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From Italy to Inner Southeast: The century of Santo and Sophie Porco

SOUTHEAST HISTORY


In 1918, when his father died, Santo Porco – at just ten years of age – was forced to quit school and help support his family. As the oldest of three brothers, Santos – or Sam, as he was called – regularly did whatever task or job was available, just to make ends meet.

In the early morning hours he might be seen sweeping the streets of Portland, or stationed on the corner shining shoes, or perhaps delivering newspapers.

by: COURTESY OF BARBARA PORCO - Santo Porco in his early years as a baker, with one of his signature cakes. However, it wasn’t until he accepted a job cleaning the local bakery that he made the decision to become a baker. Top pastry chef C.D. Scott saw the potential in this energetic boy, and under his guidance Santos would master the skills of creating some of the finest cakes and pastries in the region. His talent was recognized when he hired on as foreman at Gabades Bakery at 5th and S.W. Yamhill Street – and it was during this time that he also met his future wife.

Santo met a stunning Italian girl, Sophie Marinelli in 1930, at a picnic at Jantzen Beach Park. Mike and Mary Marinelli had three lovely daughters that were in at the picnic that day.

It was Sophie’s brown dark eyes and smiling personality that first attracted Santo to her. While young ladies might be wooed with expensive jewelry, romantic poetry, and dazzling flattery, it was Santo’s ability to create delicious baked goods and cakes that caught Sophie's attention.

“When we first met, he asked me if he could call on me,” said Sophie. “And I told him, ‘only if you bring cakes with you, when you come to visit at my parents’ house’.” The future Mrs. Porco knew that life is not simply about material things from a good man – it was a little bit about the bread he made, too.

The Marinelli family was then living in the steep hills on the northwest outskirts of Portland. Mike and Mary Marinelli arrived in the Linnton neighborhood from Naples, Italy, in 1914, when Sophie was just one year old. Like many immigrants who came to this country in the early 1900s, Mike wanted a better education for his children than what the foothills of Italy had to offer.

Before bringing his family to the Great Northwest, Mike – accompanied by his oldest son, John – wanted to make sure this was the right place to be. When they visited Mike's brother in California, they both knew that that was not the place to be. Father and son then tried their luck in the Willamette Valley, and they found Oregon to be more to their liking.

Mike returned to Naples with his son to gather up his family, and journeyed back to the States. Their destination was the Portland area, and as it turned out, as mentioned, the family settled into the small community of Linnton.

Mike hired on as a laborer for the C and W Lumber Company, while his sons tried to start a business of their own: John and Bill served as barbers in the Marinelli Barbershop, while Johnnie the Butcher worked two shops over, at the Marinelli Sanitary Market. Sophie clerked at the McMarrs food store, and she and her sister cleaned the barbershop on the weekends.

In time, into this family tableau, Santo Porco came courting Sophie.

Santo’s baking skills must have played a part in winning Sophie over, because in 1932 they got married. The wedding ceremony was held at St. Michaels Church in the old South Portland neighborhood, and the reception took place at the Masonic Temple in Westmoreland. Mayor Carson was in attendance that day, as reported at the time by THE BEE.

Father Ballestra, who was very frugal, yet who never charged for any of his ceremonies, presided over the affair, as Santo and Sophie repeated their vows and exchanged rings. The newlyweds barely made it down the aisle and out the door, though, before the frugal priest turned off the lights.

The young couple lived in a house that Santo shared with his brother Jim and his family. Joe Porco lived across the street with grandparents Frank and Carolena Porco, who had arrived from Calabria, Italy. Carolena enjoyed picking figs from the many trees in the area, and giving them away to the neighbors – carrying the figs in a huge apron that she often wore.

When Santo opened his own bakery in the Brooklyn neighborhood at 21st and Powell, Sophie was expected to work right along with her husband. “Sam said to me, you just take care of the front and I will handle everything in the back,” recalls Sophie, matter-of-factly. And, for the next fifteen years, the S. P. Bakery would be the talk of the town.

People came to the shop from all over. Anybody who was anybody showed up at the Porco pastry shop. Doctors, lawyers, judges, and even the Mayor would stop by to chat with Santo, and to make sure he was invited to the popular social and governmental events taking place in the city. If a wedding was planned for the children of any important dignitaries or a birthday party given by one of Portland’s social elite, Santo was requested to bake a cake for their event.

“People called, because they wanted to be with the Porcos,” surmises Sam’s daughter Barbara. “There was a side door between the S.P. Meat Market and the S.P. Bakery, and I can’t ever remember a time when there wasn’t at least one or two of my dad’s friends stopping by for a cup of coffee, or for one of their favorite pastries.”

Sophie knew how to display items, and how to serve people; and while she might not always remember the name of everyone who patronized the shop, she had the uncanny knowledge of identifying them by what pastry they were fond of, and how it was supposed to be sliced. She was very artistic and enjoyed embroidering, and entertaining company on her piano. Because of her skill at the keyboard, Sophie was asked to play the organ during Sunday mass.

When the city merchants went on a bread strike in one year, patrons lined up around the block waiting impatiently for the S.P. Bakery to open its doors. “My father worked long hours, and had to get up in the wee hours,” comments his daughter. “One time he fell asleep in his car on the Sellwood Bridge, and all of the other drivers on the bridge had to get out and push his car out of the way,” says Barbara, laughing.

Cookie samples were kept under the counter of the bakery for the neighborhood children, and with a little pinch to the cheeks of the little girls, Santo would remind them that he would bake them a cake on their wedding day. Ten or twenty years later, young women would step in to ask Santo to keep his promise, and make them a special wedding cake for their ceremony.

The Italian way of life was still important to the Porcos, and Saturday evenings were spent with other couples in poker games at various neighborhood houses. Sophie would play the piano, cigar smoke would fill the air, and singing and camaraderie would reign all night long. The festivities were complete when a special cake was presented by her father, and the candles on it were blown out.

Santo Porco was more than just a baker to the community; he was one of the original leaders of the Italian Businessmen's Club. He was also on the board of directors for the Portland Police Sunshine Division, and for 30 years he helped fill and deliver thousands of baskets of food to the unfortunate.

Fred Peterson eventually convinced Santo that he was working too many hours, and offered him a job as food inspector for the City of Portland. He filled the position for a few years, but without the passion he had had as a baker. Even when he finally retired, though, he couldn't stop working. Santo built a “mini bakery” in the basement of his house, and continued making pastries for his grandkids, and special treats on every holiday for the neighbors. He presented the nuns at St. Agatha’s Church festive cakes whenever he got the chance.

Santo also served as president of the “Ex-Newspaper-Boys Association”, and the St. Michaels Church Alumni Group. Santo Porco passed away in 1982, but his legacy among the Jewish and Italian community is still well remembered.

And now, Santo’s widow, Sophie Porco, will participate in the celebration of her own 100th birthday this month. Many friends and neighbors will gather for it, reminiscent of the days when they all stopped by the S.P. Bakery to sit and visit.

Refreshments will be served, and delicious pastries and a birthday cake will be presented from a specialty bakery – but everyone at the party will know that the desserts offered could never taste as good as those that Santos, the baker man, had made.