"And your wife is the woman who's here most of the time, right?"
"Which woman?" Vince Giordano asks.
"The one who make the shooters?"
"That's Angela, my sister. Tony's wife."
"And your nieces work here, too, right?
"Yes, and sometimes my wife. You've met my wife, haven't you?"
Vince Giordano's European cheese shop is a family affair. Giordano and his brother-in-law, Tony Grugnale, first opened the business in the Union Street Market building, and now their cheeses sprawl to cover the countertops of their own space next door. Giordano wants more. "I can imagine a huge place," he says, "with a whole area for each country." City architect by day, cheese entrepreneur mornings, nights, and weekends: which is the secret identity, which the superhero?
Giordano's family farmed in Italy, specifically RioneroIn Vulture in the Basilicata region. The town's volcanic soil was perfect for their olive trees. They came to the United States in 1970, with Giordano's parents becoming tailors at Bond's and Hickey Freeman. He was 12 at the time and spoke no English, but in classic immigrant-success-story fashion, he learned the language, got an education, and became an architect.
Meanwhile, Tony Grugnale's family had settled in the same neighborhood. They'd also been Italian farmers, in Abruzzi. His father grew all sorts of things and made wine, and he had uncles who herded sheep. When Grugnale married Vince's sister, he became very much a part of the family.
The olive orchards stayed in Giordano's family, and the initial purpose of the shop was to sell their Estate Lucanio Extra Virgin Olive Oil. It's dark and powerful, almost syrupy. "The way we make olive oil," Giordano explains, "it's costly, it's time consuming." This became the philosophy behind the entire shop. Giordano again: "We sell products that are made, that come from Mother Nature. Nothing's impeded, nothing's taken away. This goes in our bodies, you know? It's not a piece of clothing."
The shop itself has a European bustle. It's the last stop every week on my market route, and so welcoming (and, in the winter, warm). Walk in, and Tony, Vince, or Angela greets you, and you recognize half the people in the shop. In all likelihood, you see a friend. You politely insinuate yourself among the people in front of the cheese sample board. There are a few favorites, and some you've never tried. You try most of them. Vince sees you and proffers a slice of something he thinks you, especially, might like. You try it, and he gives you that look of his, as if to say, "See? I knew you'd like that."
What are Giordano's favorite cheeses? "For a hard cheese, Parmigiano. It's a protected cheese, it has to come only from a certain area. You've got to have first quality," he explains. "For a soft cheese, Sotto Cenere with truffle: cow's milk infused and perfumed with black truffle, inside two layers of ash. And for blue, Valdeon, which is Spanish, wrapped in walnut leaves, a mix of cow and goat."
Grugnale likes gorgonzola, which he puts on pasta with oil and garlic. "All goat cheese and all sheep," he adds. "Spicy cheeses. You know, it's got a bite on it." Ask him about the cheese with the worms some time.
There's more to the shop than cheese and olive oil. There are dozens of kinds of olives: black, green, pitted and not, stuffed, dressed, spiced, and cured. All deserve attention. And take a look in the deli case where you'll find fine prosciutto, salami, stuffed hot peppers, tuna, sardines, salt-packed capers, and more. There are breads from Martusciello's, and crackers, pastas, and mineral waters from Europe.
My friend Isobel Neuberger says this shop is the place she'd most want to be trapped overnight with a knife and a can opener. You'd actually need a month. There are other places to buy fine cheese, or olives, or oil, or bread, but there's something about the mix here that begs you to make an entire life of it. And then there is the feeling that Giordano, Grugnale, and family create in the space. It's really a concentrated version of the feeling at the market, anticipatory and inclusive. Or maybe we all just love hearing Tony say the names of the cheeses.
V. M. Giordano Imports European Cheese Shop, 6 Public Market, 262-3368. Hours: Thursday, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., and Saturday, 6 a.m. to 2 p.m..
The Julius Cafe has opened at 543 Thurston Road in the 19th Ward. Harold and Lynn Simmons offer gourmet coffee, soups, wraps, sandwiches, and wings, as well as sweet potato pie made by Lynn's mother. They're also hosting open mic nights on Wednesdays (performing arts), Fridays (poetry, songs, and comedy), and Saturdays (musicians). Open Monday through Saturday (279-9285).
--- Michael Warren Thomas
Michael Warren Thomas of www.SavorLife.com.