'Alberto's still here because I keep him alive. He belongs here. This is still his place.'

It has been nearly two years since Alberto Sarno's voice resonated through his Los Feliz restaurant in dual roles as demanding owner and resident tenor of Sarno's Caffe'Dell'Opera. But his presence is everywhere.

His name remains a part of the cafe marquee. An old newspaper photograph of Sarno greets passers-by from the restaurant window. And his oil portrait hangs prominently near the well-used piano.

Some old-time customers even talk about Alberto Sarno as if he were still around, as if he had gone next door for an Italian pastry rather than been killed by a gunshot in a 1987 robbery attempt.

Above all, however, Sarno's legacy has been the music of Verdi and Puccini dished out with the broccoletti and fettuccine--and sung by waitresses, customers and anyone else who wanders in from North Vermont Avenue with a penchant for opera and Italian food.

"All the singers still come. Everyone is close. It's like a second home for us," said Anna Combs, 24, who has been singing at Sarno's since she was 9.

As she spoke late Friday evening amid a backdrop of operatic arias, Combs was reminded of her former boss. "Someone will be singing a song and someone will say, 'Alberto used to sing that. I loved that when he sang that,' " she said. "We all remember him that way."

For those who knew him in the old neighborhood, the memories of Sarno were particularly poignant last weekend with the news Friday that the man charged with his killing had been freed.

Ralph Mora, an ex-convict and admitted heroin user, was acquitted by a Los Angeles County Superior Court jury on charges that he ordered an accomplice to shoot Sarno, 59, during a robbery attempt. Mora said he was at a friend's house in El Sereno at the time of the murder.

Several miles away in Sarno's old block, his old friends expressed, among other emotions, frustration that the murder remains unresolved. At the restaurant she now runs, Sarno's widow, Silvana, wore tinted glasses to hide what she called "eyes that look like two tomatoes from all my crying."

With her husband's killer--whoever he may be--still free, Silvana Sarno said she feels imprisoned by an incident that robbed her of her husband, to whom she had been married for 25 years.

Alberto Sarno had started the cafe in 1967 as a coffee shop next door to the family bakery. Over the years, celebrities such as Sophia Loren, Jimmy Durante, Tony Bennett, Mario Lanza and Luciano Pavarotti were among his customers.

As a singer and occasional actor, Sarno became an avid opera promoter who encouraged professional and amateur singers alike to entertain fellow diners with robust arias and show tunes. Those impromptu dinner shows soon became drawing cards of their own.

At one time, another Italian restaurant across the street named Luigi's offered the same operatic atmosphere. Ironically, the owner of that restaurant--Luigi Uzzauto--also died violently when he shot himself in 1985 after shooting his girlfriend.

Today, the new owners of Luigi's have turned it into "Pedro's Grill," featuring Mexican cuisine, salsa music and dancing. For opera aficionados, what's left is Sarno's.

"There was more spirit when Alberto was here. There's definitely something missing," said Don Segura, a longtime singer and customer who knew Sarno for 20 years. "But what carries this restaurant are two things: food for the body and, what the singers bring, food for the soul."

Silvana Sarno said that blend now reflects her own dream as well as her husband's.

"Alberto's still here because I keep him alive," she said. "He belongs here. This is still his place."

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