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Column: Can tiramisu and a daughter’s love get a former caterer to the stars through tough times?

If you think of life as a meal served in courses, Giovanni Bolla has been handed plate after plate piled high.

Back in the days of beef Wellington and baked Alaska, Bolla was a caterer to stars — offering “the ultimate in haute cuisine” by appointment in Beverly Hills.

He was known for his fettuccine with caviar, his pheasant paté and his grand buffets, decorated with sculptures made of butter and ice.

Success once bought Bolla a house in the western Hollywood Hills, perched high on Hercules Drive on Mount Olympus.

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But then came heartbreak and hardship and wrong turns.

“I got really lost,” says this very warm, slightly rumpled man, who once was at home in crisply pressed black tie.

Now at 71, he manages to hold on to his tiny Encino studio — at $1,400 a month — only because his landlord has the heart to accept what he can pay, sometimes $1,200, sometimes $1,100.

He is a proud man, too proud to show me how he now lives. I first meet him to hear his story at a table outside a Gelson’s.

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Like many an older L.A. resident, Bolla tells me he has faced lean times trying to get by on Social Security, finding his age a barrier to work, living a life of increasing isolation as friends have died off or disappeared.

In recent years, some of his plates have been all but bare.

But don’t call for the check yet. His meal’s not over. This is a story about how a second chance sometimes can sneak up by surprise.

For Bolla, dessert is on the way, to the rescue — thanks to his 27-year-old daughter, Isabelle.

Before we serve it up though, let’s huddle together near the sink and take in the courses already cleared away.

Because as Bolla puts it, you have to see the rain to appreciate the sweetness of the sunshine that comes after.

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For decades, Giovanni Bolla was a Beverly Hills caterer to the stars.
(Photo Courtesy the Bolla Family)

Bolla, who was born in Asti, Italy, for a while lived a charmed life. As a young man, he went to hotel school, then traveled the world on cruise ships, waiting tables that tilted in storms. When he set foot on the dry land of Los Angeles in 1969, at 21, he was hired right away as the maitre d’ of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel.

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He went on to other elite hotels and country clubs before he blazed a path of his own.

He once prepared the fare for a party where Ella Fitzgerald sang. He fed Tom Bradley, Jerry Buss, Richard Burton, Jane Seymour and people with names on the city map: Skirballs and Trousdales and Gettys. Details of his menus regularly appeared in this newspaper’s “Social Scramble” accounts of the most exclusive soirees.

In 1981, he had just one week to plan dinner for 600 on the lawn at Pickfair. He still remembers the swelter of that summer night — but according to the society pages of the Los Angeles Daily News, his “crab legs and shrimp served in ice-swans were delicious and cold.”

Still, those triumphs, proudly preserved in stacks of crumbling photo albums, came before a long, slow slide.

Before his first wife, the love of his life, died at 49, of breast cancer. Before his first divorce, from the mother of his second child. Before breast cancer also took his eldest child, at age 41. Before, at a time when he had hoped to be enjoying life, retired, his much younger third wife — and mother of his two late-in-life young children — kicked him out and he found himself sleeping in his truck.

Before he started making panicked, often tearful calls to Isabelle, who was living far away with her husband in Spain. Before she decided she had to return to L.A. to do what she could to help out.

But what can you do really when you are facing older-parent issues so early, just as you are trying to launch your own adult life?

Isabelle grew up as her father’s baby. Her half-sister Cira was 19 years older. But when Cira died in 2014, she became the load-bearing eldest, now big sister to Levi, 11, and Teresa, 8 — who is 19 years younger than she is.

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At first, she offered what little money she could spare. Then inspiration came out of the blue.

This past summer, as a belated birthday gift, Bolla, with Isabelle as sous chef, whipped up the tiramisu she loves — in a quantity befitting a caterer for crowds.

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Giovanni Bolla puts the finishing touch on a tiramisu at his daughter’s home in Encino.
(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

Tiramisu is decadent and rich, made up of ladyfingers dipped in (usually spiked) coffee until they are moist, then layered into a fluffy, heady mix of egg yolks and sugar, cocoa and mascarpone.

Bolla made Isabelle and her husband tiramisu for at least 30. They knew they couldn’t and shouldn’t eat it all. So they shared it with their Encino neighbors and even gave the mailman a slice. Right away the tasters asked how they could get more.

Which gave Isabelle, who works in marketing, a way to help her father that would draw on her modern-day savvy, not her bank account.

In early July, she went on social media — on Next Door and on a private women’s group she belongs to on Facebook. First she said a word or two about her father’s glory days, then about his more recent hard knocks and her own inability to support him.

“Now the true purpose of this post. He makes the most DIVINE Tiramisu ever,” she wrote. “I know it’s a long shot, but I’m hoping maybe if someone has an event or a sweet tooth and would like a full Tiramisu cake they’d be willing to buy one! He loves making them and they are INSANELY delicious, so I thought it was worth a try.”

In no time at all, in the women’s group alone, her first post had more than 400 likes and loves and well over 200 replies — many of which asked if a tiramisu could be made for the coming weekend or an upcoming celebration. Some offered advice for promotion, including a website.

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Jodi Sisson hugs Giovanni Bolla as he delivers a tiramisu to her in Lake Balboa.
(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

So launched Giovanni’s Tiramisu and an accompanying Instagram account, which is fast filling out with photos of smiling customers, often posing with their tiramisu and Bolla, who has been delivering it all over town. He now often gets over 30 orders a week. He’s already got repeats as well as one for Thanksgiving.

This week, I’ve gone out with him on delivery runs — to Hollywood, Lake Balboa, Sherman Oaks, Mid-Wilshire. In Isabelle’s kitchen, he assembles the tiramisu (a little messily -- he used to have a staff to clean up) and freezes it in her garage freezer. She hands him spreadsheets of names, addresses, phone numbers and delivery dates. She’s hooked up his old car so that he can speak to his phone hands-free for directions -- though the app he uses sometimes has trouble processing his thick Italian accent.

Then off he goes on his travels, arriving each time to open arms. Moments after he pulls a tiramisu out of his backseat cooler, he’s being hugged by a customer who already knows all about him.

In Lake Balboa, Jodi Sisson, waiting at her front door, calls out, “You’ve got a daughter that loves you!”

Which, of course, Bolla knows well. Together, he and Isabelle are now hatching plans for a small food truck, serving tiramisu and espresso.

Earlier this summer, just a few deliveries in, Bolla left his daughter a voicemail she plans to keep forever. In it, he weeps — not with despair but with joy.

“It’s unbelievable, Isabelle, all these kind people coming to help me,” he says. “It’s amazing. It really is amazing. Thank you, sweetie.”


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