My trip to the “Little Italy” of Middle Village

2020 has been a very unique and challenging year to say the least. It was a year full of uncertainty and fear that we will not soon forget. Throughout all of this insanity one thought has been shining through and filling me with hope, cheer, goodness and love. That could only be one thing: the Christmas season! Christmas is and always will be a time of great joy for most of us. Thinking back over the years of Christmas past, a flood of warm memories of the family, friends, loved ones and naturally, the food that made the season bright come rushing in. 

Normally, I would be writing recipes for the magazine however, today I would like to do something different. Something I hope you all enjoy. I would like to share with you a vivid illustration of something that instilled a sense of calm, normalcy and happiness in me during the height of the pandemic – my trips to what I lovingly refer to as the “Little Italy” of Middle Village to do my food shopping. 

It all starts for me on the corner of 78th Street and Metropolitan Avenue. On this street you will find some of the best fresh baked bread, fresh fish, fruits and vegetables, meats and cheeses you could ever want! For purposes of today’s article, I will focus on one of the many great businesses in the area, Mario’s Meat Market. As I began to work on this Christmas edition of the Juniper Berry, I thought to myself, let me go visit Mario’s and talk to the owner. He was so gracious and happy to speak with me. The following is my interview with Mr. Joe DiGangi, owner of Mario’s Meat Market.

Hi Joe, thank you so much for taking the time out of your busy day to speak to me. As you know, with the pandemic affecting us like it did, I wanted to let you know that throughout the COVID hysteria and uncertainty, it was a real comfort and pleasure coming in here and seeing all of the familiar faces and being able to order all of the great quality meats, cheeses and prepared foods you guys procure so well here. Throughout the pandemic there were so many businesses shuttered, so many people out of work and out of their minds with all the unknowns. That being said, during these crazy days, our brave and tireless front-line medical workers received much well-deserved thanks and praise from all us. Now that we have gotten through much of the uncertainty, I wanted to focus on the unsung heroes of our time. Our butchers, bakers, delis, fishmongers and restaurants! It was all of you that kept us well fed and feeling loved throughout this crazy time. As a community I know I speak for many by saying thank you for your dedication to all of us. 

Q) What was life like for you and your staff during the pandemic?

A.) It was the same as everybody else, the uncertainty was killing us. We didn’t know if were allowed to open or stay open. We didn’t know what to believe with all the talk of meat shortages and supply chain issues in the beginning so we were very busy on the phone with all of our vendors and distributors trying to figure out what to do for our customers. We felt very strongly that we owed it to our customers to keep everything stocked up and to offer the same quality they have come to rely on us for. 

Q.) What happened with the supply chain? What were you able to do to overcome those issues?

A.) Once the dust settled a little, we figured out that much of what was being said wasn’t really true. We weren’t being shut down as we were deemed essential and the talk of food shortages never really came to fruition, thank God! Once we realized that everything would be ok, we tried to pass that confidence on to our customers. 

Q.) Did you ever contemplate not opening during the pandemic?

A.) I felt like we owed it our customers to be here. Some of our customers have been loyal to us for over 30 years. While I was really worried about my staff and my own safety I really did not want to close. My wife definitely wanted me to close as you can imagine she was very worried about me, but in the end, I just couldn’t do it.

Q.) What were some of the protocols and procedures you implemented to help ready yourself and your staff to cope with this new reality we find ourselves in?

A.) I knew in my heart that there was a way to operate safely and we did just that. We brought in professional cleaning companies that sanitize the entire store two times a week. We also augmented the store’s hours of operation. We limited the walk ins ending store hours at 1pm every day in order to focus on the incoming pick up orders and we educated ourselves thoroughly to help protect both staff and customers alike. 

Q.) What are some of your most memorable moments operating during the height of the pandemic?

A.) It was the first week of the shutdown. I came into work, we had a good amount of orders to fill, we were busy all day. It was about 12 noon, I wanted to feed my crew who had been working very hard, so I went to Rosa’s Pizza on the corner to buy some pies. When I went outside, I never in my life before – even back when my father owned the store – had I ever seen a line stretch all the way up the block! This I’d say is a memory that sticks with me very vividly. 

Q.) If you would, tell me what you would say to us, the community that loves you so much?

A.) I’d love to say only one thing, Thank you! Thank you for all the loyalty over the years and all the loyalty through this thing.

Q.) I would like to shift to a lighter subject. As this is the bread basket of Middle Village, a true gourmet paradise if you will, with Christmas right around the corner, would you please tell me what are some of the delicacies your customers have to come to rely on Mario’s for their Christmas dinners?

A.) We provide everything from top to bottom: antipasto through to the main course. One thing we are known for are our oven ready roasts. All you have to do is unwrap it and throw it in the oven, it’s great for saving time during the busy Christmas season. We also specialize in crown roasts and one of our all-time classics and a huge favorite here is our stuffed veal roast. It is stuffed with sausage meat, prosciutto, mozzarella and breadcrumbs. It is wrapped in bacon and ready to cook. Our goal is to simplify your life during the holidays. 

Q.) Since I am talking to a Master Butcher here, I have a fun albeit special question. As you know we Italians take our Christmas Eve and Christmas Day dinners very seriously. If I can ask you a personal question, tell me what are your favorite foods to prepare and eat at the DiGangi Christmas table?

A.) As long as I can remember, in my house, like most Italians, we always overdo it! In our family we start with the antipasto. Usually a little dry sausage, imported Italian cheeses, dry fruits. Next, it’s not Christmas in my house without the pasta course! We eat pasta al forno. It is a Sicilian dish that is similar to Bolognese sauce except it is made with sausage meat. Then we will either have a veal roast or prime rib roast, then of course we will have cookies, pastries and all the trimmings.

Q.) Joe, in closing, I want to thank you for your time today. I really appreciate you speaking with me and sharing some of your memories, thoughts and more. I want to say as your customer, thanks to you and your fantastic staff for all your dedication and hard work. It really shines through. On behalf of myself and the Juniper Berry I want to wish you and yours a blessed & Merry Christmas and a Happy & Healthy New Year! 

To all of you fine folks that regularly read and support the Juniper Berry I want to say a special thank you. It is an honor writing for this publication and it is a higher honor to share my articles with you regularly! I really do hope you all enjoyed this intimate look into one of our many amazing small businesses. I would also like to give a special word of thanks to our Police Department, Fire Houses and Emergency Medical Professionals as well as our local Nurses and Doctors. This Christmas I know that I have never been more thankful for the daily sacrifices made by these amazing individuals.