Camouflaged in fake grass and artificial flowers, Art Ibleto’s famous Spaghetti Palace at the Sonoma County Fair sits idle this summer, without marinara-doused polenta or its king.
Once the highlight of the county fair and the foundation of “The Pasta King” Ibleto’s food empire, the age-worn booth festooned with a red, white and green Italian motif was an annual destination for generations of fairgoers. Located near the Hall of Flowers, it was also the summer kingdom of the Italian-born cook, who held court in an air-conditioned backroom for more than 45 years with fellow royalty including philanthropist Henry Trione, Clover-Stornetta founder Gene Benedetti and winery owner Saralee Kunde.
But after the death of the 94-year-old patriarch in 2020, and his wife and helpmate Victoria in 2019, the Palace’s future is uncertain.
“Mom and dad are gone. This year, it would have been just me and my brother,” said Annette Ibleto-Spohr, who has taken over much of her father’s business — catering, partial ownership of a Rohnert Park restaurant and retail sales of pasta and sauce in the years since Ibelto’s death. Mark Ibleto, her brother, runs a private cut-and-wrap butcher shop for the fair’s market animals.
“This was always a family thing, and we all had our parts,” said Ibleto-Sphor, who had spent summers at the Palace since she was a child. She worked with high school friends at the booth, then hired her children’s high school friends, often giving them their first job.
“Some of the people had been there forever, but something just had to give. It was a hard call (not to open), and I didn’t make it easily. I just couldn’t take it on this year,” she said.
In the past, a collection of family friends and relatives from as far as Italy came to pitch in.
The Spaghetti Palace was one of a handful of local restaurants that serve food at the fair each year. Longtime fair destinations like Old Mexico and Willie Bird Turkey are no longer part of the lineup, nor is Guy Fieri’s pizza and garlic fry truck. National concession companies now crowd the field with artery-clogging wonders like fried Twinkies, lobster french fries and funnel cakes. Flashing 20-foot signs atop state-of-the-art mobile kitchens make the rustic Spaghetti Palace look like an artifact.
Ibleto-Spohr hopes to reopen the Spaghetti Palace next year, but without her father at the helm and in the face of ongoing difficulties in the food business, she’s taking it one day at a time.
“He was the face and the boss,” Ibleto-Sphor said of her dad.