By Tess Sanders
The Di Palo family’s shop has been a vital presence in Manhattan’s Little Italy for more than a century. It began as an unassuming latteria that Lou Di Palo’s great-grandparents opened to to serve immigrants mostly from their area of Montemilone in the region of Basilicata.
These days Lou and siblings Sal and Marie run a full-fledged grocery store. When visitors ask who owns the store, the current shopkeepers gesture to their great-grandparents’ photo on the wall. Di Palo’s moved only once at the turn of the 21st century and still boasts its exquisite dairy products. “Cheese is our life,” Lou says.
In the newly published Di Palo’s Guide to the Essential Foods of Italy, Lou shares generation-spanning stories that feature key Italian ingredients as their characters. For Lou, it’s a book about relationships. Relationships between food and people.
Lou worked with food writer Rachel Wharton to create a narrative that glides as smoothly as Di Palo’s signature cannoli cream–from the origin of the family’s life and shop in New York into the stories of the foods that form that life. The book tells the tale of eleven essential Italian foods, from ricotta to sea salt ending with piave and speck. Lou worked with Rachel to fold in many personal reminiscences “for other people, to invoke memory for them—their ancestors, what they did and how they did it.”
The tales of how these essentials are created and savored makes for a compelling and informative reader experience. An interaction not unlike the customer’s experience shopping at Di Palo’s where the staff prizes the sharing of flavor and knowledge above all else.
Speaking with Lou in the wine store Enoteca Di Palo that son Sam Di Palo opened next to the grocery, it became clear that he could pen another book’s worth of essentials right now. Working within the space confines of a printed book, Lou had to select the essential essentials.
He revealed to SimpleItaly some other essentials that didn’t make it into the volume:
Rice. “You don’t realize how important rice is to the story of Italy going back a thousand years.”
Chocolate. “So important to the culture of Italy.”
Bread. “Pane carasau or carta da musica from Sardinia, bread from the area of Rome—pizza bianca. The piadina in Romagna and of course there’s the wonderful bread that you find in Puglia and Basilicata that is so very very important.”
Legumes. “Lentils, but there’s so many more special beans and legumes of Italy.”
Confettura. “Confettura is not like a jelly. It’s different and special.”
Cured meats. “I didn’t get a chance to tell you the story of the mortadella—or tell you the story of culatello, the significance and the certain types of salami.”
“Of all the stores in all the world, Di Palo’s is probably my favorite.”
Speaking of meat, Lou shared a story that exemplifies the belief in Italy that wine is food as much as lamb is food.
Lou was visiting a friend’s home in Italy as he was roasting a lamb in his fireplace. The friend’s three year old son was stoking the fire. “He was small enough to walk right in the fireplace!” Lou recalls.
Once the lamb was ready, all settled at the table. The little boy was so small that he stood up at the table to eat. His father would take a piece of lamb, put it on his plate and the boy would eat with his hands, picking up each piece of lamb, relishing the meat.
“And then all of a sudden he’d go ‘Papa, Papa, Papa!’ and I see his finger go like this [Lou raises his pinky].”
The father passed the wine glass to his son so that the little boy could dip his finger in, for just a taste of that complementary flavor.
“Oh my god he’s giving this kid wine to drink!” Lou exclaimed to himself. “Two minutes later, ‘Papa, Papa!’…These kids grow up with the understanding that wine is food. And it belongs at the table with food. It’s not something to be abused; it’s something to be enjoyed together.”
“If there’s no Di Palo’s in heaven, I ain’t going.”
I wanted to know what Lou’s favorite Basilicata specialties were, especially after hearing about the pilgrimage he took in his youth to the region where his great-grandfather lived in order to “meet [him], so to speak.”
Lou adores Basilicata’s cheeses, especially Caciocavallo, a cow’s milk cheese, which people refer to as “the cheese from the horse” because it is aged over a saw horse. He draws me an illustration to demonstrate how this cheese is prepared and then guides my attention to the hanging cheese in his shop window. Moliterno’s sheep’s milk cheese, from southern Basilicata, is also high on his list.
Throughout our conversation, Lou’s sister Marie and other shop staff wander in to interrupt Lou with some pleasant logistical questions about cheese, among other things. It’s clear (although not from a lack of abundant conversational grace on Lou’s part) that this is a busy afternoon and I should be on my way.
As I took my leave, Lou returned to his work: passionately sharing the essential foods of his family’s homeland.