Last year we started a new tradition the day before Thanksgiving. You might think it’s a little crazy because it involves waiting in line for two to three hours. Despite that long wait, we did it again this year – and we’ve already made plans to do it next year as well. What could be worth such a wait, you might ask? Shopping at Di Palo’s Fine Foods in Little Italy, of course!
Di Palo’s opened on the corner of Grand and Mott Streets in Little Italy in 1925, and the founders’ grandchildren, Lou, Sal, and Marie are the heart of the store today. The experience begins as you walk in the door and take a number. This time, we pulled number 51, and the number that had just been called out was number 17. Regulars know that there’s plenty of time, and some leave to shop elsewhere in the neighborhood for a while before coming back; I stay in the store to explore my options and people-watch. As you look around, it doesn’t seem that there are too many people in the shop. Maybe the wait won’t be so long this time? As only two numbers are called in the next 20 minutes, I realize I need to adjust my expectations of time and settle in for the long haul.
In a time when we are often impatient, seeking instant gratification, shopping at Di Palo’s reminds us to slow down and enjoy life. Customers strike up conversations as they wait and eavesdrop on the instructions Sal is giving to a young woman buying prosciutto. “Don’t fold the prosciutto; instead, slightly twist it like this to create a small rosette.” The delicious smell of cheese permeates the air. On one side there’s a large case filled with olives, artichoke hearts, antipasti and the like. Large, round loaves of bread and wheels of parmesan cheese are stacked on top.
More cheeses, olive oils, panettone, and numerous other Italian-made items fill shelves and counters, with salami and even more cheese hanging from above.
There are three chairs – all in high demand – for those who wish to sit while they wait.
Finally, Sal calls out “Number 51!” Two and a half hours in, and it’s our turn!
So what makes this long wait so worth it? Once your number is called, it is like you are the only customer in the store. Each Di Palo family member treats their customers like treasured guests. They won’t rush you as you make decisions. They will offer advice if it’s asked for (and sometimes even when it’s not), and their knowledge is encyclopedic. You can go into the store knowing exactly what you want, but my favorite thing to do is let them choose for me. Tell them what you are buying it for, how many people you wish to serve, and what your budget is, and they will come through with great suggestions every time.
They make their own mozzarella and bocconcini (mini mozzarella balls), and Sal suggests the bocconcini. (We eat it later with some of Di Palo’s homemade pesto, the freshness of the basil a wonderful foil for the creaminess of the cheese.) Perhaps a couple of other, firmer cheeses? Sal hands us slices of each of his suggestions, all delicious in different ways. We choose two, one a 6-month old sheep’s milk cheese, and a drier, aged cow’s milk cheese. Would we like some meat? Perhaps some mortadella studded with pistachios? Slices of salty prosciutto di parma, so thin they are almost translucent? Sopressata, a robustly-flavored salami? Sal know where each product comes from in Italy, and with each suggestion he hands us another slice to taste. Some colorful mixed olives round out our choices.
We leave the store satisfied, having had a snack of meat and cheese samples and choosing what we need for our celebratory holiday meal. As we head out, Sal sends us next door to the family wine shop, where he tells us his nephew Mike will help us choose the perfect red wine to complement to our recent purchases. (And so he did!) Our holiday meal was delicious, made even more so by Sal and Mike’s thoughtful suggestions.
Wish to visit Di Palo’s Fine Foods yourself? I definitely recommend it! It’s not nearly as busy if you aren’t shopping the day before a major holiday, but you should always be prepared to wait a while. It’s always worth it – once your turn comes, you, like me, will enjoy the personal experience. The store is located at 200 Grand Street in Manhattan’s Little Italy.