We’re spending part of our holiday break in St. Louis, visiting Jim’s family and catching up with friends. We’re also eating well. St. Louis is a great food city due, in large part, to the fact that so many Italians settled there in the 19th and 20th centuries. Italian-American enclaves continue to thrive in the city. My favorite of these is a neighborhood called “The Hill.” It is certainly not the most elegant part of the city, with its narrow, crowded streets, unfashionably small houses, and unusual lawn decorations, but it is a haven for food lovers. Every time we come to the city, we make a pilgrimage to The Hill to enjoy great food, drink great coffee, indulge in great gelato, and shop at one of the all-time-great neighborhood grocery stores: J. Viviano & Sons.
The Hill is the place in St. Louis to go for bocce ball, knife sharpening, and spumone. Viviano’s is the place to go for staples of the Italian pantry: cranberry beans, reasonably priced cans of San Marzano tomatoes, anchovies packed in salt, oil, or both, and dayglo bright sugared almonds. When we go there, I stock up on olive oil, Marsala wine, aged balsamic vinegar, dried fava beans, farro, and pasta, just about any size or shape you can imagine. The best thing about Viviano’s is how real it is, how authentic. It isn’t some kind of simulacrum of an old-time Italian grocery store; it is one.
This means, of course, that it’s not much to look at. The floors are warped; the walls covered with kitschy Italian album covers, photographs of the founder’s wedding, and advertisements for Italian foods and films. Prominent among these is a poster that Jim covets: an original advertisement for Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, the perfect image to preside over this innocent shrine to Italian culinary hedonism.
The aisles in Viviano’s are narrow and uneven, probably no different from they way they were in 1949, when the store opened. There is no traffic flow in the place, no obvious pattern of navigation. You just kind of go to where your eyes take you, shopping in a very natural and human fashion. This makes the place sort of dangerous. The grocery carts are rickety and small, but not small enough to easily steer through the tiny store. Tense stand-offs with fellow shoppers are common. The place is mostly patronized by elderly Italian-American men and women — actual residents of the area — who shop there because Viviano’s carries authentic Italian food at good prices (listen up, Whole Foods!). Those old folks are tough though: they handily best me at grocery cart chicken.
Unlike modern grocery stores, Viviano’s smells like food, mostly of meat. This is because of the deli counter, which is usually packed with customers, especially on weekends and holidays. Throngs of people line up for capicola, pancetta, mortadella, and salami. There are huge buckets of olives — black, green, large, small, pitted, unpitted — and many different types of Italian cheese. Best of all, everything is reasonably priced. Those old folks simply won’t stand for being gouged.
Which is not to say that Viviano’s does not carry fine foods. Last year, when we were there during the holidays, I sampled the most incredible prosciutto, truly luscious stuff, but we were on our way out of town so I didn’t buy any. Oh, how I thought about it all the way home though. Obviously, I still have it on my mind.
When Jim and I fantasize about moving to St. Louis, we almost always talk about buying a little grandma bungalow on The Hill. The rest of our dream is almost purely culinary. Saturdays would look something like this: we’d walk to our favorite bakery in the morning — there are several to choose from — and then move on to Viviano’s for the day’s groceries, stopping at the Shaw’s Coffee for a cappuccino and grabbing a gelato for Mimi from Gelato di Riso. In the afternoon, we might play a game at Milo’s Bocce Garden. Finally, at night we’d have dinner with our friends M’Evie and John and Grant and Mary at Zia’s or maybe splurge and eat at Dominic’s, a venerable St. Louis institution. We’d enjoy the good food and excellent conversation and walk back to our tiny home together though those narrow, crowded streets.
And, then, maybe then, we’d be living la dolce vita.