Where can I find imported Italian products and specialities in the Capital Region?

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SCHENECTADY — Italian delis and importing companies have been local portals to the Old World — hook-hanged ham hocks dangling above barrels of stuffed olives and all.

“You were like family,” customer Angela Evers recently told Anna DiCocco as the pair hugged at La Gioia, the Italian deli in Schenectady that DiCocco opened with her sister-in-law, Modesta DiCarlo, in 1989. “I just want you to take care of yourself and enjoy life.”

After running La Gioia for more than three decades, the sisters are packing it in. The working-class mainstay will close at the end of the month and reopen under new ownership.

None of their employees wanted to take it over. 

“When you start getting older, all these (health) problems start coming out,” said DiCocco, 69, who learned the business from scratch with the occasional research trip to her brother’s deli on Long Island.

DiCocco and DiCarlo, also 69, remembered the tough early days: “Today, we cried. Today, we swore. OK, now we’re packing up and going back to our old jobs” at Union College, DiCocco said.


Word of the transition whizzed around the close-knit Italian importing industry, from Capri Imports Italian Deli & Catering in Schenectady to Ragonese Italian Imports on New Scotland Avenue in Albany, where the family ties are as close as a pinwheel sausage.

DiCarlo is owner John Ragonese’s mother-in-law; DiCocco is his wife’s aunt.

Owners John and Vinnie Ragonese recall ordering fresh cheese from F. Cappiello’s Foods in Schenectady, which closed in March after 101 years upon a directive by the matriarch issued upon her death. (The building and its contents are currently on the auction block with a starting price of $100,000.) 

The cheese delivery was an informal setup, the brothers recalled, with large rinds rolling through the door whenever needed.

Like other family businesses, local Italian delis are acutely aware of how unpredictable aging can be in an industry with no immediate or obvious successors. And while locally owned shops have dwindled in the last 60-plus years in the face of fast food and ever-expanding grocery options, some Italian-based businesses in the Capital Region remain — and in many cases thrive.

‘Like going to someone’s home’

At 44, Anthony Sementilli is shoring up the next generation of Capri Imports in Schenectady, which was given longevity by his Uncle Peter and Aunt Gina Sementilli, who moved the shop to its current Broadway location in 1973. Other extended family members were crucial, including Peter Sementilli, the patriarch, who died last year at 65.

Family members initially relocated from New York City after emigrating from Italy. By 1930, nearly 30 percent of Schenectady’s population was Italian, according to the U.S. census. Starting a shop and packing it with familiar foods was a sure bet. 

“I think it was a way to take care of your family, like any job is,” Sementilli said. “But there’s a lot of devotion when you own your own business.”

The Sementillis worked hard. Anthony’s aunt and uncle lived upstairs and would cater events themselves and bake bread into all hours of the night. (Sementilli still uses the same antique machine his grandfather did.)

Capri Imports is packed with rows of jarred pasta sauces, homemade cheese, olive oils, snacks and other delicacies. The sandwich order line can be a half-dozen deep at lunch hour.

“The food here isn’t just great,” said Jeff Brown, a Rochester-based salesman who travels around the state. “Everything tastes and feels homemade. I’m not going to find this stuff at Wegman’s.” 

Brown recently worked on his sandwich as he struggled to balance a brown bag overloaded with items to bring home to his family.

“It’s like going to someone’s home,” he said.

Sementilli, a former third-grade public school teacher who purchased the family business two years ago, sees value in continuing to update the imported product lines as tastes change, as well as continuing to offer handmade sauce, sausage and cheeses.

“I can’t tell you how many people come in and say, ‘My grandmother makes this,’” Sementilli said. “Or ‘The smell reminds me of Sunday dinner.’ It all depends — it’s all about what people grew up on (and) it was important when I took over that I kept the foundation and integrity they had.”

In a word, he said, customers are drawn to authenticity. That includes the hand-cranked tomato grinder he sold last week to a woman who recalled her grandmother using a similar device.

And while a counter that sold old-school Madonna candles is out, an espresso bar is in.

Making pork jowl work

Albany, Schenectady and Troy’s small Italian shops and delis have always been rooted in family. They still are, and have since spread into a multitude of directions and business models, from sandwich-centric assembly lines to booming fast-casual restaurants. 

John Ragonese opened Ragonese Italian Imports in Albany in the mid-1980s after taking over a corner shop. The boys, both immigrants from Castiglione di Sicilia, saw an opportunity when their longtime neighbor wanted to return to Italy.

So they gutted the place and started phasing in their ideas over two years. Since they were both young, their parents helped with the mortgage.

Business was tough at first, but their vision eventually began to work. State offices, hospitals and local colleges provided a steady drumbeat of customers, while patrons accepted the lines of Italian products the pair gradually began to introduce — many for local customers agog after discovering a new item during visits to the Mediterranean nation. 

The numbers worked. 

“We knew it had potential, and it pretty much snowballed,” Vinnie Ragonese said as he sat before several dozen shimmering rows of sauces and pickled fish. 

Even the coronavirus pandemic didn’t dampen sales, which have consistently increased annually, he said. 

Despite the ubiquity of modern grocery chains, customers are generally interested in new Italian product lines, Vinnie said, whether it be pasta sauces jarred by New York City restaurants or trendy niche products that have gained a recent toehold in the U.S. — like guanciale, for instance, or cured pork jowl. Oftentimes, cooking shows will also cast imported products like pancetta (cured, unsmoked pork belly) into instant demand.

Yet like their counterparts, Ragonese has also adapted by launching a catering business and going gangbusters on sandwiches.

And although they admit some of their customers are aging out, it’s still good business to carry baccala, or traditional Italian salted cod, for special occasions — or so as to not disappoint the nonna tottering in during the holidays.

John’s three kids decided to stay in the area. Each works in the medical field. Sometimes they help on the weekends. 

“It’s not something you can force on anyone,” Ragonese said. “They have to want to do it.”

Vinnie recently said to one of his kids: Remember how many baseball games I missed when you were a kid?

“We said to them, ‘This is our dream. You guys gotta follow your own plans,’” he said.

It’s a conversation Capri Imports owner Sementilli has vaguely pondered in Schenectady, but for now, he’s putting in the same long hours and diving into the same, often agonizing business decisions and strategy sessions as his industry colleagues. 

“It’s a long day,” he said.

Embracing the sandwich

The balancing tactic between modernization and paying homage to the past was also adopted by Genoa Importing Co. on Route 9 in Loudonville, which Chris Bender purchased from longtime owner Bob DiDio four years ago.

The Culinary Institute of America-trained Bender made a few immediate changes. After modernizing the 1,600-square-foot building, an existential question helped dramatically slim down inventory.

“What business were we really in?” Bender said. “As it turns out, we’re a lunch spot.” 

Much of the grocery side has been curtailed. Now, 90 percent of Genoa Importing’s business is sandwich-driven lunch orders and catering.

Genoa Importing is no longer strictly an “Italian store,” per se, but retains popular Italian elements — and will continue to embrace current trends, Bender said. 

Another old-school business that has modernized and narrowed its focus is Cardona’s Market.

The business was formed in downtown Albany in 1945 before moving to its current Delaware Avenue location in 1978. Last year, during its 75th anniversary, the third generation officially took over, doing so with gusto by purchasing Roma Foods Importing Co. from longtime owner Frank Bolognino.

The Cardona’s name was put on the two Roma locations, in Latham and Saratoga Springs, last summer.

Their modernization has been accelerated by the four Cardona sons of the new generation.

“We’ve gotten smarter about things like produce, grocery items and meat,” August Cardona said. “We still have a prime butcher, but we’re doing it much smarter.”

The Delaware Avenue location took off as a lunch spot when August’s older brother, Robert Jr., first started cooking, August Cardona recalled. 

Robert eventually came to supervise a culinary operation that now sells three-quarters of a ton of chicken and about 2,500 beef-veal-pork meatballs every week. (The meatball volume doubles during December holidays). A third brother, Anthony, runs front-of-house operations.

After a spurt of opening restaurants in New York City, August, 44, joined his brothers back in their hometown, deciding his data-driven approach could ultimately be an asset for a business in transition.

Cardona’s Market customers now may notice the Delaware Avenue location more resembles a fast-casual restaurant with steam tables than a traditional market.

The business produces hundreds of sandwiches daily and also has a robust catering business.

“It’s driven largely by catering and prepared food, almost like fast-casual,” August said.

The Cardonas hit their sweet spot after a deep dive of data from the point-of-sale system revealed 80 percent of revenue was generated from items prepared in Robert Jr.’s from-scratch kitchen. 

Think crusty Italian bread, jarred housemade pasta sauce, chicken cutlets and cherry tomato salad dripping with olive oil.

Rebranding Roma was akin to almost dissecting several different businesses, August said, because each Bolognino brother operated their location differently. 

First he opted to winnow away some of the imported pasta lines while rethinking other elements. 

Looks amazing, he thought while looking at rows of 25 different pasta brands. But can we accomplish this in a better way?

Groceries remained more of a driver at the Latham location, August said, and not so much at Delaware Avenue, where the customer base had long moved on, taking with them the demand for everyday items like produce and tomatoes. 

After a summer remodel, the Saratoga Springs location will also focus on sandwiches. 

Five years ago, August never thought he would return to take over the family business.

“Now all I want to do is make meatballs and chicken cutlets,” he said.

Despite all the changes, August said the impetus was simple: 

“Over time, we just had to add on items to really support the business moving into the future. We had to find a way to grow with better margins and we had to get smart around controlling inventory.”

“People anywhere know Italian food,” he said. “They know that and that’s going to be our driver.”

Continuing a legacy

Cardona’s is located just blocks away on Delaware Avenue from Andy & Sons Importing Co., where staff wearing white paper hats crack wise before wrapping your Italian Mix.

Like others, Andy & Sons was started in the mid-1950s by Italian immigrants, Antimo and Filomena Benincasa, and shifted locations multiple times. 

As the Empire State Plaza came into focus, the couple moved to the Delaware Avenue location in 1964, and a number of their kids worked there, including co-owner Vincent Benincasa. 

But as the neighborhood changed, Delaware Avenue remained a major corridor and their market remained largely intact, right down to the homemade cheeses, meatballs and marinara and puttanesca sauces, as well as specialized products, sandwiches and catering.

Vincent Benincasa, who owns the business with his brother, Carmen, has thought about transitioning the business eventually to his employees. 

“Down the road, that’s probably going to be what we end up doing,” said Benincasa, who is 60. “We want to continue the legacy… and we are talking to them over time.

“We’ll hopefully continue on if God gives us hope and strength.”

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