I still miss my fish market on Arthur Avenue and my neighborhood grocery’s fresh mozzarella but I was relieved to find, on moving to Florida, that New York doesn’t have a lock on Italian ingredients. Mazzaro’s, a large store in St. Petersburg with a carnival-like ambience, quickly became my go-to place for the basics. Here are four things this family-owned business does really well:
Salumi. Favorites among the generous deli case selection include fragrant mortadella, coppa, bresaola and prosciutto from Parma and San Daniele. The hams are trimmed properly, leaving a narrow band of white fat around the meat and, best of all, there’s a spit-polished red vintage Berkel for hand cranking silky slices of prosciutto. (Plus counter personnel trained to use that Ferrari of meat slicers–only once have I seen a deli worker struggle, producing thick, mangled pieces.)
Olive bar. Castelvetrano olives, Gaetas and inky oil-cured olives are among the offerings at the well-stocked bar. Some are seasoned but if you want the same variety unseasoned or already pitted, just ask a passing employee to fetch some from the kitchen. Customers are encouraged to taste and, to that end, toothpicks and a bin for disposing of them are provided (along with a sign basically begging customers not to spit the pits on the floor).
Olive oils. For everyday use, go for a tin of Partanna or bottle of Paesano–both are good fruity Sicilian oils. To trim the already reasonable price, I often buy the 3-liter tin–not unwieldy if you decant it a liter at a time into a smaller bottle (use a funnel). For drizzling, there are good choices too. Recently, I’ve been enjoying Marchesi di Frescobaldi’s Laudemio, a luscious goldy-green extra virgin.
Made-to-order sandwiches. I don’t usually buy the sandwiches but I gauge their goodness by the number of customers lined up for those and other prepared foods. The crowd gets even better on Fridays, the only day Little Sammy’s Big Fish Sandwich is offered. That I have eaten and found it not only delicious but a bargain at $5. If your group is easing into the weekend, buy a bottle of wine at the well-stocked wine department to sip with sandwiches on the patio. There’s no mark-up or corkage fee, and they supply the glasses.
Casa del Pane, on St. Pete Beach, is tiny compared to Mazzaro’s but well worth a visit. Even steven, here are four outstanding features of this store.
Bakery. Baked by owner Giovanni Silvestri, whose family comes from Bari, these are the best Italian breads I’ve found in the Tampa Bay area. Foccaccia, fat sesame-sprinkled semolina loaves and multi-wheat baguettes are three worth taking home. I buy more than I need, wrapping and freezing whatever I can’t use right away.
Canned tomatoes. La Valle is just one among a good selection of canned plum tomatoes from Italy. There are also two kinds of passata, a puree made from barely cooked tomatoes, and good tomato paste in a tube.
Niche products. The store is small but the purchasing is smart. Coluccio’s olive oil from the renowned Brooklyn store is excellent. After tasting the Sicilian prickly pear jam and honey, well priced at $7, I went back for more. The selection of Italian tuna ranges from Flott to pricy but worth-it ventresca (tuna belly).
Espresso bar. On weekdays, there are likely to be just a few regulars out and your barista may also be working the bakery/deli counter, but the vibe is great. Relaxing, which seems appropriate for a place just one block from the beach. When I stop by after meeting with my Italian conversation group, I’m sometimes lucky enough to have one of those could-almost-be-in-Italy moments, trading pleasantries with an Italian-born customer while sipping a caffe machiato.
Mazzaro’s and Casa del Pane are just two of the purveyors around here that make it easy to cook Italian. I’ve found others and, as a newcomer, look forward to seeking out the specialty stores I’ve heard about in Tampa Bay. Any fresh discoveries, I’ll make sure to share.