Grounded In Success -- With His Thriving Sausage Business, Frank Isernio Has Linked The Traditions Of Old Italy With The American Dream
Everybody sings birthday greetings to ``Mama.'' Restaurant co-owner Luigi DeNunzio sets the candle-studded, whipped-cream-drenched tiramisu before her.
Everybody toasts. Everybody talks. At the same time. To everybody else. Everybody is related. The whole restaurant - Al Boccalino in Pioneer Square - suddenly is one big Italian family.
Mama, Angetina Isernio, ``bellissima'' with her two corsages pinned to her ivory, lace-edged dress, is wearing the papal-blessed crucifix her son, Frank, brought back from Italy, as well as the necklace he bought her a long time ago while working after school in a gas station.
She says that she has her numerals mixed up; instead of being 84, she feels like 48.
Luigi hugs Mama. Mama hugs Luigi. Everybody hugs Mama. Everybody toasts Mama. Everybody toasts Luigi. Everybody in the restaurant is hugging, too. Luigi takes a sip from an abandoned glass of wine.
More hugging, more wine. Antipasti, polenta, pasta, salmon with white truffle oil, rare lamb, crowned by the birthday dessert. Cuisine to hedonistic perfection. Frank - Frankie to family, or Franco, if you want to be very Italian - the good son, host and benefactor, quietly presides, picks up the tab.
``We are very proud of him,'' says Linda Micheli, a cousin. ``He's very special.'' This echoes among family members.
When one succeeds, the family succeeds.
On another day, in the blue haze of morning light, amber lights cluster about the distant shipyards, the orange projectiles of cranes looking like overturned insects at the harbor's edge.
The view is from a condominium high on Queen Anne Hill, a place as snug in its slate-gray-wall-glass-contemporary sophistication as the shipyards are stark.
There are photos on the wall: Italian children running through an arch, clothes on the line, a simple life; another of steelworkers, black-and-white silhouettes in a rain of sparks. It is this one that reflects his roots.
``This is American Dream stuff,'' Frank Isernio says. ``I want to shout it from the rooftops. Anything is possible when you love what you're doing.''
Ten years ago he broke with tradition and took a gamble. He went into business, making the sausage that had been a family recipe. He left the steady paycheck and comparatively predictable shipyards, a delivery-truck-driving, macaroni-making, blue-collar world, for the uncertainty of his own business.
And he thrived.
Today, 25,000 pounds of Isernio Gourmet Italian Sausage are produced every week, and business is climbing by 30 percent each year. There are plans for a new plant and expanding the market into cured meats.
Today he drives a black Jaguar, having exchanged the jeans and sweat shirts of the early days for crisp white shirts, dark suits and Italian silk ties. He treats his family - mother, aunts, uncles, cousins - to dinner parties at expensive Italian restaurants, and shows up at the glitzy openings of events such as the Italian by Design exhibit, Enological Society Italian dinners and occasionally Poncho.
In the beginning, he was confronted by Depression-era family skeptics who thought the idea of making a living from something as commonplace as sausage was audacious, the idea of quitting a ``good job'' frivolous.
``I was raised to believe you weren't supposed to like what you did for a living. I remember seeing a man with his own candy store and thought he was blessed by God,'' Isernio says.
Frank Sr., who died in January, was born here, and with his brothers farmed 110 acres of land that is now the north end of Boeing Field. They were among the first to sell produce at Pike Place Market. Angetina was born in Foggia, Italy, near Naples, and the two created for Frank and his older sister, Gloria, a family life steeped in Old Country traditions.
``My parents are so proud of America. But they are proud of Italy, too.''
On holidays the walnut dining-room table in their Beacon Hill home was heavy with both Italian and traditional American fare - turkey and trimmings, antipasti and pasta. And it was these memories of quality food - his mother making sausage on the kitchen table from the family recipe - that influenced his decision to make fresh sausage for a living.
``Most guys I knew, the biggest thing they thought about was getting a job driving a truck. Now when I think of success, I look within to what is possible. We must constantly try to improve ourselves.''
Still heartbreakingly handsome at 45, he is the product of the success-oriented baby-boom generation, yet he straddles some of the family-oriented values of the past.
``My watch and my ring are worth more than what my parents paid for their house,'' Isernio recalls a wealthy friend telling him.
His dreams and lifestyle, too, are of the new generation, removed from the comfortable, two-story house on Beacon Hill where his mother raised chickens, rabbits and vegetables in the back yard.
It's with entertaining Italian style - animated gatherings of 20 or 30 friends several times a month - in mind that he's planning construction and design of a 4,800-square-foot, three-bedroom house to be built on a spectacular view lot on Queen Anne.
The opulence might have been lost on his father, who thought even dining out in restaurants a waste of money and inferior to the food at home. He once grumbled to his son, who had taken him out to eat, ``Anyone who sees me here will think I'm a fool!''
Although values have changed with generations, the work-ethic framework, the foundation of his career, has not. And he still spends long days and at times has sacrificed a personal life - he has never married - in pursuit of business success.
The factory is in a tree-lined business park near the Georgetown playfield where he once ``played baseball, football. All of it. Or just hung around.''
It's a small operation - 15 employees - with major production: the sterile humming and clanking of machinery, ribbons of lean Midwest pork threading into casings, hanging to dry in the icy breath of coolers.
He opens the door to the closet-size spice room. If you close your eyes, it's an herb garden in bloom in August.
Sausage is more than a recipe, he says. It's the packaging, the delivery, the freshness.
There are white trucks with gold, red, green logos in back. The office is crisp, white-gray, utilitarian, efficient.
Taking a drive to nearby South Angelos Street, he points out two converted 1920-style houses where he and Tony and Flora Mascio started their businesses 10 years ago.
On a crisp, gold-leaf-blue-sky morning, the roar of engines envelops the neighborhood - overhead is the underbelly of a jet, gliding toward the runway, the once-fertile farmland where his father raised produce. Times have changed.
Flora's cottage pasta industry is now Mascio Italian Specialty Foods, on South Jackson. Isernio is nostalgic.
``We (he and Flora) did everything in this room - the two of us. There was a mutual respect and trust for one another.
``Here, we'd load the trucks,'' he says. He's in the basement of the gold house. The concrete floor is spattered with paint.
A smoked-salmon business is at the address now, and the machinery - just a standard mechanical hum to the untrained ear - is distinctly different to the expert. Gone is the knife-edge cold of meat-processing rooms.
``Upstairs we would sit and have coffee,'' and in the pink house across the street was ``a beautiful old Italian lady over there who'd cook polenta for us.''
Those were the 4 a.m. mornings, making sausage after a shift at the shipyards, delivering it in the ice-filled trunk of an old Mustang.
The Mascios' daughter, Anna, refers to the time Isernio moved his business to the present location as if he had moved away from home. ``Papa tried and tried to get him to stay.''
He maintains close ties. Success, he says, is ``measured by the number of people you make happy.''
His success also is, in part, made by the evolution of Seattleites' tastes as the population has become more cosmopolitan and gained a greater appreciation for other cuisines. There are now eight varieties of Isernio sausage, in addition to imported prosciutto, carried at many major grocery chains and in restaurants.
He likens his company to small European businesses focusing on limited markets and quality products. He handles the promotion of the product himself - even if that means doing demonstrations in grocery stores.
When the accolades come - rave reviews from a famous Italian actor, having his sausage chosen the best by blind taste-testing at a Seattle hotel, an invitation from the Italian Trade Commission as one of only two Americans invited to a conference in Verona, Italy - only Angetina Isernio could have been more pleased.
Angetina has always believed in her son's dreams. The back yard where she once raised vegetables and chickens (Isernio never tasted a store-bought egg until he joined the Army), he has replaced with landscaping and lawn furniture. The house is trim with new paint, solid and cozy, four walls brimming with memories.
His black Jaguar is parked outside, a few blocks from the red-vine-covered Cleveland High School, where he graduated in 1964.
Mama comes to the door, dark eyes dancing, still wearing a knit cap and walking shoes from a trip downtown, the bloom of cold morning still around her. She shows pictures of her garden, talks of the past and of her son: ``I'm so proud. I am. I am.''
Copyright (c) 1990 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.