The chaos and vibrancy of the gastronomy scene in New York is mind-boggling. You see an incredible profusion of ingredients from all imaginable ethnic groups, countries and regions, different generations who have witnessed their original immigrant culture gradually change through exchange and interaction.
In this climate of continual change, gastronomic identity is something ephemeral, difficult to define and classify. Especially since food products tend to lose their distinctive features, sometimes degenerating, sometimes innovating and improving. But unfortunately they often lose quality and become just another standardized product. As for Italian products and Little Italy, they are being taken over by an ever expanding Chinatown, cultural identity swept aside by commercial pressures which are driving them a long way from their roots. Time and history have been equally hard on other Italian communities, as in Brooklyn for example.
Behind the shop fronts draped in Italian colors it is almost impossible to find anything really Italian. OK, you have the checked tablecloths, flag and mangled names but the oil isn’t Italian even if sold as such, and behind the scenes the cooking is Mexican and Thai — everything is ‘atypical’.
So it is important to give recognition to people who for five generations have managed to skillfully import and produce while remaining faithful to authentic traditions.
I found a store which is a true celebration of the Made in Italy name. For over a century an Italian family has endeavored to pay tribute to Italian products and constantly strived to maintain the highest standards of quality. Di Palo’s, at 206 Grand Street, is now surrounded by Chinese stores, but was founded in 1925 when this area could rightly be called Little Italy. Created by Savino Di Palo, a peasant farmer who immigrated from Basilicata in 1903, the shop is now run by his descendants, the Santomauros. Brothers Sal and Louis, with their old mother Viola still giving a hand (“The best worker” they observe, “because she dues it for free”); a host of cousins and the youngest children, Allegra and Sam, are firmly set to continue the family business — everyone is there serving a constant stream of customers.
A well-run business can be very successful: Di Palo’s sells something like 2,000 whole Parmigiano-Reggiano cheeses a year and 1,500 Auricchios weighing 50 kg each! It supplies the top restaurants in town and its loyal customers can choose from 300 different quality Italian cheeses (even the rarest), the best oils, outstanding ham, balsamic vinegar, pasta and a lot more. It is the best of Italy, everything is genuine, imported and personally researched by Louis during his periodic pilgrimages around Italy. Apart from this, seeing that the shop originated as a dairy (it is still small and has only moved once in its history, just round the corner), it has always produced its own excellent mozzarella and ricotta. It is strange to look at the photographs from the 1940s and see the same window with cheeses and hams neatly hanging there.
I am pleased to bring this special example to people’s attention. It is a sign of hope for small producers wanting to export and an example of a principled focus on wholesome valuable food products. At Di Palo’s, customers can sample and compare products: “The important thing is for people to learn and understand” – says Louis. Customers appreciate the family atmosphere because the relationship between seller and buyer is always supported by direct knowledge, an exchange of opinion and enthusiastic advice. It is typical of those traditional local shops which have now disappeared, not only in New York but also in our Italian towns and cities. I was surprised and fascinated by the feeling of a continuing tradition: it isn’t that I am getting all nostalgic about Italian food when abroad, but it is good to see quality Italian produce treated with due respect. In this case it is even more significant as it prospers in the relentless whirl of New York.
First printed in La Stampa on June 28 2004
Adapted by Ronnie Richards