Watson had been prodding me incessantly to make a visit to a long talked about Italian Market in St. Petersburg, FL that the good Doctor promised would be like no other; one could only imagine why I was immediately skeptical! The grandiosity and exuberance with which his protestations had been made drew my skepticism to the forefront and I was determined to keep my wits about me!
So with a planned visit to the U.S. epicenter of Surrealism, The Salvador Dali Museum, set on the calendar for a recent weekend we also penned an excursion to visit this pantheon to all that is allegedly good in Italian foods so that I could surreptitiously render a judgement for myself..... Mazzaro's Italian Market on 22nd Ave. N and 29th St.; The game again was indeed afoot!
Now, the good Dr. had the foreknowledge that one of my idiosyncratic specialties is, in fact, Italian and Greek markets having apprenticed in such rather extensively as a youth just east of Kew Gardens. And it is thru this early exposure that I learned first hand how to keenly separate a true bastion of Italian Appetito' from the pseudo Milanese mimic!
What I did not let the good Doctor know however was that as is true when one is purchasing an English Dictionary, where a specific (or even newly minted) word hunt will ferret out the Ultimate Dictionary from the 'simply regal', so is it that I had a pre-ordained list of "must-have's" that I would use to put Mazzaro's to the test and in so doing determine it's pedigree...or hoist it by it's own petards! (And finishing the matter, a fine English dictionary should contain the word 'grok', taken from my friend Robert Heinleins' novel 'Stranger in a Strange Land', or it is simply an incomplete poseur of verbiage worthy of no further consideration.)
This detailed Italian Market compendium I had devised included certain "Must Haves", those generally expected finds that any good Ligurian food chamber will proffer: freshly sliced prosciutto, both ham and Italian capicolla, Auricchio provolone but only if found in it's full torpedo size tube, and the ubiquitous Parmiggiana Reggiano with it hard, golden, and emblazoned rind.
The second level of the list include the "Should Haves": fresh mozzarella in water as well as fresh ricotta; the semi-hard Ricotta Salata, a variety of freshly baked Italian breads (thus more than three), hot and cold Italian sandwiches to-go including a favorite eggplant parmigiano along with a 'named' Genoa salami combo on Italian bread that has 3 (or more) meats, a cheese, roasted red peppers, oil/vinegar and mustard - and a spicy mustard would make it all the better!
These were to be the very minimums that I would accept in order to attain the exalted status so deemed by the good Doctor's exuberance. Still, further into the back of my mind resided a third and clandestine level of items that I shared with
no one, a list so
selective that it's inhabitants could seal Mazzaro's fate or allow it to enter the realm of Italian Market greatness on par with Abitazione Pigneto in the heart of Rome. We would soon see which it was to be.....
Approaching the building from the 3rd parking lot back (third!) at lunchtime on a Saturday (open unitl 2 PM on Sat and closed Sundays!), the irony was suddenly all around us for our planned visit to the Dali Museo appeared to have been surrealistically usurped upon our arrival at Mazzaro's with a front yard colorfully festooned with Fiat's, and other motor carriages along with painted bovines, boars heads, and a rather large 'Mama' standing guard. Outdoor eating tables and benches in front were already swarming with both the hungry, eager to tear into their selections, and the visibly satiated brimming with their achieved gluttonous bliss!
This front room housed both the fresh meats and seafood offerings with all manner of selection: 'la esca' was packed into a smaller area but in the grand sizes usually reserved for the finest fish markets in NYC or San Francisco; tuna hocks ready to slice into steaks to order; swordfish, lobster tails, ahi grade tuna, grouper the size of stingrays....a clamorous cacophany of the sea! And the meats! Oh, the meats! Lamb, steak, ground pork, chuck, and veal like you've only imagined. I was immediately joyous with this first impression...except...... What was this at my feet, it's scent wafting skyward?
Aha! Bacala! One of the secret denizens of the final level of my market authenticity list! By jove Mazzarro's, well DONE! This dried and salted codfish was usually not found in any specialty market save during holiday periods (if at all!) Astounding! Round one to Mazzarro's!
Now thoroughly intrigued I moved past the fresh olive bar and produce sections and towards the back area offering who knows what further delights, my eye was drawn upward to the numerous Vespa's and Italian scooters ATOP the freezer sections on right and left, quite authentic accoutrements I must say! La Dolce Vita!
Just past the freezer sections lining the passageway towards the back, said freezers filled with frozen ravioli's, stuffed shells, fish, and many other great take-homes on the right and a well stocked beer and soft drink selection to the left (with the next item on the secret list....The Manhattan Special Espresso Soda in the quart bottle!) was the Wine and Cheese Rooms.
Yes, rooms - the wine room overflowing with the finest bottled offerings from the Tuscany, Piedmont, Barolo, and other rich regions robust with the sonance of the sacred grape. However, much as I desired to peruse the bottles, this trip was not a time so much for La Vino Italiano but for the 300+ types of Formaggia de Gusto next door.
With trophy heads for their namesake cheeses staring at me from above (buffalo, mountain goat, wild boar, and perhaps some I chose not to recognize), I stood in quiet gratitude for there before me was another list denizen in such multitudes that it rendered me temporarily dizzy: Fresh Reggiano Parmigianno with it's thick golden rind. And certainly not the hollowed out plastic faux rinds you find to fill in a 'display', such as those you'll find at a Whole Foods, but the entire 85-87 lb. round....all $1400 worth of cheese per wheel..... and there were more than half a dozen wheels that I could see...over $10,000 in just Parmigiano!
And then to my left, .....Ricotta Salata - the delightfully light and sweet addition to any antipasto, salad or cheese plate. One pound of Parma and a pound of Ricotta Salata suddenly leapt out of the case and into a handheld shopping basket I did not remember picking up....surreal indeed....
It was then while poring thru the edams, the goudas, and the cheeses of goat, buffalo, and others that I spied the two large Auricchio Provolones behind the counter in their tall hanging torpedo shapes and waxy rinds, each about 6 ft. tall and certainly the largest pair I had ever seen to date with a third currently in mid-cut on the counter before me.
"Hullo my good fellow, it's a splendid pair of provolones you have there!" I said to the Cheeseman, he with arms crossed, proudly squiring over his wares.
Startling me, he then replied "Did you see the Big One?"
"The Big One?" I replied, catching myself from the Dickensian retort of 'Whot! The one as big as me?"
And it was without pause but with a joy likely evidenced during the 1000's of times he had no doubt done so before, I was quickly escorted to the entrance of the cheese room and he pointed to the Romanesque Pillar at the door jamb running from floor to......, WAIT, this was no pillar or architectural Roman Column... THIS WAS A CHEESE! The Grandest Auricchio Provolone ever imagined! Good Lord!! How does one even envision such a behemoth of sharpness? It was dually awe-inspiring and jaw-dropping at the same time! Over 1100 pounds! And the surrealism continued for now swirling in my heat-addled brain was not this cheese at present but the Spielbergian Great White Shark in the 1975 film 'Jaws', the similarities were palpable! And from the deepest recesses of my mind I heard Roy Sheider's voice say "We're going to need a bigger shopping cart..."
My head swirling with images and voices I had not had upon entering these rooms, I lifted pound of this particular sharp goodness, suddenly salivating for it's tart taste, and placed it into my now heavier basket. Moving past the rest of the cheese room and back out into the main passageway the clock showed that 15 minutes had elapsed.....spent on just cheese!
Yet the din I heard from the further back reaches of this market continued to draw me forth...... and towards whatever other surprises awaited me....... but I was stopped in my tracks for what now opened before me was nothing short of a Festivus of Italian Eating!
Once whilst strolling in Rome from the Pantheon to the Fontana de Trevi, Watson and I traversed the Via del Pastini and stepped into an Italian food market whose grandeur and plentitude singularly continued to permeate my consciousness....until this moment, for before me was as vibrant an Italian village market as that one.
To my right was a full espresso bar with all of the 10-12 lunch counter seats occupied with visibly giddy patrons eating their scrumptious noshes (and with my own innards now beginning their own rumblings). Past the espresso bar and more towards the back was what I believed to be a full bakery area. I could only venture such a guess based on the many loaves of fresh round, robust, long, and both seeded and unseeded breads on and behind the counter for I could not see more thru the dozens clamoring for the clerks' attention....men, women, children, and men and women acting like children!..Calling out loud for goodies and receiving them in droves! Cookies, pastries, canoli's, breads, pies; I felt I had to keep moving or I would be swallowed up in this bakery vortex and come out weeks later and much heavier for certain.
This visit again took on surreal aspects as I turned towards the fresh sandwich area which also had dozens of people placing orders while others came to retrieve their previously placed orders .....and all being done with the same regimented fluidity witnessed at the front registers.... instead of a loud and unruly crowd I saw a huge school of minnows moving in deep sea unison towards their eventual nourishing salvation....magnificence unparalleled.
Drawn into this sandwich area I could not look away from the wide array of cooked and ready deliciousness behind the glass....chicken cutlets, Italian meatloaf, beet salad, pesto pasta, Caprese Stackers (yes, I'll have 6 my good man), Eggplant Rollatini (4 as well and pass one this way), stuffed Italian hot peppers in oil, (Yes, fine, I'll have 3 and yes, I'm quite aware of their heat Thank You!)
And on and on it went, basket made heavier with selections I had no intention of purchasing prior to my visit yet delightfully content with myself that I was now 'investing in my culinary future' when suddenly I saw...........the #1 Mazzaro's Sandwich Special.....Cappicola, Genoa Salami, Provolone, and Roasted Peppers .....on fresh Italian bread......... and with Spicy Mustard!
My head swirled with visions of 'The Michaelangelo' or 'The Roma' of my past and I was magnetically drawn into taking a number, entering the sandwich queue, and quieting my inner demons which I began to hear more loudly despite the bellowing calls of prior orders finished - "75! Anyone 75?", "81! 81, your order's ready!"
The Mazarro's Special thus ordered I calculated the delta of orders called to my own number and determined I now had some time on my hands before completion and used this time to further peruse the rest of the market without fear of not hearing when the #1 Special would be ready; the volume of 'the call' loudly being quite the effective anxiety salve.
|Fresh pasta under glass!|
I turned and found myself staring at a Fresh Pasta counter....yes, fresh pasta sold under glass. Fettucine's, ravioli's, various spinach pasta's, Gnocchi, Cavatelli, and all other types of inni's, iti's, oni's, and etti's and elle's.........along with all varieties of boxed and imported pasta types - De Cecco, Bionaturae, Rustichella d'Abruzzo. And there.......my eyes and heart grew quiet. For there was an item not on ANY of my lists that I had forgotten about......single mini-espresso pots and the imported espresso to go with it...... how could I have been such a fool and left such an easily identified item from my list!
|An Italian Biergarten out back to eat and relax in...|
|I've got my eye on you Holmes!|
Gaining re-entry past a questionable one-eyed sentry (Did he just whisper 'I got my eye on you Holmes' or am I imagining things?) I continued to roam the aisles and found a plethora of Italian stalwarts - over 100 different types of olive oil, dozens of different imported tomato's and sauce's, coffee's, olives, sardines in both oil AND tomato sauce, and.........I was soon overwhelmed and swirling again when luckily I heard my number bellowed: My #1 Mazarro's Special was ready!
Heading to checkout, arm weary from the burgeoning basket, I was in such a swoon that I had nearly forgotten that along with Watson and I on this serendipitous visit was Princess Stephanie visiting from University; Lady Ellen and her suitor Lord Mark of Las Vegas; his pharmaceutical eminence Lord Lawrence of Flemington and his lovely betrothed Lady Susan, she of extensive olfactory acuity, and joining us once again was the regal and royal Enchantress Susan of Taos. All in town to celebrate the birthday of Queen Grace, she formerly of The Royal Oaks and now located in a clandestine location, all were only too happy on this day trip to view the surrealistic beauty that is both Mazarro's Italian Market AND The Salvador Dali Museum.
And with a quick exit successfully traversing the snaking and rapidly moving checkout line, Watson and I soon discovered that everyone had succumbed to the 'Eyes vs. Stomach' battle and all had willingly lost!
So with prepacked folding, collapsible, insulated coolers in hand (Watson came well prepared) I ventured back inside to inquire as to the presence of ice for purchase (our collective extensive food purchases would not last long unaided on a sunny St. Petersburg day in any car.....and that's when I was struck asunder..... each patron I learned was afforded two small bags of ice for FREE with their purchase!
Mazzarro's had thus risen far higher in Italian market stature than I had ever imagined they could attain in even my highest estimations! And as I walked towards the exit door for the second time I noted a black kitchen jacketed individual with a ministerial aire about him surveying the landscape of patrons like a king over his kingdom. And with the last vestige of energy I could muster I said "Quite the place you have here.....it's very, very impressive....from the Parms, to the provolones, to the espresso pots, to even the Bacala......well done and all quite amazing....."
He looked on proudly and smiled, knowing that he had prepared fully for encounters such as this and had met and exceeded expectations for many, many years.
"But let me ask you," I continued "Do you sell Bocce Balls?"
And his eyes opened wide, the possibilities appearing before him, and he said "No, but that is a wonderful idea!" and after a cold, quick handshake (I was still holding now melting bags of ice) off he went to conduct his OWN new investigation!
Pride somewhat restored that my years of Italian market training could STILL be put to good use, I soon joined our group to satiate ourselves and NOW visit the SECOND surrealistic pantheon of the day in the Dali!