Family grocery tantalizes with flavors of old Sicily


December 14, 1992|By JACQUES KELLY

The long line of patient customers at the Trinacria grocery store tells the secret of this Seton Hill institution.

This time of the year, people stand in line, waiting for their number to be called -- often a 20-minute wait -- for pungent cheeses, salted codfish, salty dark olives and raisin-studded cakes imported to 406 N. Paca St.

If the gustatory spread doesn't win them over, the prices do.

"We fight for the customers. We give them the goods and the price," said Vincent Fava as he hand-scooped a brown paper bag of pasta for a customer one morning last week.

A pound of made-on-the-premises pasta? It's 50 cents here.

No wonder the alley next door is filled with cars whose owners rarely venture to the west side of downtown except to visit this colorful place.

"We've got to make people come here. We're out of the way," said Vince Fava, 28, a graduate of Mount St. Joseph High School and the University of Baltimore.

When he came to work at the family business, the place was being run as it had been for decades, with precious few concessions to computer-age business methods. The letterhead still lists the phone number as MUlberry 5, not the 685 exchange that has been in use for the past 30 years. The phone book listing still reads Trinacria Macaroni Works.

Most of the business' customers know the old Italian grocery store a few blocks north of Lexington Market as a delightful institution with not much floor space and a prodigious inventory.

What they never see is the cavernous warehouse in buildings to the west and south of the shop. Stacked on the floor are tons of olive oil, canned tomatoes, capers, soups, spices and other delicacies.

There are homemade sausage-making and cheese-grating operations, too. And upstairs, in a vintage pasta plant, family members turn out pound after pound of spaghetti and all its variations.

Part of the attraction here is the three Fava brothers -- Vincent, Joseph and Salvatore, the sons of the man who founded the place. In 92 years, there has never been a time when a Vincent Fava was not behind the counter. Today, there are two, uncle and nephew.

The name Trinacria is an ancient term for the island of Sicily. It literally means three-pointed, a reference to the triple points of the island -- Marsala, Correnti and Messina. The firm's trademark, which is printed on its letterhead and on packages of lasagna noodles, is a female head with three legs.

It's no surprise that the Fava family came from Cefalu, Sicily, the town where many of Baltimore's Italian families trace their ancestry.

Vincent Fava, the firm's founder, and his partner, Frank Maggio, bought what is the heart of the operation in 1900. It had been a Rice's Bakery plant. They used the place to bake bread and make their macaroni.

At that time, the North Paca Street district was a thriving Italian neighborhood. The Serios, Libertos, Matassas, Fertittas and Brocatos resided here. Some had fruit and produce stalls at the Lexington Market. They worked hard and moved on. Some remained.

"People think it's like a soap opera where you sit behind a desk and make a million dollars. It doesn't work like that at all. I get down here 4:30 or 5 a.m. These nights before Christmas I don't leave before 10," says Vince Fava, the youngest member of the firm, who is now running the operation. His father, Salvatore, and uncles are never far away.

Vince Fava says that the weeks before Christmas are his most hectic.

Families return to buy the foods they knew as children. During the weeks of Advent, the traditional Christian time of fasting and penitence before Christmas, Mediterranean families serve salted codfish, often in a delicious stew. Trinacria's cod comes in wooden boxes from Canada. It's one of the few products here not stamped "Made in Italy."

"It gets wild in here. We give out numbers from 1 to 50. Half the numerals are missing. Some days, I think a riot is going to break out. Somehow, the people are patient," Vince Fava says.

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