Sunday, November 3, 1991 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Angelo Pellegrini Dies - UW Prof, Author, Gourmet

Angelo Pellegrini, the Italian peasant boy who came to America and became a college professor, author and renowned expert on food and wine, died Friday of cancer. He was 88.

Pelle - as he was known to friends, fellow professors and generations of students at the University of Washington - received many honors in his lifetime.

He was the subject of a long profile in The New York Times, named "an Outstanding Citizen of Washington State" by the state House of Representatives, cited by the Daughters of the American Revolution as "a naturalized citizen who has distinguished himself" and honored by the Freedom Foundation "for bringing about better understanding of the American way of life."

"He was a wonderful man, a wonderful writer," said Angela Owens, his daughter. "It was a lovely ending: His latest book just came out and he lived long enough to see this year's grapes crushed - all 2,500 pounds."

He was "the most faithful of friends," said Julian Jenner, a retired banker in Olympia who lived near the Pellegrini family years ago.

Jenner recalled that Pellegrini was impatient "with cant, hypocrisy and overstatement - he always called a spade a spade. But he was kindness in itself."

Pellegrini was born April 20, 1903, into a sharecropper's family in Casabianca, a few miles from Florence in the central Italian region of Tuscany. After years of poverty, his father left for the United States and settled in McCleary, Grays Harbor County. The rest of the family followed the next year. Pellegrini was 10 years old when he arrived at New York's Ellis Island.

Unable to speak English, young Angelo was put in the first grade.To catch up with those his own age and to avoid their cutting remarks about his imperfect speech, he studied hard at night after putting in long hours on the family farm.

Within a few years, he had skipped several grades and was winning spelling bees. His teachers told him he must consider going on to college.

Pellegrini entered the University of Washington as a history major, working summers in the McCleary mill. He earned undergraduate and graduate degrees, with honors, and finished two years of law school before being hired by Whitman College as an English teacher.

Years later, Pellegrini returned to the UW as a professor of English. He later earned his Ph.D. degree.

A spellbinding lecturer, Pellegrini became one of the most popular and respected teachers on the campus.

"Always a teacher first and not much interested in scholarly research," he used to say.

But Pellegrini was more than just a teacher. He wrote books, made wine in the cellar of his View Ridge home, became a gourmet cook and was widely known for his flower, fruit and vegetable gardens.

Pellegrini once wrote that except for an electric stove and an automatic bottle corker for his wines, the home into which he and his wife, Virginia, moved in 1942, was relatively free of technological gadgets.

If, he said, such gadgets ever should become a barrier to the esthetic and spiritual development of the Pellegrinis, "we will burn the place down and move across the street into a wilderness of maples and alders, where we will construct an outdoor privy and read Thoreau."

Pellegrini made bread dough from scratch and baked bread in a thick-walled outdoor oven he constructed. He cut his vegetables with a very sharp knife on a vintage birch cutting board.

He went into the woods to gather his own mushrooms. In his extensive backyard garden, he composted leaves and stalks, disdaining chemical sprays. His corn, chard, cabbage, chickory, lettuce, basil, sage, tomatoes, zucchini, onions, turnips, broccoli, endive, artichokes and raspberries grew in such abundance that Sunset magazine once assigned a photographer to capture the garden on film for a whole year.

Pellegrini crushed his grapes on his brick patio, and he always left the sediment in his wine, because, he'd say, "That is nature's way and I'm suspicious of the test-tube boys . . . who take all the life out of the grape."

He was equally simple in his approach to writing. For years, he carefully tore the unused pages from blue-book tests submitted by students. He took sheets from this enormous pile of lined white paper and wrote, in clear and careful longhand, articles for periodicals and full-length books.

Rarely did he ever scratch out anything. The words came out right the first time.

Explaining why he had never learned to type, he said, "because I think better when I write in longhand, and the end product is what counts, not the method used."

Pellegrini's first book, "The Unprejudiced Palate," published in 1948, was hailed as a minor classic in the annals of gastronomy. The book has been such a success that it is to be reissued in the next few months.

There would be eight more, including "Vintage Pellegrini: The Collected Wisdom of an American Buongustaio (gourmet)," which was published last month.

One of those books, "The American Dream: An Immigrant's Quest," published in 1987, recounts what he called the darkest hour of his life: April 23, 1948, when he was called before the Washington state Legislature's Canwell Committee and asked about his membership in the Communist Party in the early 1930s.

Pellegrini said he had joined the party during his search for a way to right the suffering he saw all around him during the Great Depression.

He was told he could walk out of the hearing a free man if he gave the names of others he knew had been party members. Pellegrini refused and was dismissed, told he would be recalled later.

He wasn't. The committee was recessed the following day and didn't reconvene.

In "The American Dream" Pellegrini pondered the circumstances that took him to the brink - the bread lines he saw, while foodstuffs were being destroyed to keep up the prices; the beggars in Times Square beneath billboards and neon lights promising the good life; the way the justice system always seemed to come down on the side of property rights over human rights.

What helped him decide to look to the Communist Party for answers for a brief time, he said, was the famous Sacco and Vanzetti case in which two immigrants with radical views were executed in 1927 for a murder many felt - and some still feel - they had not committed.

"The Unprejudiced Palate" was published three months after the Canwell hearing. That same year, Pellegrini received a Guggenheim Fellowship for study abroad. It yielded another book, "Immigrant's Return," based on his visit to his old home in Italy.

Other books were "Americans by Choice," "Wine and the Good Life," "The Food-Lover's Garden" and "Lean Years, Happy Years."

The latter, published in 1983, had a theme common to most Pellegrini books - a fond look at his American beginnings in bountiful Grays Harbor County, where the soil was rich, wood for fuel was on the ground for gathering, the fish ran strong in the streams and the businessmen and teachers he encountered were willing to help a young man in whom the work ethic was deeply ingrained.

In the epilog of "Lean Years," Pellegrini takes the reader through a lovely April day, when, surrounded by chirping birds, he toiled in his garden, pressing the seed for a second row of peas, feeding his artichoke plants and preparing the soil for sowing pole beans later in the month.

At noon, hungry and dehydrated from his labors, he made a frittata of leeks, chard, whitloof chicory and Savoy cabbage from his garden. He added some bread he had baked the previous day and topped it off with vintage Cabernet, 1971, pressed from perfect grapes sent to him from the Napa Valley.

Having tended to his nutritional needs, he enjoyed a civilized hour of rest. Restored, he went to his desk, where he wrote about the joys of living a simple, very full life.

Besides his wife, Virginia, Pellegrini is survived by Angela and another daughter, Toni Lucey of Philadelphia; a son, Brent Pellegrini of Seattle; and two sisters, Alice Pieretti of Portland and Mary Swisher of the Hood Canal area.

Services are pending.

-- Don Duncan is a former reporter for The Times. Staff reporters Tomas Guillen and Bob Lane contributed to this story.

Copyright (c) 1991 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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