Family market keeps Old World tradition alive


December 29, 1990|By Susan Schoenberger

The smell of grated Romano cheese inhabits every corner of Trinacria the way that the smell of baking bread fills a bakery.

If history and tradition had smells, they'd be there, too, mingling with the Romano and the imported olives and the homemade sausage stocked by the Italian grocery.

The store on North Paca Street in Baltimore has served customers since 1900, when a Sicilian immigrant named Vincent Fava opened its doors. Now Vincent Fava's grandson, also named Vincent, is managing the store, which his father, Salvatore, 65, and his Uncle Vincent, 64, jointly own.

The older Favas still serve up homemade pastas from open cardboard boxes, tying the paper packages with red and white string. But now they defer to the younger Fava, 27, with his accounting degree from the University of Baltimore, as spokesman.

"They hate to change anything," Vince Fava says. "That's why the store has stayed the same."

Shopping at Trinacria has its own frenetic rhythm: dodging customers around the stacks of packaged pasta; choosing the right moment to open a freezer door when the crowd subsides; bumping along in a line that snakes along the deli counter.

The store relies on word-of-mouth advertising to draw new customers to its battered red, green and white sign and the chain-link fence that covers its front windows -- protection from rock-throwers. Once they find it, customers usually return, packing the place on most Saturday mornings.

"Every week it's the same faces," Vince Fava says.

Trinacria, an old name for the island of Sicily, has been a second home to Vince and to his father and uncle, who all grew up spending afternoons after school at the store. That's why Vince understands why his father and uncle wish to stay in the same downtown location -- once in the midst of an Italian community -- that his grandfather chose.

"If you move out to somewhere new, it doesn't have the ambience," Vince Fava says.

It also wouldn't have the smell.

"We grind a lot of cheese here," Vince Fava says. "It's on my clothes and in my car. When you take it out of this store, it stinks."

The Favas believe that the real success of their store has been to keep prices down while providing good quality. Vince Fava says you can find most of Trinacria's wares in a gourmet store, but not for Trinacria's low price.

Customers agree.

"It's the best," said Lorraine Cummings of Pikesville, who was filling two cardboard boxes with groceries. "I come here and stock up. . . . I know good sausage when I eat it."

To customers, Trinacria offers a sense of neighborhood and the security of family -- even if many of its customers no longer live in the Lexington Market neighborhood.

"My mother used to shop here," said Gus Mastracci, whose son knows the younger Vince Fava from the Sons of Italy. "It's where your roots are."

Trinacria offers 35 kinds of pasta: vermicelli, spaghettini, bucatini, perciatelli, mezzani, ziti, tagliarini, trinetta, margherite, to name a few. Waxy balls of provolone hang from the ceiling and red bottles of Chianti cram shelves in the rear of the store.

The store is a little rough around the edges, with its peeling linoleum floor and loaves of Italian bread in their paper sleeves stacked up on a shelf covered with generations-old contact paper. The Favas have even resisted an electronic cash register, preferring to add numbers on paper bags with a black marker.

But where else can you find a bottle of maraschino fruits in a glass jar shaped like a boot, or a 68-ounce jar of artichoke hearts? The freezer holds tricolor tortellini, gnocchi, manicotti, ravioli, and 3-pound bags of shredded mozzarella, and the deli serves up fresh meats, Italian cheeses and homemade sausage. For Christmas, there's codfish for the traditional Italian Christmas Eve dinner.

It is Martin Moylan's theory that Italian cooking is universal. The half-Irish, half-Italian customer said his wife is Swedish, but the Italian in the family dominates.

"You end up eating Italian," he said, cradling a box of cannoli shells. Trinacria is special, he added, because it stocks the ingredients -- the special vinegars and spices --that make Italian cooking unique.

Stanley Crowet, who lives in Highlandtown, comes by Trinacria at least once a month to buy pastas and garlic and other staples. But what makes the place special?

He answers with his arms spread wide: "Just take a deep breath."

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