From time to time life catches up with you as it forces you to take care of business, so to speak. Such is the situation with me these past few weeks as work, projects, family crises, death and illness all converged into the July of my discontent. Plans of traveling and dining in great places have been overcome by life’s unexpected twists and turns, and I found myself "dining" from the counter of the local grocery store.
Fortunately, that is not such a bad thing in Youngstown, Ohio. This type of “eating” is perfectly normal in big cities, but never really caught on here. But never fear, our rich ethnic heritage gives us plenty of opportunity to sample what the local stores have to offer on the fly…especially our local Italian grocers.
If you drive south in Ohio towards Mansfield and Columbus, authentic Italian grocers are few and far between. Things we take for granted here aren’t available there. If they are, they aren’t very good. And walkabout Italian food is non-existent.
Italian grocers are near and dear to my heart. My Uncle John Ambriola ran an Italian grocery store downtown and then at the Boardman Plaza. He was, and his family still is, the only importer of Locatelli Brand Romano Cheese in the United States. The grocery store was sold years ago and but is still around another name today (see below). The export business, however, is still thriving just across in New Jersey, just across the Hudson River from Manhattan.
So…there are four local Italian stores that I frequent on a regular basis. All of these offer wonderful specialty foods and bring back memories from years past just walking through the doors. And all of them offer quick specialty food to eat on the run…the original fast food!!!!!
1) RULLI BROTHERS: What can I say about Rulli’s? It has been here forever, and I have spent many an hour waiting at the deli counter for their wonderful Italian specialty food. In my lifetime I remember them mostly being at the corner of South Avenue and Mathews Road. As Italian stores went, it was larger than most almost being a full service grocery store. But you could buy anything you wanted there from prosciutto to capicola to any Italian cheese you can imagine. Over the past several years they have become a more traditional grocery store with Italian overtones; Giant Eagle with huge barrels of nuts and packages of confetti candy and dried baccala at Christmas and chadone at Easter. The new store in Boardman is fabulous…and still has the hometown feel. We shop at the Austintown store. I really miss the store at South Avenue and Mathews Road.
2) JIMMY’S: Jimmy’s is the North Side entry to the Italian food market. It is not a full service grocery store, but still is a pretty good size offering all sorts of goodies. It moved from its old Belmont Avenue store opening a new place across the street a few years ago. It has a huge Italian deli counter, and a really nice bakery featuring traditional Italian cookies including my favorite rainbow cookies as well as bread and rolls. It also offers deli sandwiches and has a little dining area if you want to grab a bite and eat. The sandwiches are great, but I prefer to order a quarter pound of this and that, and put my own lunch together with a great Italian roll. Sometimes nothing else will do. Being a South Side boy, I never really feel at home on the north side, but Brier Hill is just down the pike from Jimmy’s, and there are still a few Italians holding down the fort in the old neighborhood.
3) ANZIVINO’S: Located in the Boardman Plaza in a corner location, this was my Uncle’s store when I was growing up. THIS is my idea of an Italian food store. It is long and narrow, with a single moderately sized deli counter and barrels of stuff that you bag yourself. You will find pretty much only Italian items in this store, and I go there for very specific things…like their olive assortment that you can pack yourself. This is where you ask for three slices of salami and a couple of slices of sharp provolone with a container of olives. They sell fresh bread baked by a local bakery. You can get some wedding soup and some Mount Carmel sauce, and you’re good to go. Get yourself a Nutella sampler to try this wonderful hazel nut spread without buying the whole jar. My uncle sold the store to Mr. Anzivino who ran it for years and years. He passed away recently and the ladies who worked there bought it…and are doing a terrific job. I leave there with a lump in my throat every time I visit. By the way, they have great baskets filled with things people will actually use and eat!!!!
4) CORNERSBURG ITALIAN SPECIALTIES: This is a quirky Italian store which I always thought was a bit sparse. But I have been going there more and more to get the baked goods and the wonderful take-out food. On Saturday’s at noon you think they are giving food away here. It has a little of this and a little of that…but its forte is its prepared takeout food which is outstanding, and perfect to pick up something to bring home for lunch and dinner. Its chicken wings are great…not the breaded kind which they also have…but the non-breaded wings…and they are hot!! The in-house baked Italian bread is outstanding…and it has the best damn pizza. It is really good, and it is even better cold. These pizzas are sold in individual serving squares wrapped in Saran Wrap, I kid you not, if they are not fresh out of the oven, in which case you will get a box. But like I said, the pizza is almost better cold than hot. That is how my grandma baked, and it’s about as close to the pizza I enjoyed when I was young. It is down home Italian comfort food…even the take home chicken paprikash!!!!
Now I know I will get emails back from folks asking about this Italian store or that Italian store. The good news is that Youngstown has a lot of these neighborhood gems selling a little bit of ethnic heaven that you can grab and run when you are rushing through life. Who need McDonald’s?