L.A.’s Italian Markets Are Built on Olive Oil, Cold Cuts, and Family History

And there’s more than just Bay Cities

Fans of “the sandwich” at Roma Market in Pasadena know to head straight for the back and grab a pink paper-wrapped bundle at the edge of the counter. A novice might ask for one, to which a slight older man with friendly eyes will respond from his perch behind the deli case: “You’ve never had my sandwich? Take one. You’ll love it. Everyone loves it.”

That’s 77-year-old Rosario Mazzeo, and he’s right. Nothing more than a soft roll filled with thinly sliced salami, coppa, mortadella, and provolone with a drizzle of good olive oil, “The Sandwich” is a thing of minimalist beauty. The bread is baked fresh daily by Mazzeo’s cousin, he will tell you. It’s best at room temperature, when the meat and cheese glisten. Who makes the sandwich if Mazzeo takes time off? “That’s never happened,” he says.

Sixty years is a long time without a vacation. Mazzeo’s uncle opened the Roma Italian-American Grocery in Alhambra in the early 1950s, relocating it to Lake Avenue in Pasadena in 1953. A teenage Mazzeo came from Sicily and got a job there in 1955. As unadorned as “The Sandwich” is, Roma is the opposite. The single-room shop is crammed with shelves of dried pastas, canned tomatoes, olive oils, and jars of pickled this and that. Freezer cases with plastic containers of bright red marinara occupy one wall. Faded pictures of the store, along with accolades and advertisements in Italian, hang on another.

This scene is echoed in classic Italian markets across Los Angeles, where, despite ever-changing fads and demographics, a handful of survivors continue to provide their communities with cold cuts, handmade sausages, and sauce-soaked meatballs. There’s the famed elder statesman, 90-year-old Bay Cities in Santa Monica (1925), A-1 Italian Deli in San Pedro (1947), Santa Fe Importers in Long Beach (1947), Frumento’s in Montebello (1958), and San Carlo Italian Deli in Chatsworth (1975), to name a few.

Joe and Mary Claro opened their first neighborhood grocery in San Gabriel in 1948, long before the area became a dim sum destination. “Valley Boulevard was a big deal back then,” says Mary Linda Daddona, the Claros’ granddaughter. It wasn’t until supermarkets arrived in the next decade that the all-purpose shop began to specialize in Italian goods. “You could maybe find one kind of olive oil on grocery store shelves,” she says, “but we’d have 30 or 40 different bottles.” Today there are six Claro’s in the region, all run by various members of the Claro extended family.

Many of the old markets are multi- generational operations. “Without our family behind the counter, there would be no business,” says Anthony Angiuli, co-owner of Eastside Market Italian Deli. When the shop opened in 1929 in Victor Heights, near what’s now Chinatown, the neighborhood was dotted with Italian markets. Once Eastside’s cleanup boy, Anthony’s father, Johnny Angiuli, and his brother, Frank, took over from the original owners in 1974. “My dad’s friends said he was crazy,” says Anthony. “The neighborhood was changing. But we stuck it out.” Today you’ll find Anthony, one of his brothers, or on occasion his 72-year-old dad doling out meatball subs to the legions of Dodger fans who line up before each game.

“People want to feel like they’re part of something,” says David Weisberg, co-owner of Cavaretta’s Italian Deli in Canoga Park. “That’s what we stand for: taking care of our customers.” Weisberg is not family at Cavaretta’s, at least not by blood. Lou Cavaretta sold the store in 1978, after which Weisberg teamed with fellow longtime market employee Paul Nunneri to keep the place going. The two still make the meatballs and sauce the same way Lou did, and they still fill the cannoli by hand.

Regulars cherish such dedication to consistency, but new customers find their way here as well, searching for a specialty ingredient they can’t buy elsewhere. “The younger generation keeps us alive, too,” Weisberg says. “They heard someone say ‘gabagool’ on TV, and they want to find it.” That’s “capi­cola” for those who don’t speak Soprano.