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What Would Signore Vincenzo Say?

How the family-run J.P. Graziano Italian market has kept up with the times



In the early 90s, an unfamiliar breed of customer began filtering into the West Loop's J.P. Graziano Grocery Company, asking for single boxes of pasta and quarter-pound slices of pecorino Romano. Jim Graziano says his father, James, and great-uncle Paul didn't know what to make of them. "They'd look at them cross-eyed," he says. "Like, 'What are you talking about?'"

Since 1937 the little Italian imported-food wholesaler had run a secondary retail business at its warehouse, on the corner of Randolph and Peoria. Up until a few years ago, when a big delivery arrived the staff would swing open the industrial metal front doors and drive the forklift over the wooden-slat floor, right through the customers shopping for bulk lupini and cannellini beans in mismatched plastic buckets. At the time those walk-ins technically could be considered retail shoppers, but they bought a lot like the company's restaurant and grocery accounts, stocking up on cases of pasta and canned tomatoes and whole 86-pound wheels of Parmigiano-Reggiano to divide among extended family.

Though he's only 29, Jim Graziano has worked in the store for 20 years. He started out cleaning bathrooms, sweeping floors, and carrying purchases out to customers' cars, among other duties: "I'd sit on the desk and watch the front door so that bums wouldn't take a can of tuna fish as they walked by," he says. He watched as the children of Italian immigrants who were the store's regulars were joined by art dealers and condo dwellers. After graduating from DePaul in 2003 and joining the business full-time, he slowly began making changes to adapt to the newcomers.

The family legend of his great-grandfather's journey from Bagheria, Sicily, to Chicago in the early part of the last century is full of the sort of cinematic details authenticity-craving gentrifiers spool up like spaghetti and meatballs. Vincenzo Graziano stowed away on the steamer in pursuit of a girl who turned out to be already engaged. Heartbroken—and renamed James Paul by some Ellis Island clerk—he followed an uncle to Chicago, where he started hustling.

"He'd go to a fruit stand and grab a couple lemons and throw them in his pocket, go around the corner and sell it," says Graziano. "Saved enough money and bought a basket. Did what he had to do to make ends meet for himself at the time." "J.P." eventually opened a grocery by Grand and Noble, selling imported Italian foods to his fellow immigrants, who continued to call him Signore Vincenzo.

In the late 30s he made the jump to wholesale, moving into the warehouse on Randolph, and over the decades the business has been passed down to his children, and their children, and their children. James, who died two years ago, didn't have a choice about joining the family business—it was in his blood. "There was no place he'd rather be," says his son, choking up a little. "He had a way with people that for however many people compliment me on how they see my dad in me, I can't fill half of one shoe of what my dad was able to do with people."

Even as the store's retail customers were changing, its wholesale business dwindled, thanks to competition from multimillion-dollar distributors who dealt in volumes that allowed them to operate on razor-thin profit margins. "We were never able to do that even when my dad was alive," says Graziano. "It was really hard to work on those margins and be competitive. And then the economy hit and we had to scale it back even more."

About three years ago Graziano convinced his dad to open a sub shop in the store, based on the number of customers that came in asking for sliced meats instead of whole salamis and prosciuttos. They brought in a meat slicer, set up sneeze guards on the work spaces, shifted some shelving around, and built a box with a Plexiglas window around the century-plus-old ceiling-mounted elevator motor that hung over the new cheese-cutting counter, so you could still watch it in action when deliveries were moved downstairs to storage.

He says it broke his heart to cover up the original wood floor in the front as required by the health department, but it remains untouched in the back and upstairs warehouses. The subs won followings on Yelp and LTHForum (where the business already had quite a few fans), and helped grow a customer base for the new high-end specialty products he started bringing in, like relatively expensive small-production cheeses, 35-year-old balsamic vinegar from Reggio Emilia, and lardo and culatello from New York's Salumeria Biellese.

"I would love to know what—not only what my dad, but my grandpa, my great-grandpa, thinks of me selling cheese that's $29 a pound," says Graziano. "I could just see the look on their faces." But it's the wholesale business that gives him the buying power to sell his retail goods at relatively good prices. Online sources will sell four ounces of bottarga—cured Sardinian mullet roe—for as much as $82; Graziano sells it for an astonishing $35.

Customers can read about these new products on the store's Facebook page, and shop for them from the new website that launched earlier this month, but you'd still be hard-pressed to find a more old-school and friendly environment than the brick-and-mortar store in which to buy your olive oil and pick up a Mr. G—stacked with sharp imported provolone, soppressata salami, prosciutto di Parma, and grilled artichoke and topped with basil, hot oil, and a house-made truffle mustard-balsamic vinaigrette. Graziano's sister DeAna shouts orders back to their mom Maryellen, who rings them up behind a glass window in the back and makes change out of the same wooden drawer their great-grandmother did. Graziano still hands out samples of prosciutto and provolone, will tell you how to stuff and bake Melrose peppers with sausage and ricotta, or make a house call to a customer on Harlem Avenue who's been shopping there since his grandfather's day. The first time I ever walked through the door the sandwich guy started busting my chops good-naturedly about holding my order hostage, for no good reason other than to pass the time.

Old-timers might grumble that the live Moroccan snails once sold by the pound are long gone, but the jars of caponata and tins of salt-cured anchovies are still there, and you can still lift the lids off 55-gallon barrels of dried basil, spearmint leaves, and chile peppers and breathe in the same aromas that wafted up in the 30s.

"A lot of people that knew my dad know you couldn't pay me to change what I sell here, because it's worked," says Graziano. "We've been here for 73 years. I'm not trying to reinvent the wheel here. I'm just trying to make it work for another 70-some years."    

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