I've lived in the same house practically all my life. Save for a brief period of "freedom" in my twenties, I live in the house my parents brought me to as a newborn baby. My mother has lived in this house for fifty years, and my children are the fourth generation of my family to be here. A short walk from the house is Sessa's Cold Cuts and Italian Specialties. Mr. Sessa has run this neighborhood Italian deli for 35 years, effectively all my life. He just sold the place to enjoy his well earned retirement.
Giancarlo (Johnny) Sessa is something of a third grandfather to me. He jokes about how despite the fact that many of his customers are much older than me, I am his oldest customer. On the weekend he opened his shop in 1979, my Nonna took me there. I was a little older than two and my brother had yet to be born. I still shop there. Notoriously surly in the true Italian (my Nonna would further specify "Napolitana") way, he always greeted me with a kindly "Come stai, Giuseppe?". We've been friends all my life.
Sessa's shop was one of my first experiences of the kind of "real thing" the internet generation can mostly only imagine. The freshest Italian cold cuts outside Italy, sliced to paper thin perfection; dried fishes and bundles of garlic hanging from the ceiling; buckets full of olives by the front door (oil cured black olives a personal favorite). At Easter, pizza chiena (pronounced in Boston "pizza gain-a") satcked high on the counter; at Christmas, pannetone of every size...for days. Vacuum sealed bricks of all the rare types of Lavazza; homemade dry cured sausages from some old lady in Malden, totally illegal; Kinder Eggs, also illegal; and always friendly Italian banter.
As a child, I remember being there every weekend, the smells, and the sounds of spoken Italian. Back then, the neighborhood was mostly Italian, and the immigrant generation, "old country" folks like my grandparents, were everywhere. In those days, nobody spoke English in Sessa's shop. It was a lively place. We would go there to buy cold cuts on Saturday. With every order, I would be given a fresh slice to taste. I would leave having eaten a sandwich worth of meat, only to go home and make a sandwich.
For the last few years, Mr. Sessa had talked about retirement. He had children, but none interested in taking the place on after him. That's him sweeping the floor, his daughter behind the counter. I recently heard he had found a buyer for the place. Today, I dropped by to thank him. He said "for what?".
I told him that despite the fact that I am a second generation American, I have always considered myself to be "Italian". Obviously, growing up with my grandparents in a largely immigrant neighborhood had a lot to do with that. I didn't realize until I heard he was leaving that he and his store had a lot to do with it too. I didn't know how much his store and the culture it represents meant to me until I heard he was moving on.
The staff there wears aprons in large green, white, and red stripes of the Italian flag. Some twenty years ago, he gave one to my father, and I promptly stole it when my own interest in cooking began to bud. I told him how only last week I finally had to part with it. It was too stained and torn too keep anymore. I said that if I knew he was leaving I would have kept it. He went back to the kitchen and came out with a new one, saying "Don't say I never gave you nothing". I couldn't be happier. I can't wait to stain this one with olive oil and tomato sauce.
The fellow who bought the place is an Italian, too. He plans to make some changes, including the name, but keep the old Italian deli going strong in the neighborhood. I'm sure it will be nice, especially for those of us who would rather not buy our proscuitto at the supermarket, but it won't be Sessa's.
Buona fortuna, Signor Sessa. Enjoy the rest, you've earned it.
You have just described a few places in the Italian Market (9th st.) in Philly....great stuff. marinated white anchovies...genoa salami...fresh mozz..roasted long hots...porchetta...mmmmm!
Glad to see this stuff in Beantown!
Let's hope it doesn't maintain its identity as an "Italian grocery"in the same sense the Rosebud has stayed a "diner." Not that the Rosebud was ever great, mind you. But you could get out of there for under $20. And it served actual breakfast.
Che bello negozio di alimentari!
Great post G. Apologies for the blatant flattery but the quality of your writing and subject matter beats most of the features in the Sunday newspaper magazines I read.
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