A World of Food

Ethnic groceries beckon shoppers with goods that define the heart and soul of varied cultures

March 06, 2002|By Melody Simmons | Melody Simmons,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

At Mastellone, a small Italian grocery in Parkville, customers gather at the counter to share recipes, gossip and even homespun cures for nagging arthritis pain.

Across the street, at Mueller's Deli, the meat slicer is in constant swing, producing perfect slivers of liverwurst, bratwurst and knackwurst for hearty sandwiches on imported pumpernickel, sourdough or dark-brown hunter bread.

At Near East Bakery in Hamilton, buckets of fresh olives greet shoppers and beckon them to taste the pungent fruits of the Old World.

Such are the scenes on any given day in Baltimore's patchwork of ethnic groceries, which number in the hundreds and dot communities throughout the area. Lining their shelves are products that define the heart and soul of transplanted cultures, and offer vivid reminders of the area's rich diversity.

But these stores flourish not only because they give immigrants a taste of home, but also because they provide the ingredients cooks need to explore increasingly popular ethnic cuisines.

At Han Ah Reum, located in a converted Super Fresh store in Catonsville, the aisles overflow with exotic Asian produce and packaged imports like noodles and spices, anchored by a funky mini-fish market and bakery section. Other places, like Punjab in Waverly, are smaller, offering a compact array of rice in large sacks, fresh herbs and canned goods of Indian specialties.

And with little overhead and few modern conveniences or displays, most of the area's ethnic groceries post prices that can't be beat by large supermarket chains: the 59-cent bag of pasta at Trinacria Macaroni Works or the legendary garlic sausage at Ostrowski's, homemade at $3.20 per pound.

"This place is an extension of my own kitchen," says Pat Cammarata, a customer at Mastellone for 51 years, since well before the family establishment was sold to DiPasquale's three years ago. "It's a place where everyone knows each other -- and you come to meet each other."

He recalls the days when Grandma Rose, the owner's mother-in-law, used to sit on a stool in the middle of the store and patiently sort through the day's bounty of Italian bread.

He laughs at a twisted snippet of folklore he learned at Mastellone about Gorgonzola cheese: "They taught me here that it's the fountain of youth." Of course, the handmade mozzarella and imported prosciutto and sopressata inspire his return trips, Cammarata adds, but mostly he shops there for the fellowship.

In Punjab, a small Indian market on 33rd Street near Greenmount Avenue, customers shop for ginger root at $1.50 per pound, coconuts for 79 cents each and pistachios for $2.99 per pound as Indian music plays in the background.

Across town, four dozen frozen spinach pies at Prima Foods, a small grocery tucked underneath an elevated ramp of Interstate 95 just off Eastern Avenue, sell for $14.50. Other Greek specialties like baklava are $4.80 a dozen, while eight pounds of domestic feta is $15.50.

Besides the low prices, the personalized service keeps most customers coming. The service is a source of joy for the store owners, who often serve as goodwill ambassadors from their homeland.

"Customers like to be taken care of -- they ask questions and they want advice," says Zofia Para, owner of Sophia's Place in the Broadway Market, a Polish market that sells imported handpainted wooden eggs and delicate butter sculptures every Easter.

"They tell me they want to keep the Polish traditions alive. I have a lot of younger people coming to me -- and not just Polish people -- who are second- and third-generation who want to know the traditions. It makes me so happy -- I am very traditional myself."

The following list is a sample of some of the ethnic groceries found in the Baltimore area:


Mastellone, 7212 Harford Road, Parkville, 410-444-5433. The display cases boast a wide assortment of Italian specialties: mascarpone, freshly grated Parmesan cheese, jumbo figs, kalamata olives, pastas and more than 300 bottles of Italian wines. "I'm seeing fourth-generation customers now," says Tim Poremski, who has worked here for nearly 13 years.

Trinacria Macaroni Works, 406 N. Paca St., 410-685-7285. This cozy store first opened in 1900. Known for its bins of 59-cents-per-pound pasta in most shapes and sizes, it also has sauces, cheeses and treats like roasted prosciutto-stuffed peppers and focaccia bread. "We have loyal customers," says third-generation owner Vince Fava, 38. "It's an island all by itself."

Giulianova, 11 E. Main St., Westminster, 410-876-7425. This Italian market and deli is an ethnic oasis in the farm country of Carroll County. It's unique because there's also a small post office counter in the back of the store. Pasta, sauce and daily specials abound -- along with sage advice from owner Tony D'Eugenio.


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