The little man sits behind the counter next to the deli case. His apprentice stands to his right. To his left is bottle of olive oil. In front of him is a meat slicer and an array of sliced rolls sitting open faced on pink wrapping paper. The rolls are lightly doused with the olive oil. The apprentice hands him the imported ingredients individually: genoa salami, capicola, provolone and mortadella (with pistachios). Each is sliced and placed on the rolls. The assembled sandwiches are wrapped in the pink paper, taped and stacked. A line of customers grab them by the bundle, head to the register, and exchange $5.50 for each. The process is repeated up to 500 times. Welcome to Roma Market, home of “The Sandwich”.
Rosario Mazzeo may be short in stature as told by a measuring tape, but he is a giant to his loyal customers and his apprentice, Juan Ortiz. Juan refers to Mazzeo as “the master”, and says to work with him is a dream. Mazzeo emigrated from Sicily in 1950 to join his uncle here in Pasadena. Together they opened the market 60 years ago. My grandfather came here to special order sapsago cheese, necessary for his southern German family’s version of spaghetti. Rosario was the only source he could find for this pungent, hard, green stuff.
When he is finished behind the counter, you can often find Rosario sitting on a chair at the entrance to the storeroom, surveying his kingdom. He is not shy, and will explain, recommend and educate any willing explorer. He is passionate about his trade. I also found we share a passion for motorcycles, particularly the Moto Guzzi. Rosario rode Guzzis for 50 years. His face lights up this discussion. Perhaps only a fellow rider understands the connection of food and motorcycles: adrenaline and euphoria. Rosario gets it.
When you enter Roma, the funk of strong Italian cheeses make their presence known. My friend Leslie calls this the litmus test of whether you will shop here or not. I love it. Mazzeo’s inventory is always changing. You don’t come knowing that you will find a specific item. Rather, you come with a sense of adventure. Mazzeo receives shipments from Italy several times a month. You come through the door like Forrest Gump opening his box of chocolates.
Last Monday I found a surprisingly large selection of squid ink pastas. By Friday, they were almost sold out. I bought a nice Italian red from the rear “bargain” room. On Friday, they were gone, but I noticed a bottle of Pallagrello Nero I’d never seen before. I bought it on a lark and found it delightful. Whether wine, pasta, olives or cheese, the only thing dependable about the selection is the quality.
And then there is The Sandwich. The Brooklyn-raised mother of the patient wife declared it the best hero she had since leaving the island 23 years ago. The crusty bread snaps as you bite into it. Mazzeo has perfected the right combination and quantity of ingredients. It harks back to a day before we allowed corporations to feed us with their well-marketed, lowest common denominator cuisine.
Roma stands now as the American dream told twice. Rosario left post-war Italy to build a new life. He succeeded through hard work and excellence. Juan Ortiz left Leon de Guanajuato in Mexico in pursuit of the same. Today you can see him learning to stand on the shoulders of this giant little man, working hard and learning excellence. Be kind to yourself. For $5.50, Rosario Mazzeo will teach you a bit about excellence as well.
Roma Market is located at 918 N. Lake Ave., Pasadena, CA 91104