We are deep into summer and nearly everyone is lining up in the trafﬁc desperate for a few days or even a few hours at the shore. This presents a very special opportunity for Liz and me to indulge in one of our favorite pastimes: Visiting the old family-owned Italian markets in the region.
The ﬁrst of these that comes to mind is Di Bruno Bros. on Ninth Street in Philly. I’m talking about that long narrow store in the heart of Little Italy in Philadelphia, the original shop that has been around for more than 80 years. As we join the crowd of waiting customers, our senses are assaulted by the heady aromas of aged cheese, cured meats, and still-warm rustic bread. The real fun begins when one of the counter staff calls us to the counter. The array of meats and cheeses is spectacular. We have our standards that we go to the store speciﬁcally to get. But then, we are always offered a taste of a unique cured ham, a different twist on a delicious salami, and no less than two or three types of.
The olives, peppers, marinated everything, and unique delicacies still await us. We ﬁnd that we can’t resist many of the suggestions that are offered. Every member of the staff is highly trained and excited to hit that sweet spot when making sales and making us feel happy and important like a member of the family meet. We don’t get to Di Bruno Bros. as often as we used to. But when we do get there, we walk away with a lighter wallet and a huge smile.
There are two places in New Jersey that Liz and I love going to. One is Bagliani’s Market on 12th Street in Hammonton. The other is Zano Bros. of Brooklyn on North Main Street in Waretown. Both are completely different experiences deeply rooted in their Italian-American Heritage.
Rooted in their Italian-American Heritage. Bagliani’s is a family-owned, big little supermarket that has been operating for 60 years. It is focused entirely on great Italian products. Here we step into a world of culinary delights. The produce is hand picked and hand stacked. Each pepper, tomato, zucchini and all the rest are sheer perfection. Just like most supermarkets, the perimeter of the store is where the action is. Next we come to the prepared food grab-and-go case. Pasta, meatballs, salads, soups, and all types of good things to eat are on display. They have a top-notch butcher department that still offers beautiful bone-in rib cut veal chops along with some of the best Angus beef, pork and fresh poultry to be found anywhere. Next up is the deli case. This stretches nearly the entire width of the store. We always divide and conquer. While Liz explores the prepared foods, I head over and grab a number at the deli counter. When our number is called, we are greeted with a smile and a sample of whatever is being featured that day.
Once, Liz and I went to Bagliani’s for our favorite signature sub, called the Godfather. Imagine prosciutto, sopressata, dry cured capicola, sharp provolone, marinated eggplant, lettuce, tomato, and onion served on a great crusty roll with a splash of their private label olive oil. This is a spectacular sandwich. We went out to the car to enjoy this. After we feasted, she wouldn’t let me leave until I went back inside and purchased each of the sub’s ingredients, along with rolls, so we could re-create the experience in our own kitchen.
Zano’s, on the other hand, is a delightful little Italian deli that has been in the Crapanzano family for generations. Although they have been in Waretown for a good number of years, when we walk into the store, we are warmly greeted by a family member with a big voice and a heavy Brooklyn accent. Everything is done right before our eyes. The aroma of sharp cheese and rustic pizza ﬁ lls our nostrils making us even hungrier than we were when we started. They make all the subs on the same bread that made them famous, which they get straight from Staten Island. Then they ﬁll those crusty loaves to bursting with delicious meats, cheeses, and a full array of add- ins. Like the other stores that I describe here, they are happy to offer a taste of this or that as it strikes our interest. Zano’s has a large display case from which we can purchase all sorts of prepared dishes by the piece or by the pound. The counter people still serve each item as we order it the way they have done it for years. Here, they feature a full line of cookies by the pound, refrigerated and frozen desserts from spumoni to tiramisu to cannoli and everything in between. I knew I was in trouble when I saw a basket ﬁlled with fresh sfogliatella, a scrumptious Italian pastry that’s a personal favorite.
The thing about each of these businesses is that they have managed to retain the warmth, charm, quality, variety, and personalized customer service that is a throwback to an earlier era. If you haven’t visited places like this near you, do so. If you have, keep going back. It is important that we don’t lose these pieces of our heritage. I worry that if we don’t frequent the few local butchers that are still in business, the Italian, Jewish, and other small family-operated businesses, the next generation may never know the pleasure of smelling the smells, tasting the tastes, and receiving that personal touch that we crave.