Sylvia Kerbis’ kitchen had as many good smells as Scheherazade had stories.
She could alchemize a delicious pasta sauce out of bruised tomatoes and old onions and make a heady gravy with lamb shanks and pork neckbones.
She’d host back-to-back, multi-ethnic celebrations at her Galewood home. On Dec. 24, there’d be a Neptunian banquet that might include clams, oysters, shrimp, eel, mussels, calamari and salt cod. It was part of Festa dei Sette Pesci — the feast of seven fishes, a tradition of her parents, who were from Bari, an Italian city on the Adriatic Sea.
As soon as she finished with Christmas Eve, she started preparing for Christmas Day, when she’d serve turkey and ravioli to her Jewish husband’s side of the family.
At Easter, she made three kinds of calzone — one with ricotta; another with Italian sausage, tuma cheese and hardboiled eggs; and her family’s favorite, a fragrant mushroom-anchovy version.
Mrs. Kerbis, a child of Italian Catholic immigrants, even threw an Orthodox Easter celebration just because her husband, Sidney Kerbis, loved the lemon-dill tang of Greek food. She hosted Passover for his relatives as well.
In her later years, when she was the scheduler at her daughter Andrea’s beauty salon, she devoted a good part of the day planning lunch. “The conversation about lunch went on till lunch,” said Karen Kerbis, one of her daughters.
And she always had her hair and makeup done, said another daughter, Jodi Zavos. She loved Beyonce, but, after watching one of her videos, Mrs. Kerbis had a suggestion: “She needs a little lipstick.”
Mrs. Kerbis, 86, died Sept. 19 at her Harwood Heights home. Even then, she went in style: Her lipstick was just right, and she had a spritz of Coco perfume.
She loved the obituary section of the newspaper. As her children put it in her death notice: “If you are still reading this, you’d be making her very happy.”
She grew up in St. Agatha’s parish near 16th and Kedzie. Her father Joe Loisi worked in a tire factory and for the federal Works Progress Administration. Her mother Marietta, who took in boarders and sold homemade pasta, saved enough to buy an apartment building on Taylor Street.
Young Sylvia attended Marshall High School on the West Side but skipped classes for a week when Frank Sinatra was in town at the Chicago Theatre. Even though she wound up getting caught by her mother, “To her dying day, she said it was all worth it,” her son Sam said.
At 17, she dropped out of school and married a neighbor boy. When he returned a few years later from serving in the Korean War, they realized they were virtual strangers and got divorced, Karen Kerbis said.
When her Old World mother told her she’d “turned to vinegar,” she created a life filled with satisfying work, great friends, good music and travel.
In 1956, she sailed to Bari on one of the last passages of the Andrea Doria — the ocean liner that collided later that summer with another ship, the Stockholm, near Nantucket, Mass.
Postwar prosperity was slow arriving in Italy. As she unpacked her luggage, the young Italian women oohed and aahed.
“They picked up these [lingerie] slips and were just, like, in awe,” Karen Kerbis said. “She gave all these girls her slips.”
In 35mm movies filmed as she headed home, “The girls are waving goodbye in these slips.”
She worked for the phone company, at Holland Furnace and Spiegel’s, the catalogue giant on the West Side. Decades later, she still referred to its location as Madison and Crawford — from the days before city officials, appealing to Polish voters, changed the street name from Crawford to Pulaski.
She enjoyed nightclubbing at the London House, Mr. Kelly’s and Club deLisa, where she saw Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Barbra Streisand and Sammy Davis Jr.
When she met Chicago patrol Officer Sidney Kerbis, she liked him right away. They were married for 42 years, until his death in 2000.
During the days of school desegregation in the 1960s, some white families picketed and kept their kids out of school, but not Mrs. Kerbis and her husband, their daughter Andrea said.
“My mom sent us off to school at that time and said she expected us to behave and get along with our new classmates,” she said. “After a few days, the protests slowed, kids came back to school, and, of course, all of the kids got along fine.”
She embraced Facebook, kept up with Hollywood gossip, and loved Lady Gaga, Paul Newman and Denzel Washington.
Mrs. Kerbis was a softie for dogs. Sometimes, when she ran out to the store to buy chicken, family members would tell her they didn’t want chicken for dinner.
“It’s not for you,” she’d say, pointing to their Schnauzer mix. “It’s for Buddy.”
In her final years, her constant companion was Leia, a Papillon mix that fiercely guarded her from visiting nurses.
She is also survived by three grandchildren. In her final hours, she advised a granddaughter, “If I see your future, honey, I won’t come back and tell you because I think you should take your own chances and have all that fun.”
Services have been held, followed by a gathering at the restaurant she insisted on for her funeral luncheon — Pescatore Palace in Franklin Park.