If you’d accidentally stumbled into the banquet room of Zov’s Bistro one recent afternoon, you’d think it was a rehearsal for some kind of farce. Things looked like they might get out of hand – and for good reason. They always do, or almost do, when Antonello’s Antonio Cagnolo and Bruno Serato of The White House get together, egging each other on like the Marx Brothers about to create pandemonium. They drew Zov Karamardian to the edge of her regal deportment as she sat sipping Champagne. They even cadged a big smile from the gently dolorous John Ghoukassian of Bistango.
The last thing you’d assume was a gathering of Orange County’s most venerable restaurateurs – each of whom came here before anyone equated the county with fine dining, and has carved out 30 years or more of success in the business.
But there they were, familiars, supporters of each other’s charities and causes, deeply respectful of the other’s original dining creations, and all mindful of each other’s escape from war, poverty, political upheaval, and close encounters with calamity to find the stuff of dream in their American success.
Anaheim White House
Bruno Serato is a tough-looking guy, stocky and bald, who likes to dress in black. But the moment he sees friend Antonio Cagnolo, he smiles and breaks into voluble Italian, the conversation quickly rising to Hellzapoppin pitch.
Serato, who made the prestigious CNN Heroes list in 2011, had stopped by to unload the latest Caterina’s Club brochures, which list the amount of Orange County children his restaurant keeps from going to bed hungry (3,000 a day, a new high in the 10-year program). The program serves more than 1,800 warm, nutritious meals every single night.
Neither Serato’s demeanor nor his conversation alluded to the Feb. 4 fire that gutted his classic, popular restaurant, Anaheim White House.
“Somebody called at 4 a.m. to say there was a fire. I thought it was a joke,” he offers when prompted to talk about the emergency. “I drove to Anaheim and saw flames, smoke, police. My heart was beating 200 miles an hour. It was the saddest day of my life.”
But Serato, one of seven children born in a small town near Verona to parents who, during the war, took jobs as field workers in France, has always employed one of the most basic of business and management techniques: He works like a dog. When he took over the White House in 1987 with an option to buy (“A gorgeous building, built in…