The aroma of fragrant tomato sauce swept me into Julia Crookston’s Goodland Kitchen & Market in Old Town Goleta on a recent Sunday morning.
Thinking I might be back in Chicago at one of my family’s favorite Italian restaurants, dining on veal parmesan, eggplant parmesan and great Gragnano pasta from outside of Naples, instead I found Dr. Joe Ilvento and his daughter, Juliana Ilvento Fitzpatrick, hard at work.
Ilvento, a cardiologist, and Fitzpatrick, an attorney, were stirring tomato sauce in some of the largest stainless steel pots I’ve ever seen.
A local resident since 1990, Ilvento was born in New Jersey where he grew up in his father’s Italian restaurant in Jersey City. The restaurant, Ilvento’s, was started by his grandfather, also named Joe, an immigrant from Basilicata, Italy, who opened the place in 1933 at the repeal of Prohibition.
Ilvento’s father, Peter, affectionately known as “Pete,” took over the restaurant in 1951 with his wife, Mary. Pete became very well known for his tomato sauces and the restaurant thrived, hosting hundreds of weddings, christenings, graduation dinners and communions for the family and Jersey City locals.
A graduate of The Johns Hopkins University, Ilvento pursued his post-doctorate degree at Stanford University, where he met his wife, Dr. Judy Dean, a local radiologist. The couple continued the tradition of Sunday night family dinners at their Montecito home with their three daughters, Juliana, Christina and Luisa. These lively dinners were similar to those in Ilvento’s mom’s dining room in Jersey City many decades ago.
Ilvento thought he would wait until retirement to continue his family’s gastronomic legacy, but last October he and his eldest daughter came to the conclusion, “Why not now?” With her USC law degree and specializing in corporate formation and trademark filings for small businesses and startups, Fitzpatrick began to research the various local and state agencies they would need to deal with.
They approached Crookston, who was a tremendous resource for advice and encouragement of small local food businesses. She invited them into Goodland Kitchen’s commercial setup to make their first batch — all of which they gave away to family and friends to give it a try. The response was A-plus.
Just in case their test group might be biased, however, they gave away more samples to friends of friends, including yours truly. The feedback was extremely positive, so they submitted a sample of their sauce to the state. After a few weeks, officials stopped by for an inspection, which they passed on the first go. A partnership was born.
“One would hope a doctor and lawyer could figure out how to follow directions,” Fitzpatrick laughed.
Named Santa Barbara’s Junior Miss in 2004 and first runner-up to California’s Junior Miss as well as performing three seasons with Opera Santa Barbara, Fitzpatrick married her husband, Jack, in 2012 and served Sugo Marinara as the second course at their wedding dinner.
Ilvento very much wanted to revive some aspect of his family’s culinary legacy. What he remembers most fondly about his childhood is the smell of a large pot of Sugo (sauce) cooking in the restaurant kitchen in front of the townhouse where he grew up.
“The spices in Dad’s recipe are unique to the South of Italy, where his ancestors are from,” Ilvento told me, describing the North African influence brought by trade and the notorious Barbary pirates raiding the coast.
One of the sauces, named for the now-89-year-old Grandpa Pete, is Dal Pietro and tastes almost Moroccan in flavor.
The logo on the jar graced the Ilvento’s Restaurant menu since 1933 and was drawn by Pete Ilvento’s high school classmate, Jerry DeFuccio, a comic book writer who went on to become associate editor of Mad Magazine. Ilvento and Fitzpatrick decided to keep their label black and white to pay homage to the restaurant’s past and to provide a subtle retro statement that the product remains true to the family’s recipes and origins.
“Given that we have an 80-year track record and hundreds of loyal Ilvento’s devotees in Jersey City,” the father-daughter duo observed, “why change them?”
Locally handcrafted in Santa Barbara, all batches of the sauce are made in small quantities. In fact, the pots are so tall that a stepladder was necessary to stir the sauce.
The main component, according to the Ilventos, is their wonderful plum tomatoes. They’re imported directly from San Marzano in Italy’s Sarno valley, and among chefs and restaurateurs they have a cult-like following. Grown near Mount Vesuvius, the volcanic soil infuses the tomatoes with a great smokiness to their flavor, even before cooking them. They have the highest government certification: DOP, or Denominazione di Origine Protetta.
Dad and daughter love working together. Every other Sunday, they slow-cook all of their sauces, transforming great ingredients into soulful uncluttered food in small batches to ensure that they really bring out the essence of flavor — adding fresh herbs and their blend of secret spices that have been perfected by their family over the past 80 years.
The Ilventos say they’re not in it to be a huge impersonal producer.
“These are family recipes and we use the finest ingredients available,” Ilvento said. “The sauce itself has no added sugar or artificial preservatives, and is vegan and gluten-free.”
They note the irony that an authentic Italian recipe would end up being so nutritionally relevant today.
At present, the Ilventos are only selling the Sugo Marinara, a classic tomato basil sauce, but they have three more flavors on the way — pending state approvals: Mushroom Bascaiolo, a mushroom thyme sauce; Dal Pietro, a North African-influenced savory tomato sauce named for Grandpa Pete; and Arrabiatia, a spicy tomato and pepper sauce.
Off to a great start, the Ilventos’ Proprio Italiano (Truly Italian) is being sold locally at Isabella Gourmet Foods, 5 E. Figueroa St. in downtown Santa Barbara, and Legacy Montecito home furnishings, 1137 Coast Village Road, and are included in Santa Barbara Gift Baskets.
Click here for online ordering and free recipes. Call 805.699.6070 for more information.