Tag Archive | "Salumeria"

The Last Italian Market on 18th Avenue

A typical afternoon at Frank and Sal’s in Bensonhurst

by Yvonne Bang, Italian Beat Reporter — 

“It’s not for this store!” Francesco “Frankie” Casamento repeated, a little more emphatically this time. Casamento, a 35-year-old co-owner of the Frank and Sal Gourmet Market in Bensonhurst, was standing in front of the dairy display case arguing with one of the vendors who serviced the store. The young, dark-haired vendor was trying his best to push another order of three-pack mini muffins. But he’d sold the store a bunch the week before, and many of them had come in expired.

Casamento later said of the product, “It’s a cheap, inexpensive item. This store—we have good quality.”

In Bensonhurst, where 99-Cent Stores have proliferated in recent years, a store that refuses to compromise on quality has become a rarity. Frank and Sal’s is one of the last remaining businesses in the area to stubbornly refuse to substitute quality for lower prices. Cathy Casale, who has lived in Bensonhurst for 49 years, grumbles that she can’t buy well-made items on 18th Avenue anymore.

“A lot of these [99-cent] stores put other stores out-of-business,” she said.

Eighteenth Avenue, the main thoroughfare of Bensonhurst, still has a butcher shop, a pastaria, a couple of fish markets, and plenty of fruit stands that cater to the area’s historic Italian population. Even ten years ago, there were still many Italian-owned businesses. But with that population shrinking, the number of places where you can buy authentic ingredients for traditional Italian dishes like the Sunday sauce—a meat marinara gravy—has shrunk down to one: the Frank and Sal Gourmet Market. Frank and Sal’s is the last Italian market on the street.

The market has been in Bensonhurst for over 22 years, since Casamento’s father, Franco, opened the store with two butchers, Frank Gassoso and Salvatore Civiletti. Hanging from low-slung rafters are baskets and Italian flags, bags of pasta, and over the deli, strings of sweet, dry sausages and rounds of cheese. The store specializes in Italian products and produce, like fresh green olives the size of kumquats, ample bouquets of dried, imported Oregano, and Sicilian eggplants, which are bulbous and as large as cantaloupes. Products like salted, dried capers will be difficult to find in most markets, and containers of sundried tomatoes won’t come as cheaply elsewhere. Some shoppers say they have the best Mozzarella in the area—fresh, hand-stretched, and made from cow’s milk, the way it’s supposed to be. But for all its success so far, the future is uncertain, as Bensonhurst has been changing over the last 10 years.

A large demographic shift and a general unwillingness to spend have weakened the competitive capacity of specialty stores that once catered to a solely Italian population. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there has been a 57 percent increase in the number of Asian-Americans in Bensonhurst. Chinese-Americans make up almost 32 percent of the neighborhood’s entire population. Nancy Sottile, who runs the Federation of Italian-American Organizations main office six blocks north of Frank and Sal’s, agrees that many Italian-owned small businesses have closed. But she believes it’s because other ethnic groups do not shop at Italian markets.

“Chinese-Americans do not go to [Italian] markets,” she said. “I guess we did the same thing when we first came to America.”

And people don’t spend like they once did. A store called Exclusive V.I.P. Fashion, has been on the avenue for 26 years. The business—selling and designing elaborate wedding dresses for brides and events—has been affected as much by a changing culture—more people nowadays rent dresses or prefer to purchase them online—as by a relocating clientele base. Seated behind a jewelry display case in her store, the owner, who identified herself as Sally, was surrounded only by dresses. She acknowledges that many of her clients, of mostly Italian descent have moved either to Staten Island or New Jersey.

“This in itself is a dying business,” she said. “It’s an item that people just don’t have the money for—a luxury, not a necessity.”

But stores on 18th Avenue have also closed for other reasons. Second generation Italian-Americans opt out of taking over the family business when their parents reach the retiring age. A longtime favorite, Trunzo Brothers Meat Market and Salumeria, which remained rooted on the street for over 30 years, shut its doors in 2009; a Grocery and 99 Cents store took over the location. In an online rumination, Brian Trunzo, the son who pursued law instead of a life behind the meat counter like his father wrote, “I never wanted to be a butcher in the first place; it’s just not my vibe.”

On a recent Tuesday, Frank and Sal’s was busy well before the traditional afternoon rush most grocers expect. Shoppers with carts greeted Casamento on their way in; some shook his hand and patted him on the back. He picked up a jar of Nutella for a customer in line who’d dropped it on the floor.

Despite the fate of other shops along the street, Frank and Sal’s does well these days. Casamento remarked, “We still do good. There has been a drop off. People have moved out of the area. There is competition in the neighborhood. But we have our own niche.”

Later that afternoon, up the street at the Avenue Fruit Market where the owner Tony sells only produce, a sharply-dressed elderly gentleman with bronze-tinted Hunter Thompson glasses and white hair sleekly combed back inspected and pinched red peppers displayed in boxes on the street. The products were displayed on a corner, where auto and foot traffic easily kicked up dust and where flies were free to roam and land. The man, who declined to state his name, described Frank and Sal’s products as first class. When asked why he was browsing at the Avenue Market instead, he replied, “Convenienza di prezzo”—the low price, and nothing more.

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