Lou Di Palo is sloop-shouldered and sad-eyed. He shifts his weight slowly as he recounts the history behind Di Palo's, the Italian dairy shop his family has run in Little Italy for the last 104 years. But the more he talks, the more excited he gets, and it suddenly becomes alarmingly apparent just how much knowledge is crammed into the depths of this guy's head.
"I could write a whole book about every chapter in the one that just came out," he says. He's talking about Di Palo's Guide to the Essential Foods of Italy (Ballantine Books, $28), his recently released book with single-subject chapters like "Mozzarella," "Balsamic Vinegar" and "Speck." It was hard for Di Palo to keep to his publisher's word count because he can easily talk about a single, obscure variety of cheese ("And then they would bury it in holes in the ground for months at a time to keep it safe from the Barbarians!") for an hour without tire.
Top: fresh mozzarella; Bottom: cured meats, pickled peppers and the DiPalo family
It's hard not to get sucked into the romance of the Di Palo's store, one of the last true remnants of the Little Italy of yore, before it was largely swallowed by Chinatown and reduced to a small selection of corny red-sauce joints. When I was in college and broke, I would stare hungrily at the giant legs of prosciutto hanging from Di Palo's ceiling, the shelves of expensive imported pastas and the exceedingly handsome cheese case. Occasionally I allowed myself a purchase of milky-sweet mozzarella, arguably the shop's most beloved offering, which is made fresh several times a day.
The book is essentially a compendium of advice from Lou and his family on how to shop for and eat the provisions they carry. (That fresh mozz, for example, really ought to be eaten within hours of its inception, lest its butterfat reabsorb and leave the cheese without its luxuriously tender texture.) But it's also more than that. "It's a book about relationships," says Di Palo. "It's about 100 years of my family, this community, our suppliers and the contributions Italians have made to America. Ours just happens to be in food."
And though the shop is steeped in history, and Di Palo proudly proclaims that "there's a right way, a wrong way, and my grandma's way," the family is forward-looking. "Every generation brings something new to the business," Di Palo explains. His father introduced cured meats, Lou himself brought a wide range of pantry items and now his son Sam has added a wine store adjacent to the main grocery.
Di Palo is deep into an explanation of the terroir of the Veneto region and the effect it has on the grapes there when we're interrupted by a boisterous group of visiting Milanos who want to pay their respects. They chatter loudly in Italian for a few minutes before he shoos them away. "I gotta be here right now," he says, and I think to myself: I hope he always will be.
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