It was one of the most civilized and cultured shopping experiences I have had in a very long time. I felt like I mattered. Beyond that, I felt like I was being treated like a peer in a very specialized environment, one in which I was free to employ the rarefied vernacular of the seasoned foodie.
“Are you sure you’re not Italian,” Lino asked me in jest at one point as I insisted on the addition of a small wedge of Taleggio cheese to my already outrageously abundant selection of goods destined to contribute to an epic charcuterie board. He was flattering me, of course, but I lapped it up nevertheless; desperately wanting to belong, to be part of something worthwhile is the hallmark of Generation X insecurity and I am certainly not the guy to break type in these matters.
Taleggio is a semi-soft cow’s milk cheese named after the Northern Italian valley, not far from Milan, in which it is produced. It has a funky aroma that is incongruous with its relatively mild, tangy, buttery flavour. It is an excellent cheese to pair with grapes or crisp, tart apple, and for my purposes, it would provide a nice counterpoint to the hefty wedge of firm, espresso-washed, hybrid Parmesan-Cheddar Bella Vitano cheese that I had already selected. The latter is a head trip of a cheese, the paper-thin layer of bitter coffee powder adding a complex nuttiness to the piquant cheese, which is produced in Wisconsin.
The Lino in question is Lino Pucci who, along with his sister Maria Colodey, founded, as well as own and operate, Puccini’s Deli on Lonsdale Avenue and 20th Street. Lino and I walk around the shop with steaming hot macchiatos pulled moments before from the bright red espresso machine. I sip gladly from my cup as we look at the impressive inventory of pastas, oils, coffees, sauces, spices, dried biscuits and treats, vinegars, sodas and juices, and countless other specialty goods that line the shelves of the shop, which underwent an expansion a few years back and is slated for another renovation in the coming months.
The idea, Lino explains, is to make better use of the space currently devoted to the popular but highly seasonal gelato cooler. He shows me a few sample images on his phone to give me an idea of the vision for that space. High-top counters and bar stools, stone tiling, and glass displays prevail, contributing to an elegant but functional design that will become Puccini’s dedicated panini bar. The images I review remind me immediately of Eataly, the magical food wonderland from the U.S. that is always one of my go-to destinations whenever I find myself in Chicago or New York City. The first Canadian Eataly opened in Toronto late last year. Like Puccini’s (but on an admittedly much larger scale), Eataly is a haven for Italian gourmet goods and has a dual identity as retailer and restaurant. The renovations will be done by the Pucci siblings’ father, Paolo, who is a contractor and built the original shop in the first place.
Puccini’s just recently celebrated its 10th anniversary of operation. Lino tells me that he was just 24 years old when he opened the deli with his sister. The business has grown significantly in both size and scope since those early days, with a thriving catering business, replete with a dedicated chef and on-premise prep kitchen, now contributing in a meaningful way to the deli’s continued success. Catering consists of house-made pastas like lasagna and traditional dishes like piccata, in addition to the business’s core offerings, which are the cheeses, cured meats, pickled goods, dips and spreads at the sizeable deli counter. The deli is making a concerted effort to produce more goods in-house in addition to the carefully curated selection of third-party imports.
Lino tells me that the outpouring of community support on the day of the deli’s official anniversary celebration was overwhelming. “I knew we had a loyal following but I had no idea just how big and great it was,” he explains. “We had people popping in here to bring us flowers, to give us bottles of wine. It was amazing.”
I am not surprised by this account of community spirit. Sure, I felt like a VIP shopper when I visited the deli (there is no anonymity for me any more here, I’m afraid) but I have witnessed the same level of hospitality extended to many regulars when I have been in the shop. I would hazard that the Puccis have built their business as much on the spirit of exceptional service as on the merit of its food selection, which is indeed inspired.
To this latter point, I find it difficult to restrain myself when I visit Puccini’s. The espresso-washed Bella Vitano cheese is just one of a number of goodies that have become staples of my regular excursions. Bright green Castelvetrano olives are another sure thing; for me, the subtly brined, richly textured fruits remain unmatched by any olive rival. Shiny, almost translucent Bresaola, the salt-cured, air-dried beef that is the colour of beets, boasts a chewy, almost-jerky like texture, but is infinitely more delicate.
With Lino’s guidance I picked up a truffle-loaded salami from local producer, D-Original, which proved to be deliciously aromatic and rewardingly succulent. Spicy Genoa salami, with its orange-hued chilli composition, gave a generous kick of heat, while a novel gorgonzola, creamy with just a touch of blue vein, was infused with chillies as well and had a great balance between rich and sharp.
My family and I made short work of truffle hummus, the velvety spread jam packed with heady tuber aromas, while a tapenade of black olives, feta, and sundried tomatoes worked well on its own with plain bread.
I could not resist picking up a wedge of Nduja, a rare, almost never seen in Vancouver traditional Calabrian preparation that is basically spicy, spreadable salami. The cured sausage is like a coarse pate, but with the signature flavour of salty, spiced salami. Nduja is also pungent and decidedly meaty, best served along with other items so as not to overwhelm. I paired it with a thin layer of exquisite fig spread available from Puccini’s, atop a slice of Terra Breads baguette, and found the combination of sweet, spicy, and salty to be near perfect.
Perhaps the star of the entire selection was a truffle-studded Manchego. The salty Spanish cheese was heavily laden with ribbons of black truffle throughout and proved to be an unexpectedly big hit with my oldest, The Boy, who kept slicing the last morsel in half again and again so as to defer finishing it for as long as possible.
My ambitious, varied selection of goods, furnishing enough food for three solid meals for multiple people, came to $90.
Puccini’s Deli, 2027 Lonsdale Avenue, North Vancouver.