Pasqualina Verdi, Beloved Seller And Gastronome At The Market

The Pike Place Market won't be the same tomorrow.

It will be the first busy Saturday in 36 years that Pasqualina Verdi won't be aggressively selling the produce she planted with her own hands, calling out to potential buyers. It will be a weekend without Ma, whose love of hard work and passion for the place inspired the Market family.

Mrs. Verdi, 73, died last Sunday (March 3). Over the years, Seattle has grown to be a world-class city, and its celebrities more and more defined by mass media. But Mrs. Verdi kept a grasp on fame the old-fashioned way, by earning loyalty face-to-face, speaking her mind and letting frequently blunt honesty endear herself.

Mrs. Verdi was a Seattle character but also a woman of principle. All of her customers were important; a sale was a sale. So when Seattle's more-famous people went to her produce table, they got in line with everyone else, said Jeff Smith, television's Frugal Gourmet, who lives in the Market district.

``I think there are some people in Seattle that if you have not met them, you have not known Seattle. Pasqualina was one of those persons,'' said Smith, who was to speak at a service for Mrs. Verdi today.

``She was always one of the great symbols of what the Market has always been and what Seattle has always been,'' he said.

It is said that suffering and hard work breed character, and Mrs. Verdi's life is a bountiful example.

She was one of 13 children in her family in Italy. She quit school after the third grade to work in the fields to help support the family.

During World War II, she was living in the village of Sorbo Serpico, about 40 miles inland from Naples. Her first husband died in the war, in 1942. She held odd jobs, including that of cook for the village mayor, but by the end of the decade the economic brutality of war's aftermath forced a change.

She married a man she had met only through correspondence, moving to America with her 9-year-old son, Frank Narciso.

She knew Dominic Verdi through his brother in Italy, said Narciso, now a businessman in San Ramon, Calif. ``She just saw a picture of him. She came over here and they got married, strictly by friendship with his brother, by writing a couple of letters. He needed somebody to take care of his kids over here and somebody at the farm.''

Dominic Verdi, who died in 1969, was a truck farmer in the area that is now Southcenter shopping mall. Mrs. Verdi worked the fields and readied the produce for the broker and spent a lot of time in the kitchen.

``There's no woman today who would put up with and do the things she did, but that's what she had to do, literally working from 5 in the morning until 10 at night,'' Narciso said.

Eventually it became clear that if money was to be made, it would come by bypassing the brokers, so the family started selling at the Farmer's Market in Seattle. In 1958, the family sold to Southcenter and moved to a few acres in South Park.

Mike Verdi, Mrs. Verdi's other son by Dominic, now runs the family business with his wife, Sue. ``We learned the work ethic,'' he recalled. ``I made sure she got to the Market every day, and I picked a lot of the vegetables, all through high school and college.''

Narciso said his mother was ``dedicated to making sure the kids were doing okay and making sure we both got educated - going to school and going to college - because that's what she worked for.''

About seven years ago, Mrs. Verdi had knee and lower-back problems that required surgery, and she entered a period of semiretirement during which she taught Sue Verdi the trade.

``Even on her worst days, I couldn't keep up with her,'' said Sue Verdi. ``She had an energy that never waned.''

``A lot of the things we grow now are European and Italian items that are not well-known to the general public,'' she added. ``But they are things she liked to eat, that people are just now finding out about.

``She was the first to introduce sweet basil to Seattle. When she was first selling sweet basil at the Market, she was maybe growing 20 to 30 plants. Now we're up to growing a minimum of 3 acres of basil and can't keep up with the demand. Much of that's due to her salesmanship in educating Seattle.''

Said the Frugal Gourmet: ``She was always pushing certain products because she was concerned that we learn what that food product was. I've seen her have arguments with people who didn't want something. She would yell at them, `What's a matta with you?!'

``She was a kind of glue in the Market, and the blessed woman sort of kept things together for all of us. She was a blessing from God.

``It's impossible to imagine the Market without her,'' Smith said. ``I keep thinking that Saturday I'll go down there and she'll be there. It's going to be very hard to find her not there.''

Besides her two sons and daughter-in-law, Mrs. Verdi is survived by seven stepchildren, Lisa Desimone of Seattle, Pat Verdi of Seattle, Dominic Verdi Jr. of Phoenix, Mary Scoccolo of SeaTac, Nellie Applestone of Bellevue, Yolanda Burnett of Bellevue and Armondo Verdi of Kent; 29 grandchildren; 31 great-grandchildren; and two great-great-grandchildren.

After today's Mass at Our Lady of Lourdes Church, burial was to be at Washington Memorial Cemetery. Memorial contributions may be made to the Arthritis Foundation or Medic One.