safety were down here and just told us, this is all going to be torn down.”

But instead of listening or calling it a wash and just walking away, they fought.

“It’s the idea that you’re doing something that is beneficial,” says Harris of why he wouldn’t give up. “There’s no way this is going away. It’s for the kids in town.”

Andy Harris (front row, second from right) with the old and new guard of the Channel Street Skatepark. (photo by John Mattera)

Harris called Janice Hahn’s office, who at the time was the Los Angeles City Council member serving the 15th District, which covers San Pedro. Caroline Brady-Sinco, who worked for Janice Hahn, worked with Harris to keep the park open, even driving to San Diego to see the Washington Street Skatepark that inspired them. Brady-Sinco’s efforts worked.

“Next thing you know, the Harbor Department says we’ll put up a chain link fence,” says Harris.

Even though officials threatened them with closure, they firmly believed they would find a way to keep it.

“It’s an asset,” says fellow founder, Robbie O’Connell of the skatepark. “It’s for the little kid learning how to skate and the old crusty guy still skating after 25 years.”

Hahn’s office asked that they create a non-profit for the skatepark, which they did, called the San Pedro Skatepark Association. This way people and businesses can donate money and supplies so that the entire building cost isn’t borne by the founders. When asked how much money they spent out of pocket, Harris shrugs his shoulders. “I don’t even want to know,” he says.

The First Day - clearing debris under the 110 freeway. (photo by Andy Harris)

Thankfully, tax-deductible donations are now possible. Supporters like Pasha Stevedoring & Terminals has donated close to ten thousand dollars of rebar.

“We have so much rebar in there, good luck tearing it down,” jokes Harris. “If anything ever happens in the world, I’m taking cover there. It’s like a fortress.”

The park has grown from a few bumps in 2002 to about 8,000 square feet of smooth concrete humps and bowls. The outside walls are decorated with paint and mosaic tile art, much of which was done by the same skaters who are spending every afternoon at the park.

“We bring awareness to the kids and give them a sense of ownership,” says Harris. “It’s not about ‘this is mine,’ this is everybody’s.”

Harris is a longshoreman now, but before that he was a substitute teacher. It’s not surprising when seeing the connection he makes to the kids that visit the park. As he pulls up in his car, skaters come over one by one to slap hands and say hello. There is a tangible respect among all of the skaters, regardless of age.

One older man comes by holding a broom, says hello to Harris before walking away to finish sweeping areas of the skatepark.

“That’s Alfie,” says Harris. “Before he skates, he sweeps. We take care of this place. We don’t own it and we don’t want any reason for the city to ever say we don’t take care of it.”

Over the years, the number of skaters has multiplied. With the growing numbers is also a wide variety of age.

“When I was a kid, there weren’t any dads who skateboarded with their kids,” says Harris. “Now, on Saturdays here, it’s like mommy and me.”

There is one day that sticks with Harris, in which he realized that their little skatepark-that-could they had built was becoming a real, full-blown skatepark.

“It was the day when we were just working on the park and a minivan pulled up, and a mom dropped off a whole carload of kids,” says Harris. “I mean, they’re dropping their kids off under a freeway.”

Many parents view the park as a safer place for their kids to skate, rather than the car-filled streets of San Pedro.

Wooden framework is installed to shape the skatepark. (photo by Andy Harris)

Channel Street Skatepark will have to close down in the spring of 2013 for a full year. At that time, construction will be done on the 110 Freeway, forcing the park’s closure. Because of the community’s need for a safe place for skaters, a new skatepark is going to be built in Peck Park on Western Avenue. The estimated cost of the project is between $750,000 and $1 million with the City of Los Angeles Recreation and Parks funding the bulk of it with some money coming from the Tony Hawk Foundation. The Northwest Neighborhood Council, along with the San Pedro Skateboard Association, has been meeting with Recreation and Parks architects on design elements.

John Mavar, former vice president of the Northwest San Pedro Neighborhood Council, hopes the park will open in about a year and a half.

“This park is so important,” says Mavar. “We need to provide another location for the kids who skate, the same way we provide basketball courts or baseball diamonds.”

Officials are beginning to see having a skatepark as a necessity. Ten years ago, Harris and his friends couldn’t get anyone to listen to their pleas, but today, they’re helping to plan out a new skatepark. Not a do-it-yourself skatepark, but one paid for in large part by the city, permits and all.

Concrete is poured as the Channel Street Skatepark becomes a reality. (photo by Andy Harris)

The Channel Street Skatepark may have begun as just a place to skate, but it’s blossomed into something much larger. Harris’s next step is looking into liability insurance. It’s a far cry from where they started: just a few guys building skating bumps on illegal property under the freeway.

As Harris says, “We went from renegade to legit.” spt

For more information about the Skatepark or how to donate, visit the Channel Street Skatepark Facebook page.