On Wednesday night in an Eastside Costa Mesa home, an Italian-American family quietly marks the retirement of their patriarch.
At 88 years old, Antonio “Nino” Crivello is finally slowing down after a lifetime of work that began as a Mediterranean fisherman and ended as a restaurateur in Laguna Beach.
More than 25 years ago, Nino and his family founded Ristorante Rumari, a name that translates in Italian to “restaurant of the sea.” Starting any business is a feat, but even more so for Nino, who was about 60 at the time.
He didn’t let age stop him. Until recently, Nino routinely woke up at 6 a.m., five days a week, and drove from his Eastside home to Laguna, a town that reminded him of the Sicilian village in which he grew up.
Once at Rumari around 8 a.m., Nino shared a quiet moment over espresso with his son, Vincenzo, who goes by Vince.
After their drink, Nino made his famous breads for the day’s customers. Around lunchtime, he made himself a few things to eat before heading home around 2 p.m., well before dark. He doesn’t like driving at night anymore.
Though for Vince, who manages and lives above Ristorante Rumari, it may seem like his father was working for him, but that was never the case.
“He’s always the boss,” Vince says.
Nino was born on a summer day in 1928 to a life destined to be at sea. His father made his livelihood from the Mediterranean, as did his grandfather. Nino’s upbringing would be no different.
He was raised in Porticello, a coastal village near Sicily’s largest city, Palermo. It was there that Nino first spotted a woman walking down the street.
Benvenuta Cefalú was 16. He was 24. True to Italian tradition, they never went on dates alone. Like Nino, Benvenuta, who goes by Bina, was also from a fishing family.
Standing in her living room, a picture of their 60th wedding anniversary behind her, Bina laughs at the whirlwind nature of her and her husband’s love story that included secretly eloping before having a small church wedding a few months later.
Bina wore a simple gray dress.
On their 50th anniversary, she points to her picture of the moment, placed near the front door of their two-bedroom home. She wore a black dress that time.
Bina, 80, admits that her finding love was a straightforward track.
“One man in my life,” she says. “That’s it.”
The Crivello family is trickling in to celebrate Nino’s retirement.
The occasion is taking place in their East 21st Street garage, which for some may seem an odd choice. It’s not for the Crivellos.
In Sicily, many families have two kitchens: one in the house and one in the garage. The garage kitchen gives them the luxury of cooking fish there without stinking up the house.
The Crivellos’ one-car garage has a full kitchen, complete with stove, refrigerator and sink, all near the washer and dryer. Knickknacks, like a tiny replica of Nino’s fishing boat back in Italy, abound in the yellow room.
Aside from the kitchen, the Crivellos’ garage is distinctive in that it’s possibly the only one in town with a chandelier. Bina bought it for $700 some 40 years ago. It hangs above the evening’s dinner table, which is covered with a white tablecloth that reads: “Home is where the heart is.”
Two relatives have flown in from Sicily. While in the States, their travel itinerary also includes visits to Beverly Hills, San Diego and Las Vegas, where they’ll stay — where else — at the Venetian.
Two of the Crivellos’ six children, Salvatore and Vince, are there to wish their father well. Salvatore, who goes by Sammy, didn’t have to go far. He lives in a separate unit behind his parents’ home. He tends bar at Ristorante Rumari.
“I also tell jokes and do card tricks,” Sammy adds.
The Crivellos arrived together to the United States in 1972. Bina recalls their airfare costing $1,200.
They landed in America without any employment, but with the ambition to achieve a better future than back in Italy, where the economy was weak.
After a brief stopover in New York, they settled in California, first in South Gate. Nino took up commercial fishing off the coast of San Pedro.
The family seized on an opportunity to buy a deli in nearby Lynwood in 1974. They had that business until 1979, when the Crivellos moved to Orange County and started running pizzerias, some of which were failing. They would vamp them, make them successful and flip them for a profit.
Crivello lore proudly notes that to help buy Ristorante Rumari, Vince sold his beloved 1984 Ferrari and asked his father, then in his 60s and still commercial fishing, to work with him.
For one, getting Nino back off the boats made his wife happy. Part of the reason Bina wanted to come to the United States was so her children didn’t have to be fishermen.
“It’s a dangerous life,” she says.
Vince recalls that in April 1989, when Rumari first opened its doors, it was raining. For them, that was a good omen.
“Like God giving you gifts,” Vince says. “So we took it.”
In 1990, a Los Angeles Times food critic remarked how Rumari was like South Philadelphia in Laguna.
“When I say South Philly,” Max Jacobson clarified, “I think of southern Italian cooking in a setting that is friendly to the point of distraction. Rumari feels like a neighborhood restaurant — people crowd around the bar like old friends and there’s loud, animated talking in every direction. Most of the waiters sound like Sylvester Stallone between rounds.”
At 88, Nino still moves about seemingly easily, though with a hobble. His 5-foot-2 stature never stays in place for long. Throughout his party, he wanders to and from the garage fridge, his backyard grill, inside his house. He wears gray slacks and a Hawaiian shirt with oversized flowers. His thinning white hear is slicked back.
Vince laughs, saying he doesn’t know what his father is doing half the time. But, he stresses, his working life was dedicated to his family.
“He’s been working all his life just to take care of us,” Vince says.
During his retirement party, when Nino does speak, which isn’t often, it’s usually in Italian or bits of English. His family says he never learned much of the latter, adding that he also has a quiet, humble nature. Bina seems to do most of the talking.
The Crivellos say Bina has the business acumen. Nino is the artisan.
On the table is a full spread, including breaded New York strip steaks, anelletti pasta — whose ring shapes are reminiscent of SpaghettiOs but far superior, the Crivellos insist — that’s topped with a meat sauce and peas. Nearby are artichokes and cauliflower served in tempura batter, dried black olives, a tomato salad and caponata (a Sicilian eggplant stew).
Spanish wine, not Italian, is poured.
“I don’t know who brought that wine,” Vince jokes.
Near Nino is a full basket of bread he made. Throughout the evening, he silently offers it to everyone.
When dessert comes, it’s watermelon slices, cookies and a Chantilly cake.
The cake’s salutation is in reference to his seafaring days: “Bon voyage, Nino!”
“What do you think, Nino? This is all for you!” someone asks.
Nino just smiles. Then he takes a bite of his slice.
Later in the evening, someone decides that there needs to be music.
Soon enough, Nino, otherwise taciturn, belts out in song.
“He’s going to make his first platinum album,” Vince jokes.
The moment is reminiscent of Saturday nights at Ristorante Rumari, when Nino and Bina would take their corner table. Regulars would come visit. Nino sang. Bina talked with customers, who complimented her cannoli.
Though Nino won’t be making those morning runs to Laguna anymore to make bread, the family says he’ll keep busy at home, probably still waking up at 6 a.m. to tend to his garden.
Rumari won’t be the same without the patriarch, though.
“We used to have a routine,” Vince says. “Now that’s gone.”