Happy 125th Birthday, San Pedro!

So I know, I’m still on probation.

I have lived in San Pedro for twenty-two years, and raised three adult children here – but next to so many of my friends and neighbors who have generations of history in San Pedro, I know I still count as a newcomer.

But for me, San Pedro is truly home.

When I was little, my father used to bring my brother and I down to Pedro to ride the old ferry to Terminal Island and back, years before the bridge was built, and to have dinner at Olsen’s. During the war, my father had served as a pilot bringing in the ships to our harbor and he loved bringing us back to this historic and vibrant port community.

I knew this was the place I wanted to raise my children. It is the town where my son, Mark, attended middle school at Dodson, where he played in Eastview Little League, and where he grew up to teach at POLA High School.

I take great pride in my adoptive hometown and it is an honor to wish San Pedro a happy 125th birthday and celebrate with all San Pedrans.

Our town is the picture of diversity. It is home to Croatian, Italian, and Mexican communities going back generations. From Mary Star of the Sea, to Temple Beth El, to St. Peter’s Presbyterian, this is a town that has embraced all faiths. It is a town of proud traditions that date back decades and bring us all closer in every passing year. Even I put away my embarrassment and don a swimsuit every January 1st for the annual Polar Bear Swim at Cabrillo Beach.

I love the San Pedro identity: small town feel, big city pride.

And I could not be prouder of the privilege I have had representing San Pedro for the last decade.

I was proud to serve alongside my brother in the City Council during his time as Mayor of Los Angeles. He was the first mayor to live in San Pedro and together we worked to make sure that the Los Angeles city government worked for our town that had long been underserved. We started the overdue project to revitalize the waterfront and breathe life into our tourism industry. We encouraged investment in downtown San Pedro and the development of new lofts and locally owned businesses. We understood the importance of the port to our local economy and worked to ensure the port remained the source of good paying jobs but didn’t come at the expense of the health of our children.

Now, in Congress, I am continuing the work that I started. I founded the bipartisan Congressional PORTS Caucus that brought the conversation about ports to the forefront and is now 82 members strong. I am fighting to ensure that the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach get the funding they need and deserve to stay globally competitive and secure. My own son, Danny, is a casual longshoreman: the future of the port is the future of my family. (As long as he has a good job, maybe he won’t move back home!)

Every week, when I leave my house in the early morning darkness and roll my suitcase out to my car to go fly to DC, I turn and look out over the port, over the Vincent Thomas Bridge, over the homes of my friends and neighbors. I take a deep breath of this community, so I can bring San Pedro with me to the nation’s capital. And there, in the first blush of dawn, I start to count down the hours till I am back with you again. spt

San Pedro’s Living Treasures

On March 1, the San Pedro Historic Downtown Waterfront District will host the Living Treasures Dinner at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in downtown San Pedro, kicking off the year-long celebration of our port town’s 125th anniversary. While there are plenty of living treasures in San Pedro who could be on this list, the following select few are being honored for their contributions to our community.

(photos by Joleen D'Rage)

Jean Wilder

Jean Acalin Wilder has lived her entire life in San Pedro. She was born in 1928 to Italian and Dalmatian parents. She lives in a beautiful 100-year old Craftsman house built in 1913 that has a spectacular view of the Cabrillo Beach breakwater. The home sits on two lots in the Point Fermin area that was given to her husband’s family by George H. Peck, one of San Pedro’s notable real estate developers. Jean and her husband, Charles Wilder Jr., had six children together – five boys and one girl, all of which were born at the old, brick, San Pedro Hospital.

Joe Marino

Joe Marino moved to San Pedro with his family from Rockford, Ill., at the age of 13. Marino, a Sicilian, has lived in town now for more than 72 years, and says he’s “in love with the town of San Pedro and the community at large, as the community has come together to make this a great place to work and live.” Marino spent 48 years as an educator and worked as a local elementary school teacher for 10 years –at Leland, White Point, and Crestwood – and as a school administrator for 25 years. After retiring from the LAUSD, Marino mentored college students studying to be schoolteachers at Cal State Dominguez Hills in 1992, and did so for 13 years. Marino was honored as LAUSD’s Principal of the Year in 1987 and was Honorary Mayor of San Pedro from 1988-1989. Joe is married to his lovely wife, Marian. Together they have two children and three grandchildren.

Harry Hall

Harry Hall will celebrate his 100th birthday this June, which makes Harry and the Angel’s Gate Lighthouse the exact same age. Born and raised in San Pedro, Hall’s parents came from Swedish immigrant families that settled in Minnesota. Hall made it to San Pedro when his family moved there in 1905. At age 9, Harry fell in love with the violin after a salesman knocked on the family door selling violin lessons. This love would lead Hall to become a professional violinist and teacher, teaching lessons at Vine’s Music, Compton College and a private studio in Palos Verdes Estates, just to name a few. He even conducted a 2,000-violin orchestra at the Hollywood Bowl in 1948. Hall married two times, and is twice widowed, but says he feels blessed to have had two wives who both shared his passion for music and his love of San Pedro. Amazingly, Hall is still playing the violin around town. You can find him at such as the Harbor Terrace Retirement Community, First United Methodist Church and a downtown favorite, The Whale and Ale.

Anne Gusha

You can still find Anne Gusha behind the counter of Williams’ Book Store on 6th Street in downtown San Pedro. At 93-years-old (and still counting), the Seattle-born Gusha is best known as the current owner of the historic, and historically independent, bookstore. Soon after she was born, she moved to San Pedro from Washington with her Croatian family in 1920. Gusha first stepped foot in the bookstore when she was eight. In 1941, Gusha began working at the store for then-owner Ethel Williams. When Williams retired in 1980, Gusha and her son, Jerry, took over the store, calling it their own. Gusha has spent much of her time on philanthropic causes, such as Soroptomist International, Los Angeles Harbor, and has worked hard to promote literacy and women’s issues. Anne was married in 1945 and has three children.

Muriel Olguin

Muriel Olguin says that San Pedro “was the best place to raise kids and build careers while living in one of the most beautiful places.” Born in our port town in 1923, Olguin, 89, bounced around the Harbor Area before settling in San Pedro, where she’s lived for the past 65 years. Her life with her late husband, John Olguin, was the stuff of legend and romance novels, and was chronicled in San Pedro Today columnist Jack Baric‘s San Pedro documentary, Port Town, where the couple’s love of sleeping outside under the stars and rowing their 15-foot rowboat to the Isthmus at the West End of Catalina Island was featured. An artist and philanthropist, Olguin completed a Master of Arts degree in 1958, at a time when “mothers didn’t go to college with children and a husband at home,” she says. She was a founding member of the Angel’s Gate Cultural Center, the Rembrandt Crew that started the Palos Verdes Art Center, and with other artists, The Loft in downtown San Pedro. Both Muriel and John Olguin, for the majority of their lives, have immensely and unselfishly contributed to San Pedro and the surrounding communities. Together they had three children and a very active home life in San Pedro.

Matty Domancich

Kuzma Domancich, best known around town as “Matty,” is as true a San Pedran as they come. Born of Croatian parents and raised in San Pedro for the past 90 years, Matty remains one of San Pedro’s greatest, active, goodwill ambassadors. Domancich founded and became the first President of San Pedro High School’s Pirate Booster Club in 1958, an all-volunteer, fundraising organization originally established to provide moral and monetary support to some of the high school’s athletes and their needs. Today, it has expanded its support to include all SPHS sports, academic clubs, theater arts and many other campus-sponsored activities. It is also believed to be the LAUSD’s oldest booster club. Domancich also served as a past Honorary Mayor of San Pedro from 1989-1991 and is a past “Exalted Ruler” of the San Pedro Elks Lodge. If you’re old enough, you may remember Domancich’s two Shell Gas Stations – one on Gaffey St. and the other on Pacific Ave. After Shell told him to stop providing full-service to his customers, Domancich became angry, immediately closed-up shop, and went on to open the Bike Palace. Today, you can find Domancich selling historic photos of San Pedro with the proceeds going to the San Pedro Elks Lodge, who in turn funds scholarships for local students. Domancich was married to his late wife Mary and they had one daughter.

Goldeen Kaloper

Goldeen Kaloper turns 96 this month. Born in Zlarin, Croatia, Kaloper came to the United States with her family at the young age of 12, first settling in Seattle, Wash. In 1942, Kaloper met her second husband and they moved to San Pedro. Both were widows with small infants at the time, and built a long and happy marriage of 65 years. Together, they had five children. She was one of the “cannery girls” and worked there for 24 years. The Kaloper home was a center for hospitality, especially for fishermen whose families were still back in the “old country.” God and family are the two most important things in Kaloper’s life. She believes this is what makes San Pedro great – as long as people have a deep faith, and love for their families, problems can be solved. She says the secret to a long life is, “Eat healthy, wish good for everyone, and God bless my children who take care of me!”

Thelma Gatlin

Thelma Gatlin was born in Shreveport, La. on July 15, 1924. Born Thelma Johnson, she was one of 18 children. Gatlin moved to San Pedro in 1942 to work in the shipyards during World War II. She soon married John Gatlin in 1944 and had they had children. At 88 years of age, Thelma is still very active in the community and serves on several boards, including the Toberman executive board and First Neighborhood Council in San Pedro. In the past, Gatlin served on the first board for the Central Neighborhood Council, and was one of the first recipients of the YWCA’s “Racial Justice Award.” She has also served as the President of the San Pedro YWCA board, President of the Women Church United, Vice President of the Republican Club in San Pedro. Today, you can find Gatlin as an active member of Ocean View Baptist Church.

Helen DiMaggio

Helen DiMaggio is 94-years-old and the wife of the late Neno DiMaggio. Half Mexican and half Croatian, she is the daughter of Andrew & Mary Fistonich who founded Star Fisheries Inc. in 1921. After her father Andrew passed away, her husband Neno assumed leadership of the company. With her husband at the helm, DiMaggio worked behind the scenes for 39 years, along with her sister, Anita Mardesich, who continued in the family business with subsidiary, American Fisheries. DiMaggio has been active in many community groups including San Pedro Peninsula Cancer Guild, Little Sisters of the Poor Auxiliary, the Assistance League of San Pedro, Mary Star of the Sea Church and Holy Trinity Church. She is past president of the prestigious Rotary Ann’s and was an active member of the former Women’s Chamber of Commerce.

Nicoletta “Nikky” Troy

Born in San Pedro on January 12, 1924, 89-year old Nicoletta Troy grew up with four siblings, speaking both Greek and English. Nikki was born at one of the Papadakis family homes, by the help of a midwife, and is cousin to San Pedro community leader, John Papadakis, former owner of Papadakis Taverna. She began working at the age of 12 at her father’s restaurant on Beacon Street, known as the City Hall Café. At just 4′ 10″ tall, she fondly remembers standing on a box in the kitchen to cook hamburgers and hot dogs for their customers. She worked side-by-side with her father until she graduated high school and continued working as a waitress throughout her adult years, at restaurants such as The Fireside, a carhop located on the corner of 6th St. and Gaffey, Cigo’s Restaurant on 9th St. and Pacific, and the legendary Ante’s, from which she retired at age 75.


Florence Collins
(no picture available at press time)

Ninety-eight-years-old and still going strong, Florence Collins was born in San Pedro to Italian/Ischian parents on May 28, 1914. She attended Fifth Street School, San Pedro’s original elementary school, which was located where the San Pedro Courthouse sits today. Florence was also in the first graduating class of Dana Middle School. A young wife and mother during the Great Depression, she and her husband, Bill Collins, lived on 9th St., which at the time was referred to as “Dago Flats.” Her husband was a sailor stationed with the Pacific Fleet in San Pedro, which was eventually moved to Pearl Harbor before WWII. His ship, the USS West Virginia, was sunk during the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. For two weeks, Collins did not know whether or not her husband had survived. It turns out Bill was knocked unconscious below deck, but was carried up top by a fellow crew member and thrown overboard, which saved his life. Collins has been a lifelong member of Mary Star of the Sea Church, and has several dozen grandchildren, great grand-children and great, great grandchildren, almost all of whom still reside in San Pedro.

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

An Ancestral Adventure

Greg Vitalich (left) and his long lost cousin Steve Vitalich stand atop a hillside in Komiza, Croatia on the island of Vis. (photo provided by Greg Vitalich)

As a child, all I knew were the Croatian curse words.

While I possessed a very “San Pedro-like” last name ending in “ich,” the extent of my exposure to Croatian culture was limited to my grandfathers’ cooking during the holidays, those choice curse words, and infrequent visits to San Pedro’s legendary Croatian restaurant Ante’s. My disconnection to my Croatian ancestry led to several awkward, albeit humorous, moments.

Life in San Pedro meant knowing many friends who grew up in households where the primary language was Croatian, Italian, Spanish or even Greek. It was common for friends to frequently visit the Old Country and enjoy staying with relatives. I was always intrigued by how deeply ingrained and important many of my friends’ ancestral heritage and culture were in their modern lives. Perhaps I was a bit envious, but mostly these observations simply drove my curiosity to learn and discover more about my own family history. Little did I know that this curiosity would lead to an amazing journey of discovery, new friendships, a magical adventure abroad, and a definitive silencing of that nagging sense of disconnection.

Sometimes negative events or experiences act as catalysts that inspire us to do something productive and positive. Not long after my 100% Croatian paternal grandfather Andrew and my father Andrew Jr. both passed away just four months apart, I sadly realized what a lost opportunity it was to not seek out more of their memories, stories, and insights about their life experiences and our family history. Although priceless family history had been lost forever, I still wondered if I could still discover and learn. When did my Croatian ancestors make their courageous voyage to America? Who were they? Why did they leave? How was “cousin so and so” and I related? It was time for me to take action and begin exploring my Croatian roots to find these answers.

In 2009, I decided to research my genealogy by signing up with Ancestry.com. I quickly discovered many interesting facts that answered many of my initial questions. My great grandfather Joseph Vitalich (Vitaljic) had emigrated from Croatia (then part of Austria) in 1903 and settled in Tacoma, Wash. Over the next decade, his siblings followed him to Tacoma. Joseph and his Croatian immigrant wife Lucy moved to San Pedro around 1919, presumably for the opportunity provided by the tremendous growth of the tuna industry in the area. Now I was getting somewhere. Fact after fact poured in as I continued my online research. History was coming alive as I laid my eyes on fascinating documents like census records, World War registration cards, and naturalization applications. I was gaining a wonderful perspective on how my family history mirrored the classic American immigrant story.

In Dec. 2009, I received an email from a guy in Seattle named Steve Vitalich. Steve had decided to reach out to me after viewing my family tree on Ancestry.com and determining that we were cousins. Turns out his grandfather Louie was brothers with my great grandfather Joseph. We were indeed second cousins. In an interesting twist, Steve had coincidentally begun researching his family ancestry at about the same time I had. His genealogical curiosity was piqued after receiving several messages of condolences after a person he didn’t know named Vitalich had passed away. Steve had also felt that sense of disconnection with his Croatian roots and had finally decided to sign up with Ancestry.com to get some answers.

Steve and I began communicating frequently and filling in each other’s gaps in family research. Then in a scene right out of a Harry Potter movie, Steve discovered an old shoebox in his attic that belonged to his aunt labeled “Vitalich Family Archives.” The box contained several letters from Croatia to relatives in America, the 1940 death certificate of my great great grandfather Andrija who had lived and died in Croatia, and several remarkable black and white photographs of Andrija’s funeral procession and burial in Komiza, Croatia. Thanks to Steve’s meticulous research utilizing rented microfilmed birth, marriage, and death records obtained from his local Mormon Family History Center; we were slowly able to identify Croatian ancestors back to the early 1700s.

Steve and I finally met for the first time when he visited San Pedro in the spring of 2011. I gave Steve the grand tour, taking care to weave in San Pedro’s fishing history with that of our family. We also squeezed in time to visit family burial sites at Green Hills Memorial Park and at Calvary Cemetery in East Los Angeles where many Catholics from San Pedro had been laid to rest in the early part of the 20th century.

The highlight of Steve’s visit was our family feast at Ante’s Restaurant celebrating my brother Mike’s birthday. Steve had never experienced Croatian food before and was in wide-eyed in amazement when he realized the giant painted mural on the restaurant wall was our ancestral home – the tiny island fishing village of Komiza located on the island of Vis. The friendly waitress happened to be from Vis and she enthusiastically shared some wonderful memories about her early years and life on the island. Then the jovial owner, the late Tony Perkov, came by to say hello. Soon I was the one in wide-eyed amazement as Tony began recalling several entertaining stories involving him and my grandfather. Remarkably, Tony even remembered my great grandfather Joseph sitting in his wheelchair mending fishing nets down by the tuna boats circa 1950. This was the first time I could recall hearing any story about Joseph.

In July 2011, I travelled to Seattle to visit Steve. We visited an abandoned building in downtown Seattle where Steve’s grandfather Louie had started a successful bowling alley. We also took an interesting drive to nearby Tacoma where our ancestors had first settled in America. Tacoma is very similar to San Pedro in that it is a port town with a rich history of Croatian immigrant fishermen. Tacoma even has a Slavonian Hall. (How many towns have one of those?) Another interesting highlight was visiting a remarkably well-preserved 120-year-old two-bedroom cottage located in a well-kept historical residential district. My great grandparents and great aunt and uncle had once lived there together circa 1917.

I also met for the first time my other long lost cousin, Steve’s sister Andrea. It wasn’t long before the three of us over a bottle of wine expressed an interest in planning a trip to experience Croatia. Let’s take this family history thing all the way, we proclaimed. The table had been set for the next phase of our genealogical adventure.

The Motherland

In October 2012, the three of us embarked to Croatia. Although our itinerary included fascinating Croatian destinations such as the capital city of Zagreb, the coastal towns of Zadar and Split, the extraordinary natural beauty of Plitvice Lakes National Park (the Yosemite of Croatia), and the amazing walled fortress city of Dubrovnik, our mecca would clearly be Komiza since at least six generations of relatives had called this island village home.

As we stepped off the ferry onto the island of Vis we were overcome with surrealism. How cool was this? After decades of hearing vague family references to Komiza, years of online and field research, meeting long lost cousins Steve and Andrea, and months of planning our travel, we were now walking in the footsteps of our ancestors.

Komiza has a special connection with San Pedro. Thousands of San Pedrans can trace their roots back to this sleepy fishing town of perhaps 700 people. This fact couldn’t have been any clearer than upon arrival at our first destination, the Komiza cemetery. Walking in the shadow of Komiza’s main landmark the St. Nikola church, the names inscribed on the graves were quite familiar: Bjazavic, Bogdanovic, Bozanic, Mardesic, Marinkovic, Stanojevic, Vidovic, Zuanic. Was I reading a San Pedro yearbook or walking around Komiza?

I had this naive expectation that we would find a cool gothic headstone with a large “Vitaljic” inscribed on it, say hello and give our respects at the burial site, and then pose for some memorable photographs. Not to be. We did find some Vitaljic graves but not those of our particular bloodline. We knew it was unlikely to find any current living relatives in Komiza; they had left for America long ago. So we were determined to at least find our deceased Komiza relatives. Wandering the quiet cemetery confused as how to find our relative’s gravesites, I decided to approach the only other person I saw. Hoping the gentleman would understand at least some English, I hesitantly greeted him and explained in slow simple English our dilemma. He responded, “Oh hey, I’m Frank Biazevich. I live in Everett, Wash. but am moving back to Komiza, it’s where I grew up. Vitalich? You from San Pedro?”

What were the odds?

Steve and Andrea trekked 6,000 miles from Seattle to Komiza and the first person they meet lives just 30 miles from them. The four of us enjoyed a friendly chat. Frank gave us his phone number and promised to ask around for any information about our family. He also recommended we travel across the island to Vis Town to visit the Registration Office where the old public records were kept that might help in our ancestral quest.

The next morning, we eagerly walked into the musty Registration Office. We were fortunate that the first person we encountered was a nice lady who spoke decent English and was quite willing to help. After we explained that we were from the U.S. and looking for our Komiza family records she perked up and smiled; rose up out of her squeaky chair and immediately walked over to a large cabinet full of old records. In another Harry Potter movie moment, she pulled out this enormous book that looked hundreds of years old, blew off an inch of dust, and began slowly turning 150-year-old pages of crinkly parchment. Within minutes we were gazing at small handwritten birth, baptismal, marriage and death records of our ancestors. It was an amazing moment. I felt like Tom Hanks in The Da Vinci Code pouring over century old secret manuscripts. Steve and I enthusiastically posed with the heavy book for a photo and we graciously thanked the office lady for her help. I then asked forgiveness for not asking earlier for her name. “My name is Sanja Fiamengo”, she replied. Of course, it was another familiar San Pedro last name.

Without public records to dig into during the weekend, we immersed ourselves in exploring Komiza and the surrounding parts of the island. Because the island of Vis was off limits during the Cold War due to its strategic military location, Komiza has been fairly untouched by commercialization. Komiza did welcome an increasing number of sun loving tourists in the summer. But the pace of life here was generally super slow-motion, posted store hours were more like vague estimates, the food and wine were excellent, the natural beauty of the place inspiring, soothing, peaceful.

We wanted to avoid the tourist season in order to experience a Komiza more like what our ancestors would have recognized. Mission accomplished. It was usually quiet enough at any point in the day to hear goats and donkeys chatter blocks away from our apartment balcony.

We walked the Riva, the main street along the shoreline where all the fishing boats were moored, and explored all the small narrow side streets and beaches of Komiza many times over to soak it all in. It became a running joke that almost every single person we met had the same reaction; “Vitalich? You from San Pedro?” Then they would suggest we meet a guy in town named Frank who could help us with our research. Yes, the same Frank who was the very first person we had met by chance that first day at the cemetery.

On Monday, we rejoined the quest to find our relatives gravesite. We eventually confirmed my theory; the grave was there but unmarked. A cemetery worker graciously gave us a ride from town to the cemetery and showed us the exact location. A blank headstone was not terribly unusual; people were poor and couldn’t always afford an engraving. It crossed my mind to pay for an inscription right then and there. The guy who drove us to the cemetery happened to also be the one who actually did the inscribing. I decided to hold off on the engraving, as I wanted to be certain that adding an engraving to the headstone wouldn’t unintentionally encroach on any customs or beliefs I wasn’t aware of.

Then & Now photographs of the Komiza cemetary where Greg Vitalich’s great great grandfather Andrija Vitalich was buried.

Our five wonderful days in Komiza felt like a trip back in time. We left Komiza to spend another week along the scenic and spectacular Croatian coast in Split and Dubrovnik. Steve, Andrea and I enjoyed our last night at an outdoor pub in Dubrovnik where after three days of being pub regulars the friendly bartenders had come to memorize each of our drinks of choice. After two weeks immersed in Croatian culture we had become old pros at socializing with the locals, especially servers and bartenders. Steve had studied up on his Croatian in preparation for the trip and was particularly impressive, drawing compliments from many natives during our journey.

Ask, Listen, Learn

We had experienced life in Croatia as best as any novice Croats from America could do. While we certainly learned much about our heritage, we had also grown to know each other better. Steve and I certainly got along great, but Andrea and I hadn’t really known each other at all prior to this trip. Within days we had become best buds hanging out into the wee morning hours at smoky Croatian dive bars blaring Guns N’ Roses to “Gangnam Style.” Casual bonds between distant cousins had evolved into closer relationships.

This adventure was only possible because two people in far away cities were curious enough to begin researching their family history. Genealogy brings history to life. It helps us gain perspective on where we came from and who we are. When we learn about our own family’s past, we make better connections to the broader history taught in school. Our past becomes more relevant to our present.

A final dinner in Dubrovnik with long lost cousins Steve and Andrea (photos provided by Greg Vitalich)

I urge everyone to research their past; even if it only means simply talking to your parents and grandparents about their lives. Do it before it’s too late. Listen to them, ask questions, learn. I certainly have much more to learn about my ancestry and heritage, but that nagging feeling of disconnection has been replaced with a solid sense of accomplishment. I had taken a giant leap towards understanding and experiencing my Croatian ancestry. The memories of this amazing journey and the friendships that grew between cousins who hadn’t even known each other just four years ago will now last a lifetime. spt

From Puppy Love To Soulmates

Photos by John Mattera Photography

It began as a schoolyard crush.

We all remember that feeling, that queasy stomach every time that person entered the classroom, the nervousness that came when you tried to talk to one another. The awkward glances. The overanalyzing of every word they said and move they made. It’s puppy love and it’s supposed to prepare us for the romantic experiences that would lie ahead in all our lives. For some, puppy love can lead to something much bigger. Such is the case for Petar and Magali (Martin) Blazevic, whose schoolyard crush turned into a lifetime commitment of happiness.

Petar and Magali met in the sixth grade at Miraleste Intermediate School in Rancho Palos Verdes. They entered into what Magali would call, “a middle school romance – the kind where you date for a few days and then move on.” Although their relationship fizzled, their friendship didn’t, and they continued to remain close all throughout middle school and into high school. They both dated other people their freshman year at Palos Verdes Peninsula High School, but when their sophomore year came around, they thought they’d give romance another shot and began dating once more. The two have been together ever since.

In 2008, Petar and Magali took their relationship to the next level and the two moved in together. Three years (and two dogs) later, they bought a home in San Pedro.

Just months after purchasing their home, their relationship would take yet another big step. Magali had just completed the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) program at Mary Star of the Sea Catholic Church, and as a reward for finishing the program, Petar wanted to treat her to a day of whale watching on his friend’s yacht on Easter Sunday. While out on the water, the boat came to a stop in front of a lifeguard tower in Redondo Beach. But this was no ordinary lifeguard tower – this was the same lifeguard tower Petar asked Magali to be his girlfriend their sophomore year of high school. This time around, Petar asked Magali to be his wife, of course, she said yes.

The couple married on July 14, 2012, which was also their anniversary. More than 200 attendants watched Petar and Magali share their vows at Mary Star Church, a ceremony officiated by Father Brian Nunes, who also baptized Magali following her RCIA completion. The ceremony had many special moments, including Magali walking down the aisle with both of her parents. Magali also wore a necklace containing a diamond her grandfather gave to her mother before his passing. The ceremony also featured readings from Petar’s cousin, which was in Croatian, and Magali’s cousin, which was in French – both in celebration and honor of their heritages.

The bridal party was just as special, and consisted of numerous relatives and friends. On Magali’s side were maid-of-honors Lauren Johnson and Alyse Intagliata; and bridesmaids Janessa Reyes, Lisa Vidov, Kristen Boskovich, Kristin Montti, Stacie Ayala, and Katie Tamayo. On Petar’s side were best men Mark Blazevic and Michael Blazevic; and groomsmen Serge Martin, Peter Hazdovac, Drew Varela, Loren Blazevic, Brian Ayala, and Joe Vidov.

After the ceremony, Petar and Magali went to take photos with his grandmother at her home because she couldn’t make it to the ceremony, a moment that meant a lot to both Petar and his grandmother. Meanwhile, guests got to enjoy Croatian spirits during the cocktail hour.

The reception followed at Hotel Maya in Long Beach, where guests participated in lots of dancing, drinking, and of course, Croatian desserts and Kolo dancing (the popular Croatian folk dance). The reception also featured a blessing by Petar’s mother and a speech by Magali’s mother. Petar and Magali shared their first dance to Jason Mraz’s, “I Won’t Give Up.”

The newly married couple honeymooned in Hawaii, where they spent 10 days between the islands of Maui and Oahu. Their favorite part? Staying at the very private, exclusive Turtle Bay Resort in North Shore, Oahu.

Currently, Petar works as a railroad conductor for the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad Co., and Magali works as a tutor for Academics Etc. in Lunada Bay.

In regards to adjusting to married life, Magali says, “It’s really not that much different than before – besides the fact that I have to change my name on everything!” All joking aside, the two are excited to continue in their love through marriage, and are looking forward to someday starting a family. spt