Little Italy’s first family of food

Sal, Marie and Lou Di Palo, the fourth generation to run the family business. Photo: Vincent Gardino

A decade into their second century sharing Italian culture and cuisine with New Yorkers, the Di Palos are opening a new market, conceived as a complete experience.

By Emily Mason

The Di Palo family has been serving freshly made Italian cheeses in New York City’s Little Italy neighborhood since 1910, when Savino Di Palo, who emigrated from Southern Italy seven years earlier, opened his first store. In 1925, Savino’s daughter, Concetta Di Palo, opened the second store, which is still in business today, run by Savino’s great-grandchildren, Lou, Marie, and Sal.

This year, the Di Palo family is taking another step by opening a new market space with the same goal of sharing Italian cuisine and culture with the people of New York. Patrons are invited to relax with friends, sample cheeses and wines from Italy, and learn about food from the family. The new space, at 151-153 Mott Street, incorporates elements of the past in its design, including traditional Italian tin ceilings and the original store sign — “C. Di Palo’s.” after Concetta Di Palo — hanging over the entryway.

While honoring their history, the Di Palo’s have plans for the future, including seminars and possibly even a follow-up to their 2014 book “Di Palo’s Guide to the Essential Foods of Italy.” At the helm of the concept and design of the new space is the fifth generation of Di Palo children, but not without the input of Lou, Marie, and Sal, of course. I met with Lou Di Palo for a tour of the new space and to talk about the Di Palo legacy in Little Italy.

What do you want the experience in the new Di Palo’s market to be like?

This is not a place to take your computer and start doing your business work. This is a place to really experience and learn, and we want you to communicate with us your ideas of what you like, your likes and your dislikes. You know, ‘Gee I really like this winery,’ that’s the kind of communication we want here. It’s not a place to be alone, we’ll be here with you. This is a place to really experience the food culture, that’s truly what we want. We want people to come together, communicate with each other, communicate with us and experience the food.

Why is it so important to all of you to educate people on Italian culture?

We just feel good about it. We feel this is what we’re meant to do. I mean I’ve been doing it my whole life, our children have been doing it, my father, my grandmother, and grandfather. My grandmother and grandfather didn’t speak any English, but yet they shared what they knew about the cheese-making to their community, which were primarily Italian immigrants, and my father shared it with his community.

Why did you start making trips to Italy, instead of just continuing what your father taught you?

I needed to go there. I needed not only to see the person who made the cheese. I need to see where the raw material comes from. I had to shake hands and break bread with the farmer. See the animals, see the milk, where the milk came from, taste the milk before it even made the cheese. I have to do that, and I felt that this was something that it shouldn’t be only for my knowledge. The last several years I’ve been having people come with me, really seeing what I do and how I select cheese and the relationships that I’ve developed.

Have you noticed your customers’ preferences changing over the years?

Yes. There’s certainly taste change. You know, where they might have gone to these very strong, pungent, intense aromatic taste 50 years ago, now [they go for] more delicate, more complex, but delicate-tasting products. I’m not saying that’s with everybody, but a good percentage has switched to that type of palette. So this is why we try to reintroduce some of the old taste. Some people have just been blown away by it and some people they’re not ready. We want to bring back the past and we want to continue with what the future wants.

Do you think that the new market will bring back some older tastes for customers?

I hope so, that’s one of the reasons, you know, we want it. We want people to try things that they normally wouldn’t even think of trying ... a different type of wine, a different type of cheese, a different type of meat. It’s how you learn to discover things, on a small basis.

Why do you think it’s important for your customers to explore new things?

Isn’t life boring if it’s the same thing all the time? As I say, the gift of God is food. Food is something for nourishment, but it’s also something that gives pleasure and we need to experiment and experience the different foods to create different pleasures, taste, their different tastes.

Is this new space the next generation’s first step in taking over the business?

Well, we will always be there, as long as we’re here. And even when we’re not here, we’ll be there. Just like the first, second, and third generation is still with us, for us. We feel their presence every day. So we feel that we’ll be here for them. But we realize that if you want to be a success the fourth generation has to take a step back and let the fifth generation go forward.