As the front door opens the bell tied to the handle of the inside of the door jingles. One by one the ‘coffee-people’ arrive. The aroma of freshly ground espresso draws them here, and they greet each other with ‘Buon Giorno’ or ‘Good Morning’. Penny is the barista, and owner of Delitalia. She is a silver-haired woman with eyes the colour of a Siberian Husky. She knows all the customers by name. As the coffee bean grinder whines, they shout their orders. The conversation gets louder every time a measure of espresso is needed, and the loud voices mix with laughter and questions about a future trip to Chile, the neighbour’s cat, and this morning’s news, all in a jumbled mix of Italian and English. The scene could be playing out in a tiny cafe in Florence, rather than a Canadian-Italian Deli in a Vancouver suburb.
Penny Verrando has a passion for everything Italian. ‘Ninety-five percent of our product comes straight from Italy’, she tells any customer who stops to gaze at the shelves filled with pasta, and sauce, and jars of anchovies, and capers. Penny is head-clerk, quality control in the kitchen, barista, and co-owner of Delitalia. The deli has thrived in it’s original location in Ocean Park for more than 20 years. It all began because she couldn’t find any Italian Gorgonzola cheese for a dinner party she was hosting.
Penny tells the Gorgonzola cheese story the way an old Nonna would tell a folk tale from long ago. In the 1990’s, Penny left a long and successful career in retail clothing. She and Romolo Sr. moved to Ocean Park, and found that there was nowhere she could purchase quality Italian ingredients to cook food that she and her family loved. One day she went to the only delicatessen in Ocean Park to see if the owner could bring in some Gorgonzola cheese. He gave her a lecture about other customers ordering items and then changing their mind. He told her that the reason he did not carry Gorgonzola had to do with the price. Penny insisted, and in a few weeks the cheese arrived. The poor service irked her. She did not forget.
Penny has the energy of a woman twenty years her junior. Her previous career in retail taught her that a quality product and superior customer service is the not-so-magic combination for a successful small business. Her experience with the other deli, as well as some research on the area and the residents, convinced her that a true Italian deli would do well in Ocean Park. With encouragement from her husband and son, she chose one of the many empty retail spaces in a small strip mall on a main road. She signed a lease, purchased the best Italian products she could find, and started the countdown to opening day. Penny laughs when she thinks about the opening day nearly 2 decades ago. She and her only staff member had worked 12-hour days for weeks! They painted the space, taught themselves how to operate the meat slicer and the cash register, and priced the merchandise. On opening day as they were tearing the ‘OPENING SOON’ paper off the windows, they realized that a line had formed outside the front door. A group of curious, potential customers, predominately Italians, had come to have a look at the merchandise, have a coffee, and wish them well! The crowd steadily grew until a panicked Penny called her neighbour Sonya to come down and help. Sonya’s experience working in a cafe nearly 25 years ago came in handy on that first day. The three of them worked all day, cleaned up, went home, and came back day after day. Penny knew she needed even more help, and that’s when son Romolo Jr. joined her and made Delitalia a true family business.
It’s 10:15am on a Saturday morning and Penny is serving coffee to 6 people at the stand up counter, and Romolo is cutting meat for 2 customers at the deli counter. The bread truck has just arrived at the back door and the driver is unloading trays of focaccia and ciabatta bread. Romolo Jr. always works on Saturdays. He loves the retail dance of serving customers. This morning he is chatting in Italian to one of the coffee drinkers, while counting the bread order, while telling another staff member that he will be able to slice 300 grams of prosciutto in a few minutes. Charming and knowledgeable, with an open face, an easy smile, and a booming laugh, he is the centre of attention. He has dark brown eyes, and a mop of curly, dark hair. At nearly 6 feet tall, dressed in runners and baggy jeans, he has perfected the rumpled look. His not-quite-a-full-adult demeanor is reminiscent of a little boy who just got up and is running for the bus…worried about being late for school. Romolo, or Rome-like the city-as he prefers to be called, has a familiarity with the product that customers trust. He speaks Italian, English and French, and to the mostly women customers he serves, he is Delitalia! They comment on his hair, his love-life, and his travel plans. He laughs, he winks, and he smiles. He walks them to the cash register and packs their purchases with care. Between slicing salami and making coffee, he always has time for his buddies. At least one or two drop by every Saturday. When the customer traffic slows, they eat, discuss hockey, travel, soccer, cars, trucks, and women.
The majority of Delitalia’s customers are regulars. Some have been coming in for more than a decade. They come to see Penny and Romolo, but they mostly come for the food. Many are hard-core foodies who love to entertain. They are grateful that after a week of commuting into Vancouver for work, that they won’t need to waste another 2 hours on a weekend driving into East Vancouver or Burnaby for good Italian ingredients. Many of Delitalia’s take-home food is legendary. Like the fig compote that used to be offered only around the holidays but is now made monthly. The compote is a sweet, rich blend of dried figs soaked in red wine-Italian of course-with honey, tart cippollini onions and crunchy pecans. You do not have to be an accomplished cook to shop here. There is a freezer full of homemade cannelloni, lasagna, and tiramisu.
Penny had been one of my customers when I had my clothing store. When she found out I had closed my stores, she asked if I would consider working for her. I loved to cook, and had written a food blog that I proudly told her about. Penny needed a kitchen-helper for head cook, Sharon. She knew that with my retail background I would be a good worker. She also knew that I loved to cook and eat, so if I could follow instructions she was willing to take me on. I had ended my 18 year career in retail with a whimper, not a bang, and was still involved with my family-business. I was like an open, angry wound. My mother had died, followed by my father’s psychotic-break, and near immediate descent into Alzheimers. I was left with 2 much older brothers, one a chronic alcoholic, and the older, a bitter, nasty man, who thought I had no right to have shares in ‘his’ business. The idea of working in another family-business was something I had to think about.
Looking back, my 2 years at Delitalia restored my faith in family business, and family in general. It wasn’t anything in particular, it was the entire experience and it helped me to heal and move on. A friend of mine moved to Ocean Park a year ago. The first thing I asked was if Delitalia was still there. It is. Penny told me once that she lived in Italy for three years when Romolo Jr. was young. She told me that she loved the way that people made time every day to sit and eat and talk with their family. At Delitalia, we all worked in the kitchen at different times during the day. I remember talking about my mom dying. Penny said that her mom had died when Penny was in her 20’s. I remember the conversation and how she had to grab a tissue when she started to cry telling us how her mom, a nurse, had developed an incurable condition and how she had gathered her family in her hospital room shortly before she died and asked them to please let her go. It was one of the many times when I understood that a family business could be more than a paycheque signed by your father. The business was the people in it, and the people that came before them. It was like working in-the-business was simply an extension of your life…not a separate piece. I knew how to work. I didn’t know how to be part of a family. For a couple of years, in that busy kitchen, I understood.