Sunday, June 09, 2013

Home Cooking

At my hip North Coast grocer (as opposed to Safeway) I recently picked up a can of DeLallo white clam sauce.  It's an unfamiliar sauce I haven't tried in years--- but that wasn't the main reason I bought it.  It was DeLallo--a name and a brand from my western Pennsylvania childhood, suddenly on the shelf in California.

DeLallo was the most local of our western PA local companies.  The world didn't know about Klondike bars, or skyscraper ice cream cones or chipped ham (and now they know about at least one of them) but we did, because Isaly stores were in our towns--so clearly Pittsburgh area that it's a surprise to learn they were originally from Ohio.

Nobody outside respected Rolling Rock beer, bottled in Latrobe, PA.  Until the 1980s when a friend in Manhattan took me to the hippest new downtown bar--it was the spitting image of a dive along Route 30 or in one of the small towns, and they proudly served Rolling Rock.

And so on.  But DeLallo's wasn't Ohio or even Pittsburgh--it was only one store, outside Greensburg.  Their website calls the location "Jeannette," which it might be technically, but it's not in the town of Jeannette, it's actually on the highway,  at the crest of a hill along Route 30.  In fact it's a dangerous spot.  DeLallo's is a left turn off this busy highway going west from Greensburg, and there were notorious accidents there, some fatal, one claiming someone I knew.

DeLallo's was doubly local because it sold Italian food, and aggressively marketed everything it sold as Italian, including "Italian dog food" and "Italian Polish Ham," which are quotes from actual newspaper ads from the 70s.  In our part of western PA there was a substantial Italian population, and in our towns they often grouped according to the region or even the town where they came from.  The biggest waves of immigration occurred early in the 20th century, before new restrictions in  the 1920s, but since family members were exempt, it continued.  Then there was another wave after World War II, from different places (bombed places mostly), and they gravitated towards neighborhoods in Pittsburgh.

At first Italian food was exotic, outside the American mainstream. Before DeLallo's opened in 1954, my grandparents had to get their olive oil and so on from Pittsburgh.  Even when some products were available in grocery stores and those new super-markets,  my grandmother continued to get rides to shop at DeLallo's, especially for big family meals.

What was "Italian" to us came from a particular part of Italy, and a particular social class, which basically was peasantry, although people like my grandparents learned skills that liberated them from the fields and transferred to America (my grandmother sewed and had learned fine needlework at a convent school; my grandfather was a tailor.)  DeLallo's must have widened its horizons to other regions and classes.  I shopped there myself in later years.  I'm not sure where I'd heard of cannoli--maybe it was the Godfather movies--but they're Sicilian in origin, and we were decidedly not Siciliano.  Cannoli weren't part of my childhood, but I did buy some at DeLallo.  (That's a DeLallo family portrait by the way.)

Now Rolling Rock beer isn't even made in PA and the Klondike name was sold to a big specialty company.  But even though DeLallo products are available coast to coast, their only store is that same one, expanded over the years, on Route 30 west of Greensburg.

 There were Italian immigrants to the North Coast, though mainly from northern Italy, but their food is different.  And there's an Italian restaurant in Arcata called Abruzzi, which is the region my family came from. Still, DeLallo is a piece of home I somehow didn't anticipate finding nearby.