Scimeca’s Italian Grocery: Like the Old Country

The Kansas City Star

Scimeca’s soul: Its Italian heritage Third-generation owner will update Northeast food store but keep its specialties.

SUSAN LAHEY

The first thing that hits customers when they walk in Scimeca’s Thriftway is the smell: sausage – pungent, spicy, meaty sausage.

Some grocery stores smell like a water cooler. In Scimeca’s, the old family recipe being churned out in the back wafts over the cling peaches, the peanut butter, the toilet paper and the dandruff shampoos that make up two-thirds of the store. It summons the customer to the back, where the soul of Scimeca’s lives.

There, for nearly 60 years, the Scimeca ( pronounced shi-may’-ka ) family has peddled items some other grocers have never seen: Caciocavallo and Mascarpone cheeses; 22 brands of olive oil ranging from lightweight yellow to a murky Sicilian extra virgin; capers and fava beans.

Sixty percent of Scimeca’s $2.2 million in revenues comes from the sale of items like these to city dwellers and suburbanites who descend on the store every weekend. They may be Anglos, Asians or African-Americans, but when they make veal scallopine they want it to taste like fare from a bistro, not an Iowa cannery.

Some of these customers are Italians, neighbors and former neighbors of the store at 1447 Independence Ave. who come back for authentic ingredients. These are the ones who still make cuccia for St. Lucy’s Day and pasta Milanese for St. Joseph’s Day.

“A lot of the people I grew up with moved away and forgot the old ways,” said Phil Scimeca, 42, the third-generation owner of the store who admits that he speaks more Spanish than his ancestral tongue.

But in an hour at Scimeca’s, four buddies from the neighborhood pass through. Once stocks Scimeca’s cheese case. Chuck Romano buys lunch at the deli. Mary Ann Fiorello Haynes collects ingredients for an Italian buffet she’s throwing to celebrate the anniversary of a friend’s bar.

Scimeca greets them with inquiries about their families, a squeeze to the upper arm.

Haynes, a second-generation Scimeca’s customer, said she knows of no place else in town she can buy the foods she buys there.

“We are full-blooded Italian people. We want ingredients that are real imported foods. ” For most purposes, Scimeca’s is the only Italian grocery in town, says wholesaler Joe LaRocca, president of the LaRocca Grocery Co. Besides, Scimeca’s is the grandpapa of the Italian foods market.

Jasper Mirabile Jr., owner of Marco Polo’s Italian deli on Wornall Road, says his store sells more gourmet items, but Scimeca’s volume has Marco Polo’s beat.

A stroll around Scimeca’s tiny imported foods section is like a tonic for wanderlust. There, along with the shelves of balsamic vinegars and what is claimed as the largest canned tomato section in the Midwest, are exotic spices like hibiscus and Zahter bought in bulk by the store and repackaged to sell cheap.

The store sells rose water, distilled over rose petals and used by Syrians for desserts. It sells California squid, espresso, canned snails and bags of shells. It sells lupin beans and Codena mushrooms that sell 15 grams for $6. In addition to Italian, Greek and Middle Eastern foods, the store recently added a kosher section.

All told, this little section of Scimeca’s is serviced by about 18 wholesalers, distributors and importers throughout the United States, Scimeca says.

Scimeca’s deli feeds about 100 people every day at lunchtime.

Thirty-two-feet long, it offers 35 meats, many of them imported, and 18 cheeses. The store’s cooks whip up lasagna and spaghetti with a family-recipe tomato sauce Scimeca also sells over-the-counter in jars. In addition, the deli pumps out 300 pounds of Italian olive salad, and the sausage maker grinds out 2,500 pounds of sausage weekly.

“I’d love to open an Italian restaurant,” Scimeca said. “The restaurants now, you buy a plate of spaghetti and it costs you, what, $7.98? For $7.98 I’d give you a pound of spaghetti and throw in six meatballs. ” His dream of a restaurant may come true some day. But right now the grocer has another project to tackle.

While the back of the store has developed a following and a life of its own, the rest of Scimeca’s seems to have been neglected. The old roof had served its time. Now employees scatter buckets around the store’s floor to catch the rain as it dribbles in.

Two months ago, Phil Scimeca bought out his last remaining partner, his uncle Louis, and began to make changes. He ordered a new roof, which soon will be followed by a general sprucing up.

A few weeks ago, he signed up as the 28th affiliate of the Thriftway chain.

“This will help a lot,” Scimeca said. “Independent grocers cannot compete with chains. ” Not only has the grocery business changed, but so has the neighborhood, since Phil’s grandfather, Fillipo, and his father, Frank, started Scimeca’s in Columbus Park in 1936.

Fillipo, a baker and Sicilian immigrant, had been jobless for four years, as a result of the Depression. Nineteen-year-old Frank had worked part-time for a grocer for years when he and his father opened a little grocery.

The neighborhood back then was mostly Italian, and 75 percent of the food in the grocery catered to Italians. Then in the 1950s, Interstate 35 came through and scattered many of the local residents to the suburbs. Still, Scimeca’s thrived. Frank Scimeca said the 1960s and ’70s were its strongest years.

Now while a handful of the old families still lives in the north end and the Northeast, the neighborhood has had a rush of other immigrants.

The changing world outside Scimeca’s called for changes inside. But only in the front of the store. Not in back. Not in the business’s soul.

That will remain largely the business that Phil’s father and grandfather passed on to him. It will probably be the same business he passes on to his son, who gave up a football scholarship to join the line of succession.

“I guess I’m from that type of generation where you always worked where your father worked,” Scimeca said. “I never knew anything else. I think I was born in the back room. ”

 

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