The light of an early autumn morning filters through windows of Rosario Mazzeo’s Roma Market Italian Deli, giving the tightly packed space the burnished look of a Renaissance painting.
Beneath a canopy of imported cured meats hanging from the ceiling along with year-round Christmas decorations, surrounded by an array of fresh breads, cheeses, cans and jars of savory Italian pantry goods, Mazzeo holds court from his usual spot in front of the kitchen.
Now 84, a well-worn chair has become his perch seven days a week. The prime vantage-point allows him to eyeball the entire shop in action 17 hours a day. In spite of a painful knee, he’s quick to jump to his feet to find a special bottle of wine, or select one of 30 or so classic dry pastas for one of the customers he calls his “people.” And they call him Ross.
But today is no ordinary day: Mazzeo’s people are streaming in, not only for his pink-paper wrapped sandwiches, but also to pay their respects and offer condolences. At the end of October, Mazzeo’s trusted right-hand man, Federico “Fred” Gutierrez, passed away unexpectedly from cardiac arrest. The two men had worked together at the Roma Market for 43 years.
According to his daughter Crystal Tabullo, Gutierrez was at work early Sunday morning when he started feeling ill and a coworker decided to call for paramedics. Doctors told the family his heart stopped on the way to the hospital.
Federico Gutierrez was born in Jerez, Zacatecas, Mexico. In his youth, he moved to the USA and became a Pasadena resident, starting work as a dishwasher at age 15 at the Roma Market.
Crystal Tabullo told us, “My dad was married to my beautiful mother for 37 years, this December was going to be their 38th wedding anniversary. He had three children, myself and my two brothers, a wonderful son-in-law and two grandchildren.”
“My dad was a selfless man, always willing to give a hand even when not needed. A hard-working man that always took care of his family and friends. He made friends left and right by proving a helping hand with his kind and generous heart, not expecting anything in return.”
“Besides spending time with his family, his favorite pastime was baseball. He loved playing it as much as watching it. No matter what team was playing, he just loved the sport.”
Gutierrez’s day-to-day routine at Roma Market would vary, but a typical day would begin at 2 AM. He would routinely head out into the Los Angeles darkness to select and purchase fresh produce and goods for the deli.
Tabullo recalls, “Once the supplies were purchased, my father would drive to the market, off-load and prep the store to open at 8 AM. By 10 AM he would pick up the freshly baked bread at Eagle Rock for the sandwiches.”
“Throughout the day my father would make sure the store was stocked, direct the process of making sandwiches, handle any deliveries that came in, provide customer service, deliver goods to local restaurants, speak with vendors to place orders, and assist in closing the store at the end of the day,” said Tabullo.
Edgar Maravi lived next door to Fred for decades, and his memories include Fred helping him rebuild a fence downed by a windstorm, and the joyful wedding party held at home for Crystal.
Maravi says, “We go back a lifetime. He was always nice, a cool person. Everyone knew him from Roma, he helped Ross for a lifetime. He loved baseball and was always helpful. He was a great father, an old-school type of guy. His type is hard to find nowadays.”
“It’s such a devastating loss, because the market really feels like a family.”Roma regular Bob Carroll
Personal chef Lisa Feinstein of Provisions LA frequents Roma faithfully for charcuterie and other gourmet food needs for her catering business. “I started coming here 13 years ago. I’m from Boston, and so this place really felt like home. My first memories of shopping for food were in small family places like this.”
Mazzeo’s sharp, dark eyes briefly swim with tears as she gives him a quick hug.
Long-time Pasadena resident and Roma regular Bob Carroll says, “It’s such a devastating loss, because the market really feels like a family, everybody’s always helpful, always friendly. I like to cook, and so I’ve been shopping at Roma for almost 58 years. We love it because you see familiar faces there, faces you’ve seen for decades. Fred will be missed. A lot.”
When I ask Mazzeo how he’s feeling, he answers with a question: “How long is this gonna take? I got work to do.” Then a deep sigh. “How I feel? It’s no good. Everybody, the same. No good.”
Mazzeo speaks of Gutierrez in the present tense, as if he always will. He says that he and the late Gutierrez were so compatible because they shared a Herculean work-ethic.
“Me, I work here since 1950. I was just a boy coming from Sicily, coming to work in the market for my uncle. Then later, I meet Fred. I never miss a day of work, seven days a week. Him, too, just like me. Never miss a day, never late for work. And he never tells me no, you know? I can ask him to do anything, wash dishes, go anywhere, and he will do it. Where you gonna find somebody like that now?”
He shrugs and bats the air in disgust.
Mazzeo’s uncle opened the original Roma deli in 1946 in the parking lot where the market now stands at the corner of Mountain Street and Lake Avenue. Ross expanded the market in around 1960, inspired by his parent’s deli in Sicily. The locally famous sandwich famously began as an accident in 1959, improvised on the spot for a ravenous wine vendor, and now the team produces 400 to 600 daily, until they exhaust the day’s bread supply.
“Yeah, yeah, ‘The Sandwich’,” says Mazzeo, going silent for a moment. “But you know, it’s not the sandwich. We make people happy here. Fred always has the smile. And he knows where everything is, because, you know, we got a lotta stuff in here. Everything. He could always find whatever the customer wanted, you know, the cookies, the olive oil, he always helped people get whatever they needed.”
I ask Mazzeo if the loss changes how he feels about coming to work. Might it be time for him to take it easy and retire? He immediately snorts at the idea.
“No. No. We gotta keep going. Because my people, they count on me. Every day, I gotta be here.” He then motions me toward the door, making sure that I read the framed commendation signed by Mayor Victor Gordo on my way out.
It’s clear that the interview is over, and now it’s time for him to get back to work.
A GoFundMe account was established to assist the Gutierrez family.