Karen L. Zito, a co-owner of the venerable Sacramento family restaurant Español, died Sept. 8 of pancreatic cancer, her family said. She was 66.
Mrs. Zito began working on weekends as a young girl at Español, which opened in 1923 as a Basque restaurant serving Spanish sheepherders who lived in a boardinghouse above the eatery at 11th and J streets downtown. The restaurant moved to the old Commercial Hotel at Third and I streets in Old Sacramento, where her parents, Louise and Frank "Babe" Luigi, bought it in 1959 and changed the cuisine to Italian.
In a 2006 story in The Bee, Mrs. Zito recalled serving sheepherders before her parents moved the eatery in 1965 to its present location at 58th Street and Folsom Boulevard in east Sacramento.
"Nobody talked," she said. "They just sat there and ate."
Mrs. Zito joined the family business full time after working as a dental assistant and a teacher's aide. She joined her siblings, Paula Serrano and Perry Luigi, in buying Español from their parents in 1988. She served as a hands-on manager who enjoyed greeting customers out front and pitching in to help cook and prepare meals in the kitchen.
"My sister and I were part of the restaurant since we were very young," Serrano said. "She separated more from it at first to be a dental assistant, but she was always there."
The eldest of three children, Karen Luigi was raised in a close-knit family in West Sacramento.
She took dance lessons with her sister and enjoyed summer vacations on the beaches and boardwalk in Santa Cruz.
She was a cheerleader and active in clubs at James Marshall High School, where she met Tony Zito. They married in 1968.
She graduated from Sacramento City College and worked as a dental assistant until her son's birth in 1971. She later worked part time at Español and spent 15 years as a teacher's aide in the Washington Unified School District.
Mrs. Zito was a warm, easygoing woman who loved being with her family and children. She enjoyed gambling excursions with her mother and sister at Indian casinos and vacation cruises with her husband to Alaska, Hawaii and Mexico.
On trips with friends to Lawson's Landing, she sent her husband and others fishing while she gathered the children to dig up bloodworms, ghost shrimp and spider crabs on Dillon Beach.
"She loved getting rid of me and spending time exploring the beach with the kids," her husband said. "She said it was the greatest marine biology class they could experience."
NOTE: This story was changed to correct the name of Mrs. Zito's brother, Perry Luigi, and the location of the restaurant at 58th Street and Folsom Boulevard.