The cheese selection at Bagliani’s Market seems to go on forever.
By Murray Schulman
Here we are friends, starting a new decade. How many of you remember the true mom-and-pop Italian grocery store in your neighborhood? An even better question is how many of you have visited one of these stores recently? These stores are out there. But they are few and far between.
A good friend of ours had mentioned a place in Hammonton that he frequents on a regular basis. In Joe’s very eloquent words he told me: “You are going to love this joint.” Finally, we made the call and arranged to meet Joe and his lovely wife Cecelia at this little grocery store. We made the one-hour drive into the heart of downtown Hammonton. The area was pleasantly surprising in that small independent merchants seemed to be thriving. A few blocks into the downtown area I saw the sign that we had been looking for. Bagliani’s Market is exactly what I remember the local food market to be. There was a big sign out front proudly brandishing the family name and a parking lot on the side of the building. Bright red shopping carts were stacked up near the entrance just waiting to be filled by enthusiastic shoppers. I grabbed a cart and went through the sliding door. Now hold on a moment while I back up a bit. Before we entered, I took notice that the parking lot was completely devoid of any trash or debris. Every single shopping cart was in perfect condition. Not a stain or a piece of discarded paper was to be found. The walk-up ramp leading to the entrance was completely clean and even the glass doors were shining.
We walked into the market and were assailed by delicious aromas, expertly stocked shelves and gleaming floors. The fresh produce was hand stacked, fully stocked and without a blemish to be seen. Liz picked up a package of red globe seedless grapes that were almost too pretty to taste. We moved around the perimeter of the store. This is typically referred to as the perishable areas. After passing the produce, we discovered a prepared food section. Here we found a respectable variety of freshly packaged meal solutions that were ready to heat and eat. It was obvious that nothing came out of a bulk case. This food was made from scratch and was as fresh as you could imagine. Liz immediately took possession of a package of made from scratch arancini with a container of store-made red sauce. Next, we rounded the bend into the “meat alley” and deli. Liz and our friends just wandered off into the store. They knew that I was going to be fully absorbed for the foreseeable future. Things got exciting for me as I approached the fresh meat case. I want to emphasize fresh. The butcher came out and greeted me in person and showed me some thin cut Italian-style pork cutlets that were on special that week. These cutlets were see-through thin and every slice was perfectly cut to be evenly sized. I was impressed at the variety of veal cuts that were available. Everything from leg cutlets to osso bucco was available. Then came the sausage section. Here I found a dozen varieties of Italian-style pork and chicken sausage. Sure, you can find varieties like this in supermarkets with any number of brands on the labels. The difference is that every single sausage variety was freshly made right there in the store. I opted for chicken asiago rope sausage with peppers and onions and bulk-style pork sausage with provolone and basil. The sausage was a sight to behold and made my mouth water. Thankfully, the gentleman in the deli had a remedy for this.
As I was immersed in the deli case, Liz strolled by and gently placed a package of store- made meatballs in the cart to add to my sausage. I barely noticed her as the deli guy was handing me a slice of salami with prosciutto to sample. The flavor of that salami exploded in my mouth. I tasted a perfect balance of air-cured traditional pork salami combined with the uniquely pungent flavor of prosciutto. The combined ingredients are brought together in an exacting balance with salt, pepper and a blend of Italian seasonings. I told him to start slicing. I was amazed at the variety. But, more importantly the service level. My deli friend, like the butcher, came around the counter to show me some of the specialty meats imported from Italy. By the time he was finished handing me tastes of each variety, I had accumulated quite a collection of these cured meats. In addition to the salami with prosciutto, I purchased some Milano salami with garlic. Milano salami is seasoned with salt, pepper and garlic. It is made with equal parts of beef, pork and pork fat. The curing time ranges from three to eight weeks. The salami that I purchased was long cured and had a slightly sweet and rich flavor.
My next selection was the Salami di Parma Veroni. This simple and simply delicious salami has been produced by the Veroni family in Italy since 1925. The ingredients are just pork and sea salt. The artisan flavor comes from the expert curing process. My final salami selection was the Jumbo Toscano Salami. I tasted this salami and was thrilled that I had chosen yet another type of salami that was different from the others in both flavor and texture. The Jumbo Toscana Salami is dry cured with bits of fat, garlic and black peppercorns within the lean cuts of beef and pork. It is a celebration of Italian artistry in curing meats. I rounded out this collection with a hefty package of Bagliani’s freshly roasted pork. I enjoyed this perfectly cooked pork on a great hunk of bread with horseradish and honey mustard. If you never tried pork with this combination of condiments, it is something you must try.
Yes, I was smiling at this point. Liz warned Joe and Cecelia that I hadn’t even gotten to the massive cheese display. Nor had I dipped into the imported olive barrels. This was not going to be a quick trip. Joe gave me a knowing smile and moved off so as not to distract me.
I had a hard time deciding whether to visit the olives or the cheese first. I decided to go with the olives because I knew that the cheese was going to be a long and thorough study. There was a huge variety of olives, prosciutto pepper shooters, broccoli rabe, whole artichokes and olive salads. I chose the broccoli rabe with garlic and olive oil, some shooters, a sweet jumbo green olive salad and a combination of Gaeta, Cerignola and Alfonso olives. I am sure that most of you have tasted Gaeta olives – those bright green gems with the big bold flavor. Alfonso olives are a ripe olive with a somewhat soft meaty texture. The flavor is heavy on the oil yet finishes with a warm comfortable olive flavor. Then there is the beautiful red Cerignola. This is a big meaty olive with a bright fruity flavor that demands you reach back for a second and third. I find that olives can be subtle or bold. But each variety has some special characteristic that makes tasting an adventure.
At this point I am getting the “all right, already” look from Liz. I pretend not to notice, determined and refusing to be intimidated. So, I head over to the cheese aisle. This is a vast area simply packed with a ridiculous variety of cheese. True to form, the cheese manager pops his head out from his small cutting area in an alcove directly adjacent to the sales floor in his department. I again receive a warm greeting. I notice that he is cutting wedges from a wheel that I do not recognize. I ask what the cheese is that he is working on? Immediately with a slash of his huge cheese blade I have a chunk of the cheese in my hands and an even bigger smile on my face. I thank him and take a healthy bite. I experience the unexpected flavor and take a second bite. I am not quite sure what to make of this cheese just yet. What I do know is that I am going to find out what it is and buy a large wedge. This is Toma Piemontese, which is considered to be one of the oldest-known cheeses made in Italy, dating back to the Roman Empire. I have not seen this variety in our area other than at Bagliani’s. It looks “old” due to the aged stone-like rind. The cheese itself is aged for only a few months. What struck me about this cheese is the smooth buttery texture and the complexity of the flavor. Toma Piemontese comes from the Piedmont region of Italy. It is a full fat cow’s milk cheese with a scent that resembles rich earthy pastures and mountain air. The cheese is firm yet creamy with a nutty flavor and just a hint of sweetness. I want to enjoy this amazing cheese just as it is with a glass of red Italian table wine. What I really did was pair it with a snifter of William Wolf Pecan Bourbon Whisky. Now that was something to remember. Toma Piemontese would be absolutely phenomenal with pasta and even better with risotto. I would make the one-hour drive for more of this cheese alone.
At this point, Liz has gathered up some soft Torrone, a package of store-made almond cookies and a Panattone Limone. She is giving me “the look.” I get the message that my life may depend on my making my way to the checkout lanes. I take the hint and reluctantly take leave of this delightful Italian market. The fact is that there are any number of grocery stores for me to buy from. I am able to purchase top quality imported products by sitting at my desk and punching a few keys. But, for me, there is nothing better than to spend time in a family-owned Italian market where I am treated like family. It is not just the wonderful foods and aromas that draw me. It is spending the time tasting and talking about foods that make me happy. Isn’t that what life is all about? I will return to Bagliani’s Market because they are good at what they do. More importantly, because Liz and I deserve to enjoy the little pleasures that life has to offer. Maybe I will see you there one day soon.