I walked into Piccolo´s Gastronomia Italiana, the Italian grocery in Ridgefield, and was immediately floored by the produce. Raddichio di Traviso at a reasonable price and two kinds of figs that were fat and smooth and sometimes green and sometimes purple. And dandelions. And escarole begging me to turn it into soup. How many other Italian delis in New Jersey even have produce? Then I spotted the chewing gum. The packs of Brooklyn brand chewing gum conjured up vivid memories of Italy and I don´t even chew gum. Yet I was transported to those times when I stood in front of the register at a small town bar, staring at the gum in front while I was waiting to pay.
If you spend too much time with American food media, you get the feeling that the average home in Italy consumes nothing but expensive delicacies. In fact, Italy is a bastion of simple home cooking, and supermarkets there respond with a wide variety of excellent and easy to use products. New Jersey, with tens of thousands of Italian expats, must have someplace for the homesick to go; a shop that sells the right stuff. And that's where Piccolo´s Gastronomia Italiana comes in. While almost every other Italian store in the state has converted (with varying degrees of success) to a deli or takeout shop, Franco Piccolo has kept his place focused on what actual Italians actually need to make the food of their homeland.
This is a place where expat Italians can walk the aisles and cry "There´s my brand!" You might be able to find Barilla pasta at Stop and Shop, but Piccolo´s has at least six kinds of Barilla cookies. There are Star brand bullion cubes (with flavors like porcini), the coffee from your favorite bar (as long as your favorite bar is somewhere in Italy), and that most important of Italian ingredients; salt. Piccolo´s is the only store in the state where I swoon at the sight of salt.
While the radio plays in Italian, you can stroll past thirty or forty different olive oils—because everybody needs one from their hometown—then browse from the wide choice of passata properly packed in glass jars, and finally consider which sweet treats you´ll pick up for tomorrow´s breakfast.
At Piccolo´s, you´ll have to look hard for any concessions to American or Italian/American tastes at all. Sure there are those giant cans of tomato product, and jars of prepared sauces, which are not exactly unknown in Italy. But selling them in processed giant glass jars is. There are also soft drinks in a cooler, not very Italian; but cracking open a chilled chinotto or aranciata and swigging it out of the bottle is perhaps one of New Jersey´s most unsung cross-cultural experiences.
Piccolo´s selection of cheeses and salumi are refreshingly modest. An average person can afford everything there, from the house-made mozzarella to the real mortadella. In an additional nod to American foibles, they even make sandwiches and offer takeout. That´s not the store´s focus though. In New Jersey, you can get eggplant parmesan anywhere, only Piccolo´s sells polenta fina or semolina in bulk.
In addition to the right stuff, Piccolo´s captures the spirit of Italy in two other ways; first of all, it never seems to be open. They close on Mondays, holidays, and for vacations, so try to call ahead. And second, it´s located in an area that´s really hilly and clogged with traffic. Visiting in my tiny, standard shift car, I felt like I was in Italy before I even turned into the parking lot.
If you´re going for the Bergen County trifecta of Mitsuwa, Piccolo´s, and Super H Mart, be aware that while they look very close to each other on the map, they are separated by the steepest and most winding roads in the state.
About the author: Brian Yarvin is an educator, photographer, and author of three cookbooks; Farms and Foods of the Garden State, Cucina Piemontese, and A World of Dumplings. He lives in New Jersey, and every week will share with us another food discovery from the "sixth borough" of New York City.
Piccolo's Gastronomia Italiana
484 Bergen Boulevard, Ridgefield NJ 07657 (nr. Edgewater Road; map)