It was in the wee hours Saturday when Bruno Serato got the call: The White House was on fire.
He raced to the scene, where dozens of firefighters were battling the flames. When it was over, he said, much of the landmark Anaheim White House Restaurant had been gutted.
“I gave all my life, all my blood — everything about me was in there for 30 years, and to see that disappear in two hours because of a fire is very, very sad,” said Serato, who broke down as he spoke. “I was devastated.”
Anaheim Fire & Rescue was dispatched to the scene about 4:20 a.m., where crew members found flames and smoke pouring from the roof of the massive structure, a 1909 Colonial-style mansion. Firefighters knocked down the worst of the blaze in half an hour.
There was no indication that the fire was intentionally set, but the cause remains under investigation, said Anaheim Police Department spokesman Sgt. Daron Wyatt.
A tearful Serato remembered the looks on the firefighters’ faces as he approached the charred remains of his beloved Italian restaurant. Many were customers who would often stop by for pasta and greet him with a smile. Now he could not bear to see their expressions.
The restaurant, which Serato has owned since 1987, was set to celebrate its 30th anniversary in April. Serato had already picked out a menu for the occasion.
In its three decades, the White House had entertained a host of celebrities and other notables, from former President Jimmy Carter to opera star Andrea Bocelli and singer Gwen Stefani. Former President George W. Bush dined there when he was still governor of Texas.
But Serato said his most treasured guest was his mother, who danced on the steps of the restaurant when she came from Italy to see it for the first time, two decades ago.
“I told her, ‘Mom, this restaurant is yours, not mine, because everything I own is yours,’” he said.
Serato said he and his six siblings grew up in poverty in Italy in the wake of World War II. The country was devastated, so his family migrated from Verona to the north of France to eke out a living picking potatoes and tending cattle.
“We were poor,” he recalled. “We would eat spaghetti for lunch, and milk and leftover bread for dinner.”
It was his mother who inspired him, after a visit to a local Boys & Girls Club in 2005, to start a charity to feed the children of low-income families fresh pasta daily. He named it for her: Caterina’s Club.
The charity feeds about 2,000 children a day, said Serato, who has appeared on “CBS Evening News With Katie Couric” and was named a 2011 CNN Hero for his work.
Serato even received a set of rosary beads from the pope, which firefighters managed to dig out of the debris. This weekend he received a call from actress Sophia Loren, who offered her condolences.
Staffers were already working to inform guests who had made reservations, and to suggest alternative dining options in the area. The restaurant had been booked solid for the next five weeks, Serato said, thanks in part to the upcoming Valentine’s Day and an influx of conference attendees.
Thankfully, he said, none of his employees were hurt in the blaze. But now, he worried that his “crew” — some of whom had worked for him for more than 20 years — might not be able to find jobs to support their families.
Some friends had stepped up, offering jobs to some of his staff, he said. And local kitchens had already offered to allow his charity to keep cooking pasta for children, he said.
As for rebuilding the restaurant, Serato guessed that it would cost $1 million to $1.5 million, and perhaps take a year. But it’s unclear how much his insurance will cover. A GoFundMe page has been set up to help defray the costs.
Serato recalled the care he put into every detail of the restaurant, including picking the crystal chandeliers, commissioning the elaborate frescos painted on its walls, and traveling to Las Vegas to find just the right carpet.
“It was magical,” he said.
His older sister Stella Ibay, his only sibling in the U.S., was with him for support on Sunday. Earlier, she said, she had watched former patrons visit the burned-out structure. Some had gotten engaged or married there; others had planned to celebrate milestone birthdays.
The restaurant had meant a lot to her too. She was a regular, and her son worked as the restaurant’s general manager for 25 years.
“That was their life, that was a part of them,” she said of her son and brother. “It’s like losing a job, losing a family member.”