Before ‘Local’ Was a Trend, It Was an American Way of Life

How mom-and-pop shops came to embody the core values, traditions and work ethic of Italian America.

By: Dina Di Maio, ISDA Contributor 

My Neapolitan-born grandma did not believe in eating out at restaurants. The only time she went out to eat was on the occasion she craved Chinese food. And once a year on Mother’s Day, we would treat her and my mother to a fancy dinner at a steakhouse.

I won’t use the words here that my grandma used to describe restaurant food, but let’s just say, she thought her home-cooked food was more nutritious and better tasting. And after having eaten at some of the highest-rated restaurants in the world, I have to say I agree with her. No one could cook vegetables better than my grandma. Crisp, full of flavor and nutritive value. My grandma always drank the cooking water from vegetables (although I do not recommend doing that today because our vegetables are often grown with innumerable carcinogenic pesticides). And Grandma knew all the parts of the animal and how to prepare them. I would expect no less from the daughter of a butcher.

When my great-grandfather came to America, he opened a butcher shop. These days, we hear that women of that time period had little options, but I don’t think that is completely true. Even though he had a son, my great-grandfather taught the butcher business to his daughters too.

And through that, Grandma learned to cook tongue, pig’s feet, beef kidney, lamb’s head, tripe, pig’s stomach, etc.

Every few days, Grandma would go shopping at the Italian specialty markets—her father’s store (which later became her brother’s), the salumeria for cheese and cured meats, the bread bakery, the seafood market, produce market, pastry shop (although she only went to the pastry shop for holidays or special occasions like birthdays or christenings).

She taught her children and grandchildren like me to pick the best produce by color, smell, feel. She taught us to never buy any cheese already grated so that we would know we were getting the real deal.

When I was a kid, I relished these trips with her and my parents. Dad would drop us off while he went to find a parking spot on the crowded city streets. My favorite was the seafood market. I stood transfixed watching lobsters climb atop each other in the large tanks. The smell left little to be desired, unlike the yeasty smell of freshly baked bread at the bread bakery. Here, Grandma would pick up bread to go with our macaroni. She would also get biscotti—not the cookies we now think of when we say biscotti—but the hard slices of baguette. At home, she’d soften them with milk or olive oil and garlic.

As an adult, I keep the tradition going and try to shop at specialty markets as often as possible. Today, it’s harder to do because most of us don’t live in Italian neighborhoods anymore. We live in suburbs, a far drive from the downtowns where many of these shops are located.

Grandma felt that she could find the freshest, best products at specialty stores. But there was another reason she liked shopping at them. She knew firsthand what growing up in a family-owned business was like. She understood the pride that went into creating or selling a trusted product. That trust was built on a relationship with the community—and it wasn’t only the Italian-American community. My great-grandfather had customers from diverse backgrounds—Polish, Chinese, Irish, Jewish, African American—and despite not knowing English, he could communicate with them. Grandma knew customers by name and had conversations with them. During the Depression, if anyone asked my great-grandfather for food, he gave them something. No one left his store empty-handed. It was a different time. If customers were sick, shop owners would visit them, bringing a gift of flowers, chocolate, or cake. If a customer’s relative died, shop owners went to the funeral.

When people went through hard times, they could put items on credit, and there were no late fees—many shop owners gave them more time to pay.

Mom-and-pop stores were owned by people in the local community. They were neighbors and friends.

Family businesses are a big part of the Italian character—they represent craftsmanship so ingrained in the culture. One perfects his craft—be it butchering, cheesemaking or a non-food related one like carpentry or ceramics. There’s a pride in producing quality work and products that comes with something made from our own hands—that bears our name.

A family business is a livelihood—it pays for tuition, mortgages, rent, medical bills, vacations. It builds relationships with the community and supports it through charity works and fundraisers.

Unfortunately, in my family, the younger generations like mine did not learn the butcher business and instead, got jobs or went to college. But other families kept those traditions alive in cities across this country. I recently wrote an article about a general store (not Italian) that celebrated a 100-year anniversary, surviving the Depression and the ‘70s recession. How did they do it? Smart owners, for one. But the love and faithfulness of the community.

That’s why my grandma was so adamant about shopping at the local, privately owned specialty markets—because they represent the best of the Italian-American community, our history of impeccable craftsmanship, our adherence to traditional methods, our strong work ethic, and our belief in the basic individual freedoms on which America was founded.

Dina M. Di Maio is the author of Authentic Italian: The Real Story of Italy’s Food and Its People

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