Ever eaten an uncooked Lupini bean? What use could you make of 3 pounds of Foenugreek seeds? Do you plan to make your own gin, and need some Juniper berries for flavoring?
All of these seeds, up to a total of 280 varieties of flours, herbs, grains, and nuts, are available at Conte-di-Savoia European Specialties, a gourmet-food shop as large as most supermarkets. Vito Cambio has been running the store for more than thirty years, first at a location near Taylor and Halsted—which is now a parking lot for the Circle Campus—and now in a shopping center at the corner of Roosevelt and Jefferson. In this somewhat unlikely location, far from the neighborhoods he serves, Cambio has built up a collection of foods that would astonish anyone. Particularly well represented are Italian foods, which he has carried for all the years of his operation, and Indian foods, which have been added more recently. Shown above, and preceding clockwise from left, are fave, which is a popular Italian bean; black mustard, which is used whole in Indian cooking; supari nuts, which Indians commonly use as a snack; orzo, which is basically unshelled wheat, and is blended with coffee to improve the brew; Canadian wild rice, which costs $5 a [pound, but is cherished by gourmets above Persian wild rice, which they also carry, but for only 69¢ a pound; and in the center is shown a blend of coffee beans from France which is used in espresso coffee.
On Sunday mornings, Indian women come wearing saris to pick up their week's supply of spices for their cooking. Several restaurants in the city find their supplies here. And even a gardener or two has been known to shop for herb seeds to plant, claiming that seeds which sit in packets are often less fresh than herbs which are to be used for cooking. "You can taste it if a spice is old, so they have to be fresh here."
The scent of the shop is overpowering. At one moment curry almost knocks you over; at the next, you're smelling cinnamon, which comes in huge sticks for $2.99 a pound. They have more sesame seeds—in two kinds, toasted and untoasted— than most people have ever seen in one place in their lives. And up front, with the snack foods, they have pistachio nuts, pumpkin seeds, squash seeds, sunflower seeds, roasted chick peas, and lupini beans soaked in water and ready to eat.