Celebrating Our San Pedro Moms 2013


They’re the women who tucked us in at night and made our lunches in the morning. They made sure we brushed out teeth, had clean socks and underwear and helped us with our homework. When we got older, they taught us how we should treat others and offered their opinion on what we wore, who our friends were, and most importantly… who we dated. They were the first person we wanted to impress and the last one we wanted to let down. They listened and they loved unconditionally. Without them, we probably wouldn’t know what to do with ourselves.

To all our San Pedro Moms, not just the ones honored in these pages, but all over town… thanks for being you.

Lights! Camera! Action!

Councilman Joe Buscaino and LAHIFF’s Stephanie Mardesich at the festival’s 10th anniversary press launch

Stephanie Mardesichloves movies.

If not for her passion for the cinema, the ebullient director and founder of the Los Angeles Harbor International Film Festival may not have been able to carry the event through to its 10th anniversary this year.

“A decade is a significant epoch and though I don’t feel older, clearly ten years has passed,” she says of the milestone.

As Mardesich describes it, the LAHIFF has always been a celebration of film. Unlike more relevant film festivals like Cannes, Sundance, South by Southwest or Toronto, which are geared towards new and independent films looking for distribution, the LAHIFF prides itself on celebrating films from both past generations and more contemporary times, with a strong focus on children’s education thrown in.

“The motivation to continue corresponds to the values instilled by my parents to persevere, to strive for excellence as its own reward, to be an individual of conviction, and to never give up on something or someone as long as there is some hope for a positive outcome,” says Mardesich. “It’s better to try and fail than succeed at nothing, as a friend once told me. In spite of challenges we have continued and now have a ten-year record.”

Back in 2003, the idea of establishing a film festival in San Pedro wasn’t a far-fetched one. The town already had an iconic theater to host it, perfectly set in the heart of downtown. Not to mention, San Pedro already had a rich history of being used as Hollywood’s backdrop. From classic films such as Chinatown, to popular current television series like Mad Men, San Pedro has become synonymous with film production.

“Stephanie and I were at a San Pedro Chamber mixer at Ports O’ Call Restaurant and we were chatting with the late Gary Cox about how San Pedro should have a film festival,” recalls Jack Baric, an original co-founder of the festival who has since stepped away. “Stephanie really took the conversation to heart and immediately started working on getting a festival launched. She has been generous enough to include calling me a co-founder, but truthfully she put forth all the effort in launching the festival and has kept it going since then.”

Left: Russ Tamblyn and Academy Award winner George Chakiris, co-stars of West Side Story, at the 2009 festival. Right: Mardesich with actress Betty Garrett and host Tom Hatten at the inaugural festival in 2004

The inaugural festival launched on April 30, 2004, and included such films as The Perfect Storm, the 2000 drama starring George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg, based on Sebastian Junger‘s best-selling book, the 1949 musical comedy Neptune’s Daughter, starring Esther Williams, Betty Garrett and Ricardo Montalban, and an afternoon screening of Disney’s The Little Mermaid for the kids.

Other films featured at the festival throughout the decade include The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964), The Poseidon Adventure (1972), Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), South Pacific (1958), Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988), Swiss Family Robinson (1960), and West Side Story (1961), among others.

In 2006, the LAHIFF hosted the world premiere of Baric’s San Pedro documentary, Port Town, which brought a near capacity crowd to the Warner Grand that year.

“When I think of what the festival has become, I just think of Stephanie and how she has persevered in keeping it going,” says Baric. “It is not an easy thing to keep a festival running year after year and yet she has done it, which is a compliment to her passion.”

Mardesich’s other passion is education. Her late mother, Lee, was a teacher at Bandini Street Elementary School and instilled in her family the importance of reading. Mardesich used that inspiration to establish the “Read the Book, See the Movie” (RBSM) program, which has become the cornerstone of the film festival.

“From the beginning, it was clear LAHIFF should have an education element for students,” remembers Mardesich. “It’s so simple. Pick a book that has a film attached. We’ve been focusing on classic literature, but the choices are infinite. Read the book and talk about the differences in the two genres. It’s a more thoughtful way to encourage literacy.”

Every year, one film adaptation of a classic novel is chosen for the RBSM program. Publishing sponsors Penguin and Puffin Classics donated 1,200 paperback copies of the book that are distributed to students from middle school to adult education classes. Participating schools include: John & Muriel Olguin Campus of San Pedro High School, Dana Middle School, Rolling Hills Renaissance School, Pacific Lutheran School, Port of Los Angeles Charter High School, Mary Star of the Sea High School, and the Harbor Service Center (formerly known as San Pedro Adult Learning Center).

For newly-elected L.A. City Councilman Joe Buscaino, the RBSM program is what separates this film festival from the rest.

“‘Read the Book, See the Movie’ is my favorite element of the film festival,” he says. “My wife, who is a teacher at White Point Elementary, has participated in this program, and we understand the educational value that it delivers. LAHIFF’s commitment to San Pedro, its culture and its history, is important.”

Clockwise L to R: The LAHIFF’s 10th annual festival programing includes There’s No Business Like Show Business (1953) starring Donald O’Connor and Marilyn Monroe, Chased by the Dogs (1962) and Disney’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1993)

This year, the four-day festival takes place May 2-5 at the Warner Grand Theatre in historic downtown San Pedro, the heart of the Port of Los Angeles, beginning with a free screening of the RBSM film, Disney’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1993), starring Elijah Wood (The Lord of the Rings Trilogy), on May 2 at 10:30 a.m.

“The story of Huckleberry Finn and his friend the runaway slave Jim, speaks to friendship, loyalty, and courage with an anti-slavery theme,” says Mardesich. “The timing of this classic choice with regard to the recent films Lincoln and Django Unchained is relevant considering issues of social responsibility and morality with historical reflection.”

The festival continues on Friday, May 3, at 7:30 p.m. with the opening night screening of Chased By the Dogs (1962), the film adaptation of the Egyptian novel The Thief and the Dogs by Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz.

Saturday, May 4, marks the annual Hollywood Nostalgia Tribute night featuring Irving Berlin’s 1953 classic, There’s No Business Like Show Business, starring Ethyl Merman, Dan Daley, Donald O’Connor and Marilyn Monroe. The screening is preceded by the “Show Biz and Red Carpet Gala” at the Arcade Building, directly across the street from the Warner Grand. Tickets for the pre-show Gala are $75 ($65 if purchased before April 18), which includes admission to the film, an open bar, appetizers and buffet supper homage to 1950s cuisine. General admission to the film is only $10.

The festival concludes on Sunday, May 5 at 1 p.m., with its traditional “DocSunday” programming featuring the New Filmmakers LA (NFMLA) “On Location Program,” showcasing 22 short films made to promote the City of Los Angeles.

With its eclectic lineup, Mardesich is hoping to pull in audiences who appreciate various genres and who are open to viewing films they might never have seen before.

“Bringing out the audience is probably the greatest challenge of this festival,” admits Mardesich. “[My dream] would be to have a full house — that’s at least one third of the 1,500 seat capacity of the Warner Grand — at the programs. We’ve been fortunate to have several capacity crowds. That’s exciting, though not realistic in current times. When the movie palaces were built, there was an audience to fill the huge space. It’s rare for that to happen any longer, thus theatres like the Warner Grand have become multi-use venues.”

Even with a handful of loyal volunteers, the LAHIFF is still Mardesich’s baby. It’s rare that you spot her around town not wearing one of her many multi-colored LAHIFF t-shirts. Come marketing season, that shirt is usually accompanied by a handful of postcards and posters that she single-handedly distributes across town and throughout Los Angeles.

With continued community support from Congresswoman Janice Hahn and Supervisor Don Knabe, plus local business sponsorships, the LAHIFF continues to stay alive, even through challenging times. With a decade of experience, Mardesich still expresses hope that the festival will become ever grander and more relevant during the next ten years.

“It would be wonderful if an entity or sponsor had the interest to give their name above the title and bring an infusion of funds so there could be a paid administrator and staff and the festival could perhaps go to another level,” she says. “I would still want to be involved and advise so the mission is not distorted, however, the effort it takes now is very consuming and one of these days I might like to take a voyage elsewhere than on the cinematic bridge.” spt

The Los Angeles Harbor International Film Festival takes place Thurs-Sun, May 2-5. Tickets for all programs and reception will be sold online through Brown Paper Tickets, Williams’ Book Store (443 W. 6th St., Downtown), and at the box office (cash only) during the festival one-hour before programs start. General admission is $10 per program; $8 with discounts from select affliliations: GVF, LAMM, IDA, CMA, BAFTA LA and ILWU, and seniors and students. Prices subject to change. For full details, visit www.laharborfilmfest.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.

Moving On Up

Chef Dustin Trani stands on the open kitchen line at Doma in Beverly Hills. (Photos by John Mattera)

He saunters through the restaurant wearing a baseball cap, blue jeans and a Red Hot Chili Peppers t-shirt, with his long brown hair flaring from either side of his cap and his beard precisely shaped. With this casual appearance, you’d think he was at home rather than at work, and in a way, you’d be right.

For the past 28 years, which equates to his entire young life, Chef Dustin Trani has called J.Trani’s Ristorante home. The restaurant, which bears the family name, is synonymous with San Pedro.

It’s a quiet Monday morning in the middle of January and Trani looks a bit tired, which is no surprise. The whole reason we’re chatting this morning has to do with the fact he’s been pulling double duty running two kitchens, one here at J. Trani’s, the other at Doma, the hot new restaurant in Beverly Hills that he recently opened.

The decision to move from the security and familiarity the family business affords to uncharted waters 30 miles away, which in San Pedro miles is about 100, was a tough one for Trani. After all, who really leaves San Pedro? This is a town where generations run deep and Pedro Pride is serious business.

“I was back and forth, back and forth, and didn’t know if I really wanted to do it,” says Trani about the move to Doma. “But the opportunity was there and I talked to my parents and my friends and people in the community and I asked them what they thought, and they said I had to try it. I had to seize the opportunity.”

Stepping back a moment, it seems like Trani has been seizing opportunities his entire life. The son of Jim Jr. and Viki Trani and grandson of Jim Sr., Trani started in the family business fresh out of kindergarten at six-years-old, prepping lemon juice and chopping parsley. By 11, he was working banquets with his dad.

“The summer after fifth grade, that’s when I consistently started working a couple days a week, working the pantry section, doing the salads and appetizers and desserts,” recalls Trani.

Trani puts the finishing touches on a dish at Doma.

Like any child who grows up in the family business, there comes a point in time where the choice to continue the family tradition or break away and follow another muse towards a different line of work needs to be made. For Trani, his passion for cooking collided with the discovery of The Food Network… and puberty.

“I remember it hitting me when I was in high school,” remembers the San Pedro High alum. “I’d work a couple nights up front on the floor, then I worked a few nights in the kitchen. And then The Food Network started airing and I’m watching these guys cook – that’s when this new idea of using the freshest ingredients [began]. You realize what a difference a great olive oil does to a pasta for finishing. And how layering flavors and using chilies three different times in the pasta will create a whole different balance in a dish. When I started seeing that, that’s when I was kind of like… wow. I knew how to cook as far as the basics, but there’s a whole other level I could get to.”

Trani admits he’s not much of a formal school guy. After graduation, he dabbled a bit at Harbor College but it wasn’t his thing. He even received a $20,000 scholarship in high school to study at The Art Institute of California – Orange County Culinary Arts and Design School, which he would eventually decline.

“I checked the place out and really did not feel like culinary school was for me,” says Trani. “I could see what they were doing and it’s great for starting out and developing an education on different products and what to do, but I didn’t want to be held back for two years and spend $60,000 to go to culinary school. That’s insane.”

Instead, another opportunity would reveal itself when John Blazevich, CEO and president of Contessa Foods, asked the then 18-year-old Trani if he would work on some research development for the company. Trani agreed and would split his time between the restaurant and Contessa, even becoming Blazevich’s private chef at his Rolling Hills estate.

“Getting the opportunity with Contessa to travel and going to Boston, New York, Chicago and working and meeting a lot of real famous well-known chefs like Ming Tsai and Todd English and becoming friends with them, that’s when I just completely fell in love with [cooking],” says Trani.

An Intense Science
Listening to Trani talk about cooking is like listening to Ted Williams talk about hitting a baseball. It’s more than just following a recipe or being able to manage a kitchen. There’s an intense science involved dealing with flavors and textures and the ability to figure out the best combination of each to make an original dish stand out.

“I try to apply to every dish that I make what I learned in Thailand,” says Trani, who, thanks to Blazevich, spent two months in 2007 training at the luxurious Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Bangkok. It’s an experience Trani would refer to many times in our conversation and one he considers to be a pivotal life-changing experience.

“When you eat Thai food, you got sweetness, sour, saltiness and texture in every one of the dishes,” he explains. “I took what they do in that cuisine and try to apply it to every dish that I do whether it be Italian, Asian or American cuisine. I want to play on every component of your senses. So you’ll see on every dish we have your main focal point and then everything around it are just characters to make it that much better. What makes a great dish is to be able to play on all the senses and hit every component that, when you try it, everything – sweet, salty, savory, texture, smell – all that comes together. If you can do that in every one of your dishes, then generally people are going to like it.”

His Thailand experience prompted Trani to completely revamp J. Trani’s menu towards a more modern Italian cuisine.

“My grandfather and my dad supported me 100 percent,” says Trani. “But there were a lot of clientele in San Pedro who wondered what I was doing. Like, what is this squared plate doing here? You know, fish doesn’t need to come with mashed potatoes and vegetables and steak doesn’t have to come with roasted potatoes and vegetables. There were a lot of naysayers and stuff, but the end result was they liked it. It was scary at first when I started changing the menu. If I tried to do that in a new restaurant in San Pedro, I think it would have been very difficult. But being established like we are, we still had the business that was coming in. And now we’re slowly introducing everybody to this new style and it’s been a great positive response. That’s why people come in here now.”

Doma’s decor is sleek and modern with a comfortable feel.

A Different World
Beverly Hills is an entirely different universe and its inhabitants are a far cry from San Pedro’s locals, who have supported the Trani family since Trani’s great grandfather Filippo opened the family’s first food establishment in town, the Majestic Café, in 1925.

But Trani isn’t the first chef from San Pedro to venture into the land of glitz and glamour. Dan Tana’s, the famous West Hollywood eatery’s head chef is fellow San Pedran, Neno Mladenovic. As Trani explains it, it was the Croatian chef’s insistence that brought Trani to the land of swimming pools and movie stars.

“Chef Neno is from San Pedro and he’s been coming to J. Trani’s the last few years saying that my food is something I should have up in L.A.,” he explains. “He said the freshness that I’m doing, the different things, would just be great up there.”

Mladenovic then told his partner at Dan Tana’s, Sonja Perencevic, another Croatian, who, with her daughter Nikka, was in the process of opening Doma. He told them Trani was the perfect guy to lead the restaurant’s kitchen as head chef.

“They came down to J. Trani’s, tried the food and were really blown away by it and liked what we’re doing,” Trani recalls.

Trani was offered the head chef position and, with the blessing of his family, took it. He singlehandedly spearheaded the formation of Doma’s menu, hired the kitchen staff and was given full creative control of every dish served. It’s the kind of creative freedom that chef’s dream about.

The Hollywood Reporter says of Doma, “Chef Dustin Trani flexes his traditional culinary sensibility through a continental prism. A single raviolo is stuffed with sea urchin, stone crab and Mascarpone cheese. Meanwhile, sautéed Colorado lamb scaloppini in a butter cognac sauce holds court on a plate accompanied by golden chanterelle mushrooms, sweet roasted onions and agnolotti.” It makes one’s mouth water just reading it.

A writer for The Huffington Post calls Trani a “chef to follow” because he “was astonished at the accomplished and delicious dishes that have emerged from this kitchen in the course of my several dinners there.”

Doma, located in the heart of Beverly Hills, just a few blocks away from Spago, is beautifully modern in appearance, but carries with it a familiarity that creates a comfortable – not stuffy – ambiance, which makes sense because “doma” in Croatian means “at home.”

Dark wood chairs and tables caressed with white linen fill the space, with a beautiful large bar area on one side of the restaurant. Towards the back, a large bookshelf-like installation houses the wine choices. The walls are decorated with fascinating artwork of what appears to be various dresses, but on closer inspection, the dresses are made of finely shaved pieces of vegetables.

Visiting Trani in his new establishment, the support from the staff is palatable. “I just love the guy,” says Igor, a longtime server of the Beverly Hills/West Hollywood scene who probably has some incredible stories to tell in his own right.

“Oh, you’re doing a story on Dustin? That’s great, he deserves it,” says another staff member.

Trani, this time in uniform wearing a white chef’s coat and obligatory white Dodgers cap, is in full control. I watch as he meticulously garnishes a seared tuna dish, the name of which I couldn’t pronounce, nor spell, but it looks amazing.

Doma’s menu is described as “Mediterranean, eclectic Italian with a strong seafood influence.” Trani tells me that seafood, especially sea urchin, is his favorite dish to prepare.

I watch as he prepares a few dishes to try out, which would include a seared tuna appetizer garnished with buttery caviar, a red pepper infused pizza and a handmade ravioli dish, the likes of which my words are not doing justice to. Let’s just say all three dishes were amazing. We finished it off with a cheesecake garnished with espresso caviar. Again, to die for.

As he’s working, I ask if he’s taking what he’s learning at Doma and applying it to J. Trani’s and vice versa.

Doma’s back area houses a full array of wines.

“Yeah, you’re always learning and finding better ways of doing things. That’s the nature of this business,” he says. “One of the biggest things they were telling me when I started here was that I didn’t understand Beverly Hills people.
They’re very picky and they like to change things. And I’m like, I’m coming from a restaurant that’s been established since 1925 and there’s a lot of people that come in and want things that they had back in the ‘50s and ‘60s. So I think I’ll be okay with that.”

Trani splits his time equally between both restaurants, with Doma requiring a bit more attention since it’s still a work in progress. He’s been training the kitchen staff at J. Trani’s for the past eight years to get them to operate just the way he wants. They’re an extension of him, and he’s working hard with Doma’s staff to eventually get them to that point, as well.

Back at J. Trani’s, sitting at a table tucked away at the back of the restaurant, I ask Trani if there will ever be a day when San Pedro loses one of its favorite sons completely to the intoxicating throes of Hollywood.

Trani laughs and says, ” You know, J. Trani’s is going to continue getting better. And I definitely would like to open another place in San Pedro, somewhere along the waterfront, a little more casual. I want to do something where it’s a mixture between the Italian and Asian influences that I bring into the cuisine. Where it’s just an awesome, cool atmosphere, good music going on, you know, high ceilings, a bustling place,” he takes a pause and adds, “and no table cloths.” spt

Cross Country Dynasty

Champions (l to r): Miriam Canales-Ortega, Lorena Garcia (being held with plaque), Ashley Carrera, Violet Tipich, Dana Cameron, Bronwyn Bunnell, Danielle Nunez (photo by John Mattera)

San Pedro’s Lorena Garcia and Ashley Carreraended their L.A. City Section Cross Country careers the same way they began them – as champions.

But this is nothing new for head coach Bruce Thomson and the San Pedro Girls Cross Country team. They’ve won three of the last four City titles as the program continues to pave its way to the “dynasty” category.

Thomson took over head coaching duties at San Pedro High School in 1998 and in those 15 years he has done almost nothing but win: 10 L.A. City titles in 15 years.

San Pedro High School Principal, Jeanette Stevens says Coach Thomson has created an environment that “cultivates success year after year.”

“Coach Thompson is a cornerstone of our program here at San Pedro High School,” she says. “He is here everyday and he really is involved in the program in a capacity that fosters success. We are very proud of him and his accomplishments. He is definitely top-notch, we have observed his talent and his ability to connect with kids. He is a superstar.”

Head coach Bruce Thomson (bottom center) is surrounded by his runners (top l to r) Bunnell, Tipich, Nunez and Carrera, and is flanked by Erica Hovind (bottom l) and Coach Sally Leonhart (bottom r). (photo by Jenna Bunnell)

Thomson has led his Pirate runners to not only L.A. City titles, but to college. During his 15 years leading the program, he has seen dozens of his girls go on to compete at the collegiate level.

“Our girls train very hard,” Thomson says. “It just didn’t happen that you win, the girls have to make commitments and sacrifices, and it starts in the summer. This program has seen many successful athletes go on to college, but that is because these girls know what it takes and they work hard to make their dreams come true.”

Thomson has produced great runners like Valerie Flores, who became an All-American at UCLA, and past Individual City Champions include Pablo Rosales and Laura Delgado. In addition, the Pirates currently have two runners on scholarship at Loyola Marymount, and that is in addition to the countless other girls who have gone on to run at the collegiate level.

Stevens says it is important to the administration to produce college-bound students, adding that it is a bonus to produce collegiate athletes.

“We have talented athletes and talented coaches who have the ability to promote and advocate for the kids for continued play after high school,” she says. “We want coaches and have coaches that foster the vision for the collegiate level. We are really a community that not only engages in a strong academic program, but athletics. And our community supports that and wants to see our athletes and teams succeed and prosper.”

But Jenna Bunnell, mother of Bronwyn Bunnell, who was a freshman on the team this season, says it’s more than just the girls and their effort, it is “the program that Coach Thomson created.”

“His program is amazing,” she says. “He really treats these girls with respect and pulls out the absolute best from them. He preps them to be successful from the start, and not just successful for their time at San Pedro, but in college and beyond.”

Eddie Nunez, father of Danielle Nunez, a runner on the team, puts it this way, “If Thomson was a football coach, he would be God.”

Thomson doesn’t agree, but says his Cross Country teams have some of the best athletes at San Pedro High School, and he would like to see his athletes “get the respect and attention they deserve.”

“Cross Country is one of the tougher sports to train for,” he says. “It is not a game and the girls don’t get a lot of credit for it. Our kids train all year round, they do great in the classroom, and I would say they are some of the best kids we have in school. I would say that goes for most Cross Country programs.”

And excelling in the classroom is exactly what his athletes do, Stevens says.

“San Pedro High School as a whole has the highest GPA in the Marine League,” she says. “And when you look at the girls Cross Country program, you will see that these girls, all of them, are top students and top athletes. They push themselves to excel physically in sports and mentally in the classroom.”

Thomson says Cross Country athletes have always been good students and that is because the sport is more “intrinsically motivated than football or basketball.”

“To succeed in it you have to be consistent in training,” he says. “You have to work hard in every area and the only person pushing you to do it is you. This isn’t a game these girls are playing, this is about pushing themselves individually and that shows in the classroom, as well.”

Bunnell, a proud parent and a teacher herself, says the parents see the respect Thomson gives to their children. She says he is a leader when it comes to both academics and sports.

“He built this program – it is a dynasty,” she says. “And for Coach Thomson it is about more than just having a successful high school team or career, it is about having a successful life. He looks at the bigger picture. We are proud of the girls, but more importantly this is about the success of the coaches and the program they have built.”

For Pirate runners Garcia and Carrera, this season was their last, but it also saw them win their third City championship after previously winning in their freshman and junior years.

“Once I knew we won I was so happy,” Garcia said in an interview with the Daily Breeze. “This is our senior year and we wanted to win this for our coaches and our team.”

Thomson said of the senior captains – Garcia who was All-City four straight years and Carrera who was All-City her junior and senior year – they were hardworking girls, they pushed themselves and they led by example.

“These two were leaders,” he says. “We had 40 girls on the Cross Country team this year, and there are only seven spots – there is no bench, this is a competitive sport. These girls pushed it to the limit every single day. I am so proud of them.”

Stevens says it is “exciting to have a championship program year after year – it really is a feather in our cap.”

“We have an amazing athletic program here at our school, and when I think of programs that are at the top, the Cross Country team is there. The coaches are top-notch, the athletes are top notch, and they really push each other to ensuring success each season – it is exciting, and I am proud.”

Thomson, a UCLA alum who didn’t make the Cross Country or Track team, started his coaching career at Hamilton High School, his alma mater. He didn’t find success in his 14 years of coaching there, but says “success comes when it all comes together and that is exactly what is happening here at San Pedro.”

“When I started helping out at Hamilton, I really enjoyed it,” he says. “I got into teaching and coaching and loved it. And at this point in my career, I find myself very proud. It is really rewarding, we have had a lot of talent come through the program, great support from the Administration and community – it all came together.” 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.

ON THE COVER: Half a Century of Family Pride

Multiple Generations of the Mattera family: back row: Sabrena Sasso, Vince Mattera, Jr., Renee Mattera-Camello, Susan Mattera, Mariea Mattera, Gennaro Camello, Matt Mattera; front row: Natalie Mattera, Vanessa Camello, Angie Mattera, Nicolette Mattera, Noelle Mattera. Picture frame: Vince Mattera, Sr. (Not pictured: Malissa Moran) (photos by John Mattera)

For the Sorrento family, it has always been about hard work, and with that came dedication to a family business that started small and has now become a staple in San Pedro.

The Mattera family has always stood not only behind, but with their father. Each of them grew up in the business, and all had the same goal – be a part of the business to the end. Eating, sleeping and breathing Sorrento’s Pizza House, the name it was founded under in 1962, has been the family motto. But as the dream grew, so did the restaurant, and with growth came a name change — Sorrento’s Italian Restaurant.

It started as a small, quaint restaurant focused on pizza, pasta and sandwiches. But it has grown into a large restaurant, with an extensive Italian menu. Mattera Sr. took the growth in stride, grew his staff and used the growth to instill in everyone he could his ideals of hard work and dedication.

“My husband always felt that work kept everyone out of trouble,” Mattera’s wife, Angie says. “In his mind, it was never too early for a kid to learn about work ethic – it was never too early to learn the value of a dollar.” This was true until the day he died. But he didn’t want to just instill these ideals into his children and his family, but to the community of San Pedro, as well.

Mattera Sr. retired from the restaurant in 2007, but even after he handed the reins over to his family, he was still a fixture. So upon his passing in July of 2011, his loss not only hit his family, but the entire community that had grown to know and love him.

Mattera’s wife describes him as a hard working, dedicated, family man. She says that he left not only his family, but also all those who had the privilege of knowing him, valuable life lessons, and amazing food. Even after his passing, the family carried on the tradition of good, hearty, Italian cuisine through the dream that Mattera started 50 years ago.

His personal motto: Whatever job you have, whether large or small, you must do to the best of your ability. It’s this motto that his family hopes to continue to instill in their staff and their beloved San Pedro community. Angie Mattera says that as times change, and generations pass, so does the pride in that one used to take in their work.

“We always believed in instilling a strong work ethic in our children, and any employee whose path we were fortune enough to cross,” she says. “Every single employee at Sorrento’s is valuable and important, and that goes for every job out there.”

Murals of Italy decorate the interior of the restaurant.

Sorrento’s Italian Restaurant, a true family-run business, was the epitome of hard work – and it’s this that will be celebrated during the restaurant’s upcoming 50th anniversary in October.

The Sorrento family members have become pseudo-celebrities in San Pedro through the years. Each and every member of the Sorrento family has been involved in the restaurant in some way or another since its inception.

Renee Mattera, Vince’s daughter, fondly remembers being recognized in Las Vegas as the “spaghetti girl.”

“I’ll never forget it,” she says. “I was walking through a casino in Las Vegas, and a lovely old couple recognized me. The gentleman said, ‘Look, there’s the spaghetti girl,’” she recalls.

But it’s not just the family and Italian food that brings Sorrento’s the attention; it is also their generous contributions to the community through various donations and fundraisers.

“Over the years, we have done quite a few fundraisers, and we have tried to donate to as many causes as we can,” says Mariea Mattera, wife of Vince Mattera, Jr., the current General Manager. “San Pedro has always been our home and we take pride in being able to give back the community that has given us so much.”

Although giving back is an important part of reaching the heights of success in any business, it certainly isn’t what has kept the restaurant going for 50 years. When asked what the most important part of Sorrento’s longevity of success, the family all says with great pride, “portions.”

Vince Mattera, Sr., from the beginning, was a fixture in the kitchen. His wife says he loved to cook, whether at the restaurant, at home or at a friend’s place, he was “at home in the kitchen.” The recipes that make up Sorrento’s menu were all Vince’s, his family says.

“Early in his career he was appointed one of the cooks on a fishing boat,” Renee Mattera says. “He was young, but he loved it and that is really where his passion started. We grew up watching our dad in the kitchen.”
Mariea Mattera adds, “All the grandchildren spent their time watching him cook, they found it way more interesting that cartoons.”

With portions this big, it’s tough to walk out of Sorrento’s hungry.

Passing these recipes on, and teaching and molding his staff was never a problem for Vince. He communicated each and every recipe and worked with his staff until it was perfect. It was this communication and camaraderie that kept his staff coming back. The majority of the employees at Sorrento’s have been a part of the “family” for years – they are as loyal as can be, Angie Mattera says.

Rod Hernandez, for example, has been one of our cooks for 28 years,” she says. “We appreciate our staff, they are our family, and they are a big part of our success.” It is this loyalty that the family says has meant the most to them throughout the years.

As the family gears up to celebrate its 50th year in business, they struggle knowing that Vince Mattera, Sr. is not around to celebrate with them. But they know he would be proud.

“He would have been so proud,” Angie Mattera says with tears in her eyes. “He would have loved celebrating the 50th, and we will all be thinking of him, as we always do.”

Actual celebration plans have not been decided, but the family knows they are approaching on a milestone that is becoming less and less common. They plan on making sure the community of San Pedro knows how much they appreciate the support, as they say they are “overwhelmed with the gratitude and loyalty throughout the years.” spt