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Thursday, July 16, 2009 11:02 pm

The little shop that could

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The Food Mart at 416 E. Monroe St.
PHOTO BY DAVID HINE

It’s quirky — the good kind of quirky. Its eclectic assortment of edibles reflects, I suspect, the owners’ tastes as much as their customers’. And it’s been in the same Springfield location for a long time.

A very long time — since the 1890s. Not only that, but it’s been owned and operated by the same family since its inception. Is there any other Springfield business — food-related or otherwise — that can say that? (If anyone knows of any, I’d love to hear from you.)

The Food Mart at 416 E. Monroe has seen some changes over the years, though. It was first called Campo’s. These days Tony Pirrera, a descendant of the original Campos, is in charge.

In the beginning, it was a store like most neighborhood groceries throughout America. Campo’s sold produce and canned goods. There were fresh flowers for bouquets or made into corsages. They baked cookies. In those days grocery stores and butcher shops were most often separate entities. Next door to Campo’s was the Monroe Meat Market. When it closed, the Campos purchased its meat case and expanded their operation into the new space.

That was in 1955, a year of big changes for the little store. It became the first grocery store in Springfield to sell liquor. “It wasn’t cool to be Italian back then,” says Pirerra. “So we changed the name to The Food Mart.”

Twelve years ago, with Pirerra now at the helm, The Food Mart experienced another change. He eliminated many of the general grocery items and the fresh meat. The Food Mart became a gourmet specialty shop with a big emphasis on all things Italian. “Not everyone likes Chinese,” says Pierrera with a twinkle in his eye. “And soufflés burn. So I figured Italian would do well.” Since the downtown Osco closed, however, he’s begun stocking a few more basics. “We’ve got a four-foot shelf that we call the pharmacy,” he says. “There’s aspirin and deodorant, razors and toothbrushes, things like that. There’s even toilet paper in the back.” And lately fresh meat has reappeared in the form of sausages on the weekends. “What goes around comes around,” Pirerra says.

If shopping at mega-groceries bores you to tears, a trip to The Food Mart might just be the perfect antidote. It’s astonishing — even a bit bewildering — how much variety is packed into such a small space. Pirerra and his wife, Brenda, attend the New York Fancy Food Show each year and many items on the shelves are the result of those trips. A case of fancy chocolates includes customers’ favorite: triple-dipped malted milk balls. There’s a decent selection of wines (often on sale), beers and liquors. The deli case has cold cuts and cheeses. There’s a wide assortment of teas. There are crackers, cookies, jams and more. They’ve even managed to squeeze in a few chairs and tables for customers to enjoy the sandwiches (the house-made chicken salad is their biggest seller) and soups made fresh daily.

Still Italian foodstuffs predominate, scattered throughout the main room and on floor to ceiling shelves and in freezer cases in the side room. A wire shelf holds breads from Fazio’s Bakery located in St. Louis’ Hill neighborhood. A host of different olive oils and vinegars stand next to canned Italian tomatoes, pasta sauces and condiments, and other Italian kitchen staples. There’s an extensive selection of dried pastas from the commonplace spaghetti, linguini, etc. to orecheittte (the name of these bite-sized, cup-shaped beauties means “little pig ears”) to esoteric shapes such as bumblebee-shaped Bumbola. Fresh pasta in the freezer is made by a Chicago company that supplies top Windy City restaurants. Some raviolis are stuffed with traditional ricotta or meat, but others are filled with such things as butternut squash, gorgonzola, osso bucco (braised veal shank) and lobster.

Italian foodstuffs predominate, while the store’s variety is astonishing.
PHOTO BY DAVID HINE

“It’s an eclectic bunch of stuff,” laughs Pirerra. “As are the customers.”

How has The Food Mart stayed in business so long when most family-owned food stores have gone the way of the dinosaur? And not only survived, but thrived? Pirerra says that May was their biggest month ever. One reason is that overhead has been kept low, so prices can be kept low. It’s staffed by family members: Pirerra’s brother, Pete, runs the gift shop next door; it’s Pete’s wife, Carolyn, who makes the lunches. Brenda helps out as needed. Being close to the Capitol helps: things are always busiest when the legislature is in session. The increasing number of people living downtown has been good for business, too.

“We’ve always relied on word-of-mouth,” says Pirerra. “Lots of Decatur people come over here to shop.” Even so, The Food Mart remains what it’s always been — a neighborhood grocery that’s become a neighborhood institution. That’s evident when Pirerra walks outside with me as I leave. Two young women across the street wave and shout, “Hi, Tony! How’s it going?”

“Low key — that’s the way we want to keep it,” Pirerra says.

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.

This delicious and unusual pasta sauce is a favorite at my house, and takes only minutes to make. In fact, it has to be made quickly in order for the sauce and pasta to be combined at just the right moment. It’s not at all difficult, but the sequence and timing are crucial. Try it with one of The Food Mart’s artisanal pastas. Such pastas are usually made with old-fashioned brass dies (the extruders that the dough is pushed through to form varying shapes). The brass dies create pastas with much rougher surface textures which helps hold the sauce to them. It’s easy to see that rougher texture on the uncooked pasta. Spaghetti would be a good choice for this sauce, but so would many other shapes. However, it’s best to avoid using fresh pasta, which is too delicate. Dried pastas with a high semolina content work best.

Note: In this sauce the egg yolks are not completely cooked, so anyone with salmonella concerns shouldn’t eat this. Using very fresh eggs from chickens who are allowed to graze naturally (in other words not in CAFOs, confined animal feeding operations) largely minimizes the risk of salmonella contamination.


The Food Mart at 416 E. Monroe St.
PHOTO BY DAVID HINE

Recipies by Julianne
EGG, GARLIC  & HERB PASTA SAUCE

This delicious and unusual pasta sauce is a favorite at my house, and takes only minutes to make. In fact, it has to be made quickly in order for the sauce and pasta to be combined at just the right moment. It’s not at all difficult, but the sequence and timing are crucial. Try it with one of The Food Mart’s artisanal pastas. Such pastas are usually made with old-fashioned brass dies (the extruders that the dough is pushed through to form varying shapes). The brass dies create pastas with much rougher surface textures which helps hold the sauce to them. It’s easy to see that rougher texture on the uncooked pasta. Spaghetti would be a good choice for this sauce, but so would many other shapes. However, it’s best to avoid using fresh pasta, which is too delicate. Dried pastas with a high semolina content work best.

Note: In this sauce the egg yolks are not completely cooked, so anyone with salmonella concerns shouldn’t eat this. Using very fresh eggs from chickens who are allowed to graze naturally (in other words not in CAFOs, confined animal feeding operations) largely minimizes the risk of salmonella contamination.

  • 6 very large fresh eggs, preferably free-range organic
  • 5 T. extra virgin olive oil
  • 4 T. unsalted butter
  • 6 - 8 large garlic cloves, thinly sliced or minced.
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
  • Hot red pepper flakes to taste, optional
  • 3/4 c. freshly grated Parmegiano-Reggiano OR aged Asiago OR Pecorino Romano, plus additional for accompaniment at the table
  • 1/2 c. chopped fresh flat-leafed parsley
  • 1/4 c. minced fresh sage, rosemary, marjoram, thyme, either singly or in combination

In a large skillet, heat the oil and butter over medium high heat and add the garlic and hot pepper flakes if using. Cook until the garlic is softened, but not browned. Remove the skillet from the heat and cool to room temperature.

Cook the pasta in boiling salted water. While the pasta is cooking, return the skillet to the stove (without turning on the burner) and add the eggs one at a time, being careful not the break the yolks. Sprinkle with half of the herbs.

When the pasta is cooked to the “al dente” stage, turn the burner under the skillet to high, add ¾ c. of the pasta water, and cover the pan. Drain the pasta and place in a heated serving bowl. As soon as the egg whites are set, but while the yolks are still runny, pour the contents of the skillet over the pasta, add the cheese and toss to combine. Serve sprinkled with the remaining herbs, and pass additional cheese at the table.

Makes enough sauce for 1 lb. pasta

Adapted from a recipe in the Dean and Delucca Cookbook by David Rosengarten

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