A chatty waitress serves a slice of pie in Pescadero. In what I call a Random Act of Travel, I let my conversation with her dictate where I’m going next. She puts her hand to her heart and describes the delicious hand-stuffed tortellini and the Italian family who makes the dough from scratch at the deli in the next town. My destination is decided. I have an hour of freedom, a friend’s car and the coast at my disposal. I leave pie crust crumbs on the plate and thank the waitress for the tip. She doesn’t know her enthusiasm is about to fling me back to a day 60 years ago, to Ms. Monroe, a cake and the guy who baked it.
“Your father knew who?” That’s all I can say when I make it to Tortellini Originali in Half Moon Bay and stare at the face behind the counter.
I’ve heard this is the most authentic Italian joint in the Bay Area, but don’t find that nearly as impressive as the scoop being dished by the woman. Her father owns the place, knew Joe DiMaggio and made cake for the Yankee Clipper. The woman is Italian and still talking… about the artichoke ravioli now… how they’ve rolled a couple hundred pounds this week and will make more today.
But I’m afraid the pasta’s gotta wait because I need a date with the woman’s dad. I interrupt and ask how soon I might meet him.
Ron Cicornio doesn’t get star struck.
Even when I ask about his moment with Marilyn, Ron shrugs and says, “Oh yeah…she was pretty.”
The world’s most famous blonde. The dame with diamonds as a best friend. Monroe. Legend. I begin rattling off movies and cue up the “Happy Birthday Mr. President” YouTube video on my iPhone when other customers start goading him too.
Ron smiles and relents, but barely.
“Yeah, I’d take her out.” He laughs. “Those were the good old days. They’re all gone now.”
Songs from those good old days keep customers dancing as they peruse the noodles. I’m one of those customers, more pleased about the conversation than the pasta. Frank Sinatra serenades us as I corner the owner near the kitchen—I want details. The gentleman I’m looking at today laid eyes on Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio in their heyday.
How cool is that?
Ron’s family knows the story so well, he’s happy, I think, to reminisce with someone new about the day the stars showed up ago order their layered wedding cake.
The year was 1954. The shop was Columbus Pastry in San Francisco. The bride was Hollywood’s biggest star. The groom was the Yankee legend with a 56 game hitting streak and the love of a nation.
“I figured they would, him and her, come in together.” Ron explains the baseball great was just his ‘pal Joe’, a regular customer and family friend.
“The DiMaggios were fisherman around here. We were North Beach boys and I knew them all. Before Joe went to play ball, he used to come in the pastry shop all the time.” Ron says. “He was a low-key kinda guy and more popular back in New York than he ever was here.”
Ron was eight years old when he started cracking eggs and cleaning pans at his father’s pastry shop. He mastered cake decorating by 12. Today the white haired 77 year old still wears an apron and puts in a full day at the shop. When he closes up, he’ll head home and keep cooking; Ron is passionate about pasta.
His eyes glaze over and stare past me. It’s as if, when he squints a little, the memory of January 14, 1954 comes into focus there, over my left shoulder. Ron remembers a simple cake and being the confident kid who hand delivered it to DiMaggio’s place in the Marina District. The couple and their 30 or 40 guests weren’t there yet. They were escaping San Francisco City Hall where their private wedding plans were blown up by paparazzi.
As Ron tells the story, his wife stands up from her favorite table in the corner and walks over; their daughter behind the counter listens in; their grandson molds tortellini and chimes in when Ron isn’t listening.
“If that was me, I would have blown a gasket.” Ron’s grandson whispers. “Marilyn is still the most beautiful person to ever live.”
“All I know is that I didn’t know him then.” Rosanna Cicornio is done talking about her husband’s brush with the bombshell.
Ron winks at me as he boasts of their 57 year marriage. Rosanna corrects him –56 years.
A lot has changed in those decades: the old pastry shop is a bank now; the family business merged into wholesale pasta and moved out of the city; the deli opened in Half Moon Bay in 2011.
On the walls, black and white photos help Sinatra preserve the good old days. But I don’t find framed proof of Ron’s most famous creation.
“Ah geez…” Ron looks over my left shoulder again. “It was a sponge layer with butter cream and custard filling. They liked that…plain, soaked in a little… a little triple sec.”
Ron promises a photo of that wedding cake exists. But for decades nobody thought to look for it. Now it’s buried in one of the gazillion boxes in the attic. Ron’s grandson calls me the next day to say he took a flashlight and searched for evidence. But, came up short. I offer to rearrange my travel plans in order to help them find it, I’d kinda like to see the touchstone to time gone by.
I’ll look back on the day a slice of pie pushed me through the doors of a deli and into the fella who grabbed drinks with DiMaggio. Whenever the slugger swept through town, Ron says they’d “talk and have a couple of pops. That’s what everybody did back then.”
That’s the great thing about Random Acts of Travel… I never know who I’ll meet at the intersection of spontaneity and serendipity. When it comes to Golden Era glamour stories and custom-made frosting, Ron is the only character I’ve encountered so far who truly, takes the cake.
I need to hit the road back to Half Moon. Would you believe I forgot to try the pasta? Ron’s grandson better get the flashlight ready. It’s time to find that photo.