Les Rizzo celebrates the 25th year of his Italian grocery store witha quick rush of emotion: He weeps.
Right in the middle of the Pasadena eatery, in the middle of noon rush hour, this sturdy 51-year-old starts to cry, chokes up and finally has to take off his glasses and wipe his eyes.
"When we moved to this location we were in debt to everybody we knew," he reminisces, looking around at the string of garlic bulbs, the 17 kinds of cheese and endless rows of pasta. "It's been a lot of love, a lot of hard work."
The old store, a '30s landmark on Mountain Road, was torn down four years ago to make room for the expanded Pastore's, and Les still can't bring himself to look at the pictures of the destroyed building.
His eyes get teary again, and his wife, Marge, touches his hand. "I feel like the store is one of my children," she says.
In some ways it is. When the young couple opened Pastore's Italian grocery 25 years ago, they had to hand out recipes so customers would know what to do with the 100 different cuts of pasta and dozens of brands of olive oil.
"Now there are a lot of people of Italian descent in Pasadena, but back then there weren't," Marge says.
The Rizzos lived over their store and reared two daughters there. "I'd be upstairs, and when things got busy, Les would beat these old water pipes with a spoon and I'd come down," Marge remembers. "Itwasn't easy in the beginning."
For years, they worked eight-hour days, six days a week, to make the place a success, and they were allthe help there was. The two manned the deli, worked the cash register (an old cigar box) and made friends.
Les remembers the first daythe register went over $100. He was so excited he called relatives in Baltimore to spread the news.
A quarter of a century later, the combined eatery and grocery has 60 employees and a big new building, and they can't make the pasta fast enough.
But the county's version of Little Italy still offers the same imported cheeses and peppers,the same sweet promise of cannoli. The long shelves are jammed with exotic olives (like Gaeta and Thasos), banana peppers, imported peeled tomatoes, Italian cookies and spices, and shelves and shelves of rigatoni, manicotti and linguine.
Les, a hearty man wearing a green grocer's apron over his green shirt, still presides over the plates of lasagna and spaghetti six days a week. After more than 20 years, Norma Brescia continues to cook the Italian specialties, and "Miss Bern" (Bernadette Weiman) still serves customers with a smile, despite her retirement party a few years ago.
While the growth means the Rizzos don't get to know their customers quite as well as they once did,they still know names and faces and try hard to make friendliness their trademark. They hand out free butter cookies to children who comewith their parents.
"It sounds corny to say we were a big family,but we were," says Marge, a graduate of Glen Burnie High. "When we came home with our baby and then our second child for the first time, the parking lot was jammed with customers waiting to see them."
Through the years, first-generation and original Italian families started coming to the store from Annapolis and Brooklyn Park, especially on Sunday mornings, the traditional Italian shopping time, Marge says.
Back then, Les kept a jug of red wine under the meat case, and when older customers would come, he'd bring out the wine, "which is what they used to do in the old days" in Italian shops, Marge says.
Couples such as Tony and Connie Viddinger were frequent customers, along with the Calabrese family from Annapolis. The Calabreses, and their children and grandchildren, still come to sample the Italian olivesstuffed with almonds, or some Greek goat cheese and salami or a taste of dried figs.
The Rizzos will celebrate years of good food and good friends Sept. 14, along with co-owners Brian and Sue Metzbower. Brian started out as an errand boy at the store while he was in high school. Six years ago, he bought into the business.
"I'm waiting on kids whose parents I waited on when I was in high school," Metzbower says. "It's the same families, and that's kind of neat."
Pastore's anniversary will be marked by free pony rides, moon-walks and facepainting. A weekend in Ocean City for two will be given away, and Pastore's famed Pizza Kits -- the original idea for a take-home pizza, Marge says -- will be on sale at their 1966 price of $1.59.
She gets nostalgic, thinking of the first "kits" they put together, young entrepreneurs desperate for ways to attract business. "We grated cheese and bagged it, then we put sauce in 1-gallon containers. We wrappedthe shells in brown delivery paper because we couldn't afford plastic paper."
For Les, in some ways the anniversary will be "just another day."
"I'm here every day," he explains. "The store has been our way of life."
But then his voice gets husky, and he adds, "It'snice to look back and see, after all the years, we're still here."