In Pittsburgh's Little Italy, two stalwart grocery markets survive

In the little Italian grocery store hidden away on Cedarville Street in Bloomfield, Rose Marie Rossi knows her suppliers so well she could tell you the names of the chickens if she wanted to.

Nothing hits the shelf without her tasting it or making it herself. It's the kind of store where her father took her as a little girl decades ago. The kind that isn't supposed to exist anymore.

Walk in the door and there's fresh Tuscan bread to the right, freezers packed with homemade ravioli, almond amaretto cheesecake and pizza dough to the left. Fried dough is four for a buck in a basket next to the bread. The place smells intensely of rich meatballs simmering in a fresh red sauce.

Around the corner at Donatelli's Italian Food Center on busy Liberty Avenue, things are quite different. There is still house-made pasta and imported panettone, but the shelves also pop with soy sauce, yellow mustard, rice vinegar, Wonder Bread and "Donatelli's Wasabi Wow Mix." Even standing next to the scalloped potatoes, the aromas are neutral, vaguely sweet, as if a bakery were halfway down the block.

"I'm third-generation," said Paul Donatelli, 52, who runs the store with his brother, Russell. "What my grandfather did -- we'd never survive on what he did, doing it the old way and basically being Italian for Italian's sake in an Italian neighborhood. We'd go out of business."

Ms. Rossi is different. She wants more than to respect tradition at Groceria Italiana.

"This is my island," she said. "This is where whatever you think is a lost art is something we preserve."

Ask how old she is and she smiles, although not innocently. She doesn't do innocent.

"I work hard, I play hard, and I drink with booze," she said. "But don't you ask me my age. I'm very old. I'm from the very-old-school."

Bloomfield -- Pittsburgh's Little Italy, it says on the sign -- used to almost choke on stores like these. Now there are just the two. They have endured approaching business in their own ways, to the point that they don't much compete for business or even bragging rights.

Their owners want different things -- want to be different things. Perhaps Ms. Rossi is lucky that the way she runs her place coincides with a renewed interest in traditional food and specialty shops. Maybe she's the smarter one. Or perhaps Mr. Donatelli's grandchildren will walk down Cedarville a decade or two from now on a break from their bustling store and wonder what used to be in that little shop on the corner.

There's no right way but survival.

"The story of what those two places are doing and how they try to preserve their traditions is the story of Bloomfield and the story of Pittsburgh," said Patrick Dowd, the St. Louis transplant who represents Bloomfield as part of District 7 on Pittsburgh's City Council. "Everything changes, but a lot is often worth preserving in some form or another."

These are grocery stores. Not historical exhibits. If they don't function as businesses, they disappear.

The executive director of the Bloomfield Development Corp., Karla Owens, ran a jewelry store in the neighborhood for 15 years. She knows this.

"The ones who do make the adjustments are going to survive," she said. "Change is everywhere and has to be incorporated in how a business runs things."

There was a time when Donatelli's and Groceria Italiana were just signs on the street. Nothing special about their being there because there were so many more like them.

Italians first arrived in the neighborhood in force in the early decades of the 1900s from Calabria and Abruzzo. And Italian-focused, family-owned grocery stores used to thrive in the neighborhood, first on Lorigan Street and then on Liberty Avenue.

Their ghosts live in old city business directories.

In 1915, there were at least five, mostly clustered on Lorigan, except for Frank Palmisano's at 4754 Liberty and Calvino Gasbarre's at 415 Cedarville.

By the close of World War II, there were at least 13, and by then they'd taken over prime spots along Liberty. There were three in the 4700 block alone -- Emil Lucente's, Pasquale Rasillo's and Rosato & Donatelli's -- surrounding another run by a man named Schmitt.

But as the neighborhood once changed from one settled by Germans who built over the fields of wildflowers that gave the area its name to one that Italian immigrants dominated for much of the 20th century, more recent changes have again made what was once commonplace into an anachronism.

"You'd like to still have all the small businesses you ever had," said Ben Forman, president of the Bloomfield Business Association, who co-owns the Joan's Hallmark store on Liberty Avenue.

He's 77 and has been in business in the neighborhood for 26 years. He first knew Bloomfield as it used to be.

"It wasn't just the Italian grocery stores," he said. "It was a couple shoemakers, which don't exist anymore. It was dentists who spoke Italian at home. People lived on the same block their whole lives. That's changed. What you do is you keep what you can."

Bloomfield has gotten smaller over time. Its population of 9,089 in the 2000 census was less than half the 20,708 counted there for the 1940 census.

It has gotten younger. Higher rents in Oakland and Shadyside push more graduate students to Bloomfield. Among newer restaurants are those offering Vietnamese, Chinese and Thai food.

And it has gotten less Italian.

"I saw it happening in my jewelry store," Ms. Owens said. "I used to sell these huge gold chains with crosses for baptisms. It was like the Italian thing to do, buy a massive gold chain for the baby. And then it all but stopped."

Where there were two Catholic parishes -- Immaculate Conception and St. Joseph -- there is one. The Diocese of Pittsburgh schedules Mass services under the Immaculate Conception name from May through October and sets aside November through April for St. Joseph's parishioners.

"You still have people who won't accept that the Immaculate Conception church doesn't exist anymore," Ms. Owens said. "In trying to promote this neighborhood, fear of change is one of our biggest challenges."

The less traditional of the two groceries is the older one. Frank Donatelli -- Paul Donatelli's grandfather -- opened the store with a partner named Rosato in 1933. As recently as 1995, a mention in the Journal of Italian Food and Wine described Donatelli's as almost rigidly traditional.

"There are no surprises here, just excellence," the magazine wrote. "Homemade sausage, homemade pasta, shelves stacked high with olive oil, anchovies, sun-dried tomatoes, imported chocolates, canned tomato products and lots of dried pastas."

In the back of the store, Paul Donatelli squeezed into the tiny office to eat a cellophane-wrapped sandwich. His mother is Irish and that's where he gets his looks. His features are even, quiet, still. There is no bombast, no fire when he speaks.

He said he now gets almost everything from outside the store, although he makes sure all the meats are never pre-sliced. He sells prepared macaroni and cheese and fried chicken to lunch crowds alongside meatballs and prosciutto. And Bob Evans breakfast sausages mingle in freezer cases with house-made white clam sauce and lasagne sheets.

The store has a website and a Facebook page. He tracks inventory on a computer that sits on a table next to what was his grandfather's desk.

"Everything in life changes," he said. "You still hold on to your traditions, but a small business is hard enough to keep going as it is. People make a sandwich, they want mayonnaise. So I have mayonnaise. You can't fight that."

Patsy Lombardo is almost 90. He said he'd gone to Donatelli's since it opened. He shops in the old style, day by day.

"It's what I know," he said. "They have what I like, they have some other things and I know them. It's the place to go for a man like me."

Ms. Rossi bought Groceria Italiana 11 years ago. The original incarnation opened in 1958. And though it seems to run by the force of her will much of the time, she has help. Her son, Jim Luvara, makes the sausages. And making ravioli practically as long as Italians have been in Bloomfield is Gloria Mazzotta, who has worked there longer than Ms. Rossi has owned it.

She makes at least a dozen different kinds -- meat, artichoke and gorgonzola, imported cheese. Fat and tall, they rest in boxes in a freezer after she makes them behind a back counter. Each kind runs between $5 and $10 for a dozen.

"She's one of the only things I kept," Ms. Rossi said. "Shelves, lighting, the layout -- I got rid of it all. It looked like a Shop 'n Save."

Her heritage is Sicilian, unlike most of the other Italians in the neighborhood. She grew up on the North Side -- Western Avenue and then Brighton Heights. She owned a restaurant in Mt. Lebanon, then ran a travel agency and managed a Gateway Clipper tour boat.

"I brought my boys here when they were young if I was in the neighborhood," she said. "Who would have thought I would own it."

Everything must be done her way. When a delivery man dropped off an order and then walked behind the counter to chat with an employee, she angrily ran him off.

"Get the hell out of here!" she hollered. "Go do your job!"

She sighed after he left.

"I don't understand," she said. "Drop your order, gimme the bill and I'll pay it -- now get on your way. That's how you run a business."

She has no cell phone save the one that came in her car.

"I couldn't tell you the number," she said.

She won't use a computer. Groceria Italiana has a website, but it hasn't been updated in at least two years. She's never looked at it.

"That stuff is just a distraction," she said. "You want to find me, come find me. Just keep in mind I don't necessarily want you to find me."

Paul Yocco found Groceria Italiana because he used to work in Bloomfield. He and his wife, Nancy, go from their home in the South Hills about three times a month and drop $90 at a time there.

"His mother used to make these homemade raviolis," Nancy Yocco said. "These are better. I'm sorry, but they're better. There's nothing like this anywhere. You can't find these things at Giant Eagle or anywhere. So we come here."

Ms. Rossi said she always keeps in mind that she bought the place in part because she couldn't find the right mix of atmosphere and quality at other places.

"Everybody's standards are totally different," she said. "Most of them are not up to my standards. But come on. This is not the Eiffel Tower. It's just a little Italian groceria."

Jacob Quinn Sanders is a Pittsburgh freelance writer who writes a food blog at . Contact him at .


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