Ask anyone who lived in San Pedro from, say, the early '50s, and they know Ante's. Ante Perkov, a Croatian native about 10 years younger than my dad, found his way to San Pedro in 1941 and opened Ante's Restaurant a decade later, around my first birthday.
Ante's was first located on Fifth Street in downtown San Pedro and that is where most of my memories of his wonderful food and hospitality were made. I'll bet that between the time the restaurant opened and my generation started marrying there wasn't a single Yugoslav wedding in the community that wasn't catered or hosted by Ante. I tried to buck tradition with an out-of-state wedding, but my mother still insisted that my bridal shower (with a hundred of her favorite lady friends) be a sit-down luncheon catered by Ante's.
Like most youth, I think, I took my family's ethnic food for granted, never considering it wasn't mainstream. I ate hundreds of meals of sarma (stuffed cabbage leaves), sauerkraut with spareribs and pot roast served with mostaccioli - recipes from the Dalmatian coast where my father was born and my mother's parents were born. Mom and my aunts cooked this stuff for Sunday dinners and holidays, but when there was a major milestone event to celebrate - wedding, graduation funeral, etc. -the cooking was left to Ante.
He served his food family style with generous portions on large platters. And waitresses stayed with him for years - the same familiar smiling faces served us every time we went.
In 1975, Ante's moved to a new location on South Palos Verdes Street closer to the harbor. About the same time Ante's son Tony, a high school teacher, began helping his dad. After Ante died in 2001, Tony followed in his father's footsteps - huge shoes to fill. Ante and his landmark restaurant were so loved that San Pedro officially changed the restaurant's address to 729 Ante Perkov Way, dedicating the entire block to Ante.
The last time I ate there was at my Aunt Winnie's 85th birthday party in 2011. Tony came out of the kitchen and greeted each table, asking how everything was. There was no need to ask for more of anything because it automatically appeared before you needed it. And the food tasted exactly the way it did when I was a kid.
My cousin Vesela, who along with a dozen others from the Grgas clan met me at Ante's for lunch in 2010, sent me an article from the local newspaper about Tony Perkov's death last week at the age of 69.
When Tony fell ill around Mother's Day, the restaurant closed and was leased to a film company as a set for a new television show called "Belle's," I read. And when I checked online I discovered that the property described as "San Pedro's Longest Running and Most Famous Restaurant" is now for sale.
It's yet another chapter in the story of my people, immigrants like my dad who came to San Pedro with a dream, a strong work ethic and a desire to build a legacy for their children. I will miss Ante's - not just the fabulous food, the colorful murals of Croatia and the old photographs that decorated the walls, but the sense of belonging I felt, the sense of knowing that my roots ran deep along Ante Perkov Way.
Reach Michele Thomas, the Del Norte Triplicate's publisher, at mthomas@ triplicate.com, 464-2141 or stop by 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays.