groceryFrom the 1940s on, the children of Italian immigrants could be found in all regions of the U.S., in almost every career and in nearly every walk of life. My parents were born in Elizabeth, NJ and my father lived in the Italian section of the city, called Peterstown. This section of the city was home to Italian grocery stores, produce stands, meat markets, fresh fish markets and poultry stores. When he married my mother, they moved to another part of the city.

As a child, I remember my father taking me shopping with him on Saturday mornings, where we would go to many of the Italian shops in Peterstown. He would purchase meat, chicken, cheese, bread and Italian cold cuts. I remember being overwhelmed by all the products that were crowded on to the shelves in those tiny stores. My father would stop and talk to many of his friends along the way and visit his relatives who still lived in Peterstown. On these excursions, he always bought me an Italian Ice at Di Cosmos’ store, a landmark in the area.

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Grocery stores were among the first businesses opened in the early Italian immigrant settlements, providing the staples of Italian cuisine: e.g., olive oil, pasta and canned tomatoes. But traditional Italian markets and delis served more than just the shopping needs for the Italian immigrants. They were also community centers, substitutes for the piazza, that is, places where Italians could meet friends and paesani (fellow townspeople), exchange news and speak some Italian.

Traditional markets were more likely to sell local and Italian American products than imported (cold cuts, cheese, oil) and more likely to sell reasonably priced products than the more exclusive labels at the upscale markets.

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However, in the 1980s Italian brands such as, De Cecco pasta from Abruzzo, bottles of Coltibuono Olive Oil from Tuscany and Chianti Ruffino wines began appearing in the Italian markets. Many older markets also diversified their inventories by carrying other ethnic foods as well. “A1” in San Pedro, for instance, carried many products for Croatians as well as for Italians; “Bay Cities” in Santa Monica carried many Greek and Middle Eastern foods; “Sorrento” also served Italian Argentines and other Latin Americans.

The memorabilia on the walls: family photos, posters of World Cup Italian Teams, Italian or regional maps, a portrait of the Pope and tourist posters of Italy, would often identify a market as a more established Italian immigrant locale.

New York

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Successive waves of Italian immigration beginning a century and a half ago have blessed New Yorkers with the country’s best collection of Italian markets. While many of these shops can be found right in Manhattan, others are located in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx. If you need to find an obscure pasta shape, this is your place. Choose among two dozen types of canned Italian tomatoes to make the sauce. A rainbow of Italian olive oils can also be found, as do seasonal items, like fresh black truffles and fresh porcini mushrooms. Additionally, a cured meat department, usually in the back of the store, offers hard-to-find cold cuts like culatello, a cured ham and other types of salamis.

In 1940, when Mayor Fiorella LaGuardia wanted to get pushcarts off the streets, he created a string of indoor markets, of which the Arthur Avenue Retail Market was one and is one of the few remaining today. Some stalls specialized in veal and variety meats, such as tripe and calf’s liver, while other stalls sold dried pastas and southern Italian prepared foods,that included pizzas, pastas and seafood salads.

Philadelphia

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The Italian Market is the popular name for the South 9th Street Curb Market, an area of South Philadelphia featuring many Italian grocery shops, cafes, restaurants, bakeries, cheese shops, butcher shops, etc. The Italian Market, frequently referred to simply as 9th Street, had its origins as a marketplace in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

This area, outside the original boundaries of Philadelphia, was an area where the immigrants settled. Italian immigrants began to move into the area around 1884, when Antonio Palumbo began receiving Italian immigrants into his boardinghouse. Shops along 9th Street opened up shortly afterward to cater to the new Italian community and they have remained in the area to this day, with many of the present vendors tracing the founding of their businesses back to the first decade of the 20th century.

Cleveland

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In its earliest days, Gallucci’s was as much a neighborhood grocer as it was an “Italian” store. Starting with a wooden cart, founder Gust Gallucci first opened a shop on Cleveland’s West Side — then, during the mid-1920s, the family moved to Cleveland’s Haymarket District. Close to the city’s produce district, Gallucci’s also served the sprawling immigrant neighborhood on Cleveland’s Near East Side, once called Big Italy.

Gallucci’s grew into a gathering place for newcomers from Italy. There, shoppers and clerks spoke the language of the old country, even though the Italian spoken was broken into scores of regional dialects. More importantly, they could find familiar products unavailable in most other stores — fresh or dried pastas, fat links of sausage, imported cheeses, olive oils and vinegars and familiar table wines.

Chicago

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The Graziano grocery business dates back, approximately, to the same year the Italian Superior Bakery opened on Western Avenue, about 1933, but it was part of the Italian community on Grand Avenue. The business was founded by Jim Graziano, who immigrated to the States in 1905 from Bagheria, a town on the northern coast of Sicily.

The first Jim Graziano left the business to his sons, Fred and Paul, and now Fred’s son and grandson, both named Jim, are keeping the business alive and well. J.P. Graziano Grocery Co. has for some time been a wholesaler and an importer specialising in Italian foods and, as such, is well-known in local food industry circles. Specialties include olives, cheese, large sausages and baccalà (dried codfish).

Indianapolis

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Italian immigrants, John Bova Conti and his wife Josie, operated the J. Bova Conti Grocery at 960 S. East Street. According to, Indianapolis Italians, by James J. Divita (Arcadia Publishing, 2006), Josephine Mascari, a widow, and her son, Tommaso, were experiencing hardships in operating their grocery on Virginia Avenue. John Bova Conti moved in to run the store and ended up marrying the widow. It was not until the 1920s that they rented a small, wood-frame grocery with an adjacent residence. Signs on the store and visible goods, included Wonder and Yum Yum bread, fruit, macaroni, olives, cheese, Coca-Cola and East End Dairy products.

The store’s business ledger for 1924 through 1927 (housed at the Indiana Historical Society) indicates that many products were imported from Italy and distributed to other stores around the state. According to author Divita “After visiting relatives in Indianapolis, customers from smaller towns would stop at Bova Conti’s to buy 20 pounds of dry pasta to last them for a month. Among the store’s attractive prices were one gallon Berio olive oil, $3; one bottle, Florio Marsala, $2.25; five pounds, Sicilian caciocavallo cheese, $3.75 and one case Brioschi, 75 cents.”

Hibbing

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Guilio Forti was one of thousands of Italians who immigrated to Minnesota’s Iron Range in the early 1900s hoping for a better life. But Guilio, already 50, was too old to work in the mines as others did. So he put the skills he’d learned as a baker in Rome to work and started Sunrise Bakery in 1913. From their North Hibbing location, the Forti family distributed Italian and Vienna bread by horse-drawn carriages to the mines.

Each generation contributed new ideas and products to the business. Guilio’s son, Vincent, added mechanization and a line of pastries, donuts and cakes. Vincent’s son, Thomas, together with his wife, Mary, created a deli that featured imported delicacies and foods long cherished by the Iron Range’s diverse immigrant population. And now their son, Tom—the fourth generation Forti—is helping Sunrise bring its Italian entrees, pastas, sauces and other ethnic specialties to locations throughout Minnesota.

New Orleans

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Not only had Sicilians established roots in the French Quarter, but those seeking to farm the land moved upriver from the city, to Kenner. These men were called “truck farmers,” because their land was far enough away from the city that they had to haul their crops in by wagon, later trucks. They would sell their produce in the Farmer’s Market, stopping for lunch at one of the groceries along Decatur Street. The groceries would lay out cold antipasti spreads during the day to sell for lunch.

In 1906, Salvatore Lupo opened the Central Grocery at 923 Decatur Street. He began to combine some of the antipasti items, such as mortadella, cheese, ham and olive salad, on loaves of round Italian bread, creating the now-famous Muffuletta sandwich. The truck farmers could pick up a muffuletta and, essentially, eat their antipasti as a sandwich on the return drive to Kenner. Other groceries and restaurants picked up on the muffuletta, which became a New Orleans institution, second only to the po-boy.

Colorado

grocerycoloradoIn the 1880s, at twenty years of age, Carl L. Stranges immigrated to the United States from Italy. After his arrival in the United States, he moved to Grand Junction and resided there his whole life. Carl Stranges opened his grocery store in the southwestern portion of the downtown area, often referred to as “Little Italy”, due to the concentration of Italian residents and Italian-owned businesses in the area.

Three other grocery stores and an icehouse were located within a two-block area of the Stranges’ store. Carl Stranges owned and managed the grocery until shortly before his death in 1942. He willed the store to his niece and her husband who continued to operate the store until 1963.

Stockton

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Italian immigrants owned and operated groceries and delis in Stockton, CA just as they did across the country. Genovese immigrants, Joseph & Emilio Silva, operated a grocery store on Main and East Streets from 1890-1925 and a number of their wholesale providers were also Italian. Caesar Gaia, born in 1892 near Torino, left home at the age of seventeen to follow his brother Frank who left for California years earlier.

Gaia first worked on a ranch in Gilroy before moving to Stockton in 1914. He, along with Louis Delucchi, bought E. Fontana’s Ravioli Factory which later became the site of Gaia & Delucchi at 320 East Market St. The grocery featured ravioli, salami and other Italian specialities for their customers in San Joaquin county.

Los Angeles

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The first Italian to arrive in Los Angeles was known to be Sardinian-born, Giovanni Leandri, in the 1820s. He operated a shop on Calle de los Negros, an alley situated near Old Chinatown. Many of the first wave of Italian immigrants lived in boarding houses in the area around what is now part of the Arts District and Civic Center. In the 1890s, Italian-Americans bought homes and opened businesses in El Pueblo, Sonora Town, Dogtown, Lincoln Heights, Solano Canyon and Victor Heights.

The corner of College Street and Broadway has been home to Little Joe’s since 1927.  Little Joe’s began as the Italian-American Grocery Company, established at Fifth and Hewitt, by Charley Viotto in 1897. The deli counter evolved into a full-fledged restaurant, named after, then, co-owner Joe Vivalda.

Cooking From The Italian Deli

The hero sandwich is one of the standout achievements of Italian-American cuisine. Taking a French baguette — which became faddish in Italian-American bakeries around 1920 — and loading it up with cold-cuts, produced a final product that was as American as it was Italian, though nothing like it had ever been seen in the Old Country before.

There were also hot versions that often included fried meat cutlets, fried calamari, eggplant parm and the great Italian-American invention –  meatballs. The heroes were aimed at working men who needed thousands of calories to fuel their back-breaking work. The hero/sub/grinder/hoagie is here to stay and will be a main feature at parties on Super Bowl Sunday, next month.

Italian Hero

Sal, Kris, & Charlie's Deli 33-12 23rd Avenue Astoria, NY

Ingredients

  • 1/2 large onion, thinly sliced
  • One 12-inch loaf soft Italian bread
  • 5 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • 5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1/4 pound deli-sliced provolone cheese
  • 1/4 pound deli-sliced Genoa salami
  • 1/4 pound deli-sliced boiled ham
  • 1/4 pound deli-sliced mortadella
  • 1/4 pound deli-sliced capicola
  • 1/2 head iceberg lettuce, finely shredded
  • 1/4 to 1/2 cup sliced pickled pepperoncini
  • 3 plum tomatoes, thinly sliced
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano

Directions

Soak the onion slices in a large bowl of cold water for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, split the bread lengthwise, then pull out some of the bread from the inside. Drizzle 2 tablespoons each vinegar and olive oil on the bottom half.  Season with salt and pepper.

Layer the cheese and meat on the bottom half of the bread. Drain the onion and pat dry. Top the meat with the onion, lettuce, pepperoncini and tomatoes. Drizzle with 2 tablespoons each vinegar and olive oil and sprinkle with the oregano. Season generously with salt and pepper.

Drizzle the cut side of the bread top with the remaining 1 tablespoon each vinegar and olive oil, then place on top of the sandwich. Cut into 4 pieces.

Antipasto Salad

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Ingredients

  • 1 large head iceberg lettuce, coarsely chopped
  • 1 (1-inch) slice (about 1/2 pound) deli ham, cut into cubes
  • 1 (1-inch) slice (about 1/2 pound) turkey breast, cut into cubes
  • 1 (1-inch) slice (about 1/2 pound) deli hard salami, cut into cubes
  • 1 (1/2-inch) slice (about 1/2 pound) provolone cheese, cut into cubes
  • 1 (16-ounce) jar peperoncini, drained
  • 1 (6-ounce) can pitted black olives, drained
  • 1 (7-ounce) jar roasted red peppers, drained and cut into 1/2-inch strips
  • 1 pint grape tomatoes, cut in half
  • 1 cup Italian dressing

Directions

In a large bowl, combine all ingredients except the dressing; mix well. Add dressing and toss until well coated. Serve immediately.

Chicago Italian Beef Sandwiches

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Ingredients

The beef
1 boneless beef roast (sirloin or round), about 3 pounds with most of the fat trimmed off

The rub

  • 1 tablespoon ground black pepper
  • 2 teaspoons garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1 teaspoon dried basil
  • 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper

The juice

  • 6 cups of hot water
  • 4 cubes of beef bouillon 

The sandwich

  • 10 soft, hoagie rolls, sliced lengthwise but hinged on one side or a loaf of Italian bread 
  • 3 medium-sized green bell peppers
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 cup hot giardiniera

Directions

Mix the rub in a bowl. Coat the meat lightly with vegetable oil, sprinkle the rub generously on the meat and massage it in. There will be some left over. Do not discard it; it will be used in the juice.

Put a rack just below the center of the oven and heat the oven to 325°F.

Pour the 6 cups of water into a pan and heat it to a boil on the stove top. Dissolve the bouillon in the water. Add the remaining rub to the pan.

Pour the water mixture into a 9 x 13″ baking pan. Place a meat rack in the pan. Place the roast on top of the rack above the juice. Roast until the interior temperature is about 130°F for medium rare, about 40 minutes per pound.

While the meat is roasting, cut the bell peppers in half and remove the stems and seeds. Rinse and cut into 1/4″ strips. Cook the peppers in a frying pan over a medium high heat with enough olive oil to coat the bottom of the pan, about 1 tablespoon. When they are getting limp and the skins begin to brown, in about 15 minutes, they are done. Set aside at room temperature.

Remove the roast from the oven. Take the meat off the rack and remove the rack. Pour off the juice, put the meat back in the pan, and place it in the coldest part of the refrigerator. Let it cool for a few hours or long enough for the meat to firm up. This will make slicing easier. Chill the juice, too, in a separate container. Slice the meat against the grain as thin as possible.

Taste the juice. If you want, you can thin it with more water or make it richer by cooking it down on top of the stove. In Chicago beef stands, it is rich, but not too concentrated. Then turn the heat to a gentle simmer. Soak the sliced meat in the juice for about 1 minute at a low simmer.

To assemble the sandwich:

Start by spooning some juice directly onto the bun. Then layer on the beef, generously. Spoon on more juice. Top it with bell peppers and giardiniera. Serve with plenty of napkins.

Deli Style Italian Meatball Subs with Peppers

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2 servings

Ingredients

  • 6 large meatballs, cooked (recipe below)
  • 1 1/2 cups Marinara Sauce
  • 3/4 cup shredded provolone
  • 1 (6.7-ounce) jar Italian Sliced Sweet Peppers, drained
  • Loaf of Italian bread or 2 hoagie rolls

Directions

Heat meatballs in the marinara sauce in a large saucepan over medium heat.

Fill rolls with meatballs (3 per sandwich). Top with shredded provolone and peppers. Serve immediately.

Italian Deli Meatballs

Ingredients

  • 2 loaves stale Italian bread (at least 2 days old), cubed
  • 2 cups milk
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon minced garlic
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon pepper
  • 1/2 cup fresh Italian flat-leaf parsley, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
  • 1 cup grated Romano cheese
  • 2 pounds ground beef
  • 2 pounds ground veal
  • 2 pounds ground pork

Directions

Preheat the oven to 350˚ F.

In a large bowl, combine cubed bread, milk and beaten eggs. Mix thoroughly until the bread absorbs the liquid. Add garlic, salt, pepper, parsley, basil and Romano cheese.

Add beef, veal and pork. Mix until fully combined. Roll into balls and place on parchment paper lined baking sheets. Bake for 30 minutes.

Makes about 40 meatballs.

Italian Cheese Cake

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Ingredients

  • 3 ½ cups of ricotta cheese, drained overnight
  • 1/4 cup of all-purpose flour
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1 lemon zested
  • 1 orange zested
  • 1 teaspoon of vanilla
  • 4 eggs, beaten
  • 1 cup of sugar

Directions

Mix all ingredients thoroughly in an electric mixer with the paddle attachment. Pour in a 9 inch spring form pan.

Bake in a 350 degree F oven for 45 minutes to 1 hour until firm. Refrigerate overnight. Remove cake from the pan and cut into serving pieces.

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