L.A. Now

Anaheim restaurant owner is a hands-on philanthropist

Bruno Serato strolls down the middle of a narrow street, his signature white chef's coat illuminated by the headlights of a cargo van.

A light rain falls as he yells into the boxy homes that line the road at the Golden Skies Mobile Home Park in Anaheim. He stops each passing person — a man driving home from work, a woman pushing a child in a stroller.

"Turkey," he calls out, the Italian in his voice still thick. "Turkey!"

The van is loaded with 12- and 13-pound turkeys, and the 56-year-old owner of the Anaheim White House restaurant is on another mission to help Orange County's neediest.

"You got your turkey already?" he asks a woman with curly hair. On this evening, he has commissioned several Chapman University students to help him pass out the birds.

His path to philanthropy began about seven years ago when he and his mother — visiting from Italy — toured an Anaheim Boys and Girls Club. When she spotted a child eating potato chips, she implored her son to provide a decent meal.

"That clicked," he said. "She gave me a passion."

He started feeding pasta to all the children at the club, many of whom live at the motels that dot the city's thoroughfares. He expanded his reach as he became more familiar with their struggles.

Now he feeds children seven days a week at two Boys and Girls Clubs in Anaheim and hosts a Thanksgiving dinner for needy families at his pricey restaurant, complete with fake snow. This year, his nonprofit partnered with an organization that helps families get off the streets by providing first and last month's rent.

The philanthropy has made Serato something of an Orange County celebrity as well. He's appeared on the "CBS Evening News With Katie Couric" and was named a 2011 CNN Hero for his charity work.

Serato emigrated from Italy in 1980 with $200 in his pocket. He worked as a dishwasher and eventually as a waiter at the now-closed La Vie en Rose restaurant in Brea. Eventually, he opened the Anaheim White House.

His grandfather was a shepherd in northern Italy who gave cheese and milk to those who needed a helping hand during the tough times of World War II. His mother, who Skypes her son each morning from her home in San Bonifacio, Italy, had the same charitable instincts. Serato named his nonprofit in his mother's honor — Caterina's Club.

Over the years, he's struggled to keep supplying the free pasta. In 2010, Mike Baker, the director of the Boys and Girls Club, told Serato that demand was soaring and more children were coming to the club. Serato needed to increase the amount of pasta he gave the children.

So Serato refinanced his home to keep the restaurant and charity work going.

Now, with business coming back to life, he has decided to start helping families in a different way. So far, he has paid about 20 families' first and last month's rent in conjunction with the Illumination Foundation so they can move out of a motel and into an apartment or house.

"I realized that some of the families are stuck in these hotel rooms," he said. The deposit, he said, is often the largest hurdle.

Fred and Felisa Zoller lived at the Costa Mesa Motor Inn with two young daughters for four years and didn't know if they would ever leave.

"That's why people stay in the motels," Felisa Zoller said. "You get stuck."

Now, the couple live in a spacious two-bedroom apartment in Anaheim. They have a living room, a full kitchen and a separate bedroom for their children.

Serato helped the family with their security deposit. Without it, Felisa Zoller said, they would have been unable to move out.

Now, Felisa cooks teriyaki chicken in the kitchen and there's a Christmas tree in the living room.

"Our Christmas present," Fred Zoller said, "is this place."

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