An Italian Piazza in Metro Detroit

Whole Foods is great and Trader Joe’s has clever old-timey drawings on their flyers but I grew up toddling behind my parents at places like Arcuri’s Cheese World, the European Pantry and a small Hungarian bakery that may or may not have had an official name. 

Sure, my hometown had an A&P and two mid-size family markets called Pupo's and Commisso's, but it's those small, specialty European stores that caught my attention most. The sights, smells and people. We’d stop in for some groceries and stay for a coffee (dad) or an ice cream (me).

I grew up in small town in Canada called Welland that was settled by immigrants from all over Europe. They dug the canals connecting Lake Ontario and Lake Erie and worked in factories run by Union Carbide, United Steel and Atlas Steel—generations of Polish, Italian, Irish, Scottish and Hungarians.

A natural byproduct of this multiculturalism was food. My dad was a third-generation Hungarian with a hearty appetite and a love for the meats, cheeses and desserts of his homeland. He scouted the best places for ingredients. The best Italian market for meats and cheeses. The best Hungarian bakery for bread and pastries. The best place for handmade fresh noodles. He had a cucumber guy. He had a cabbage roll lady. 

I miss those days and it's been a long time since I walked into a place that reminded me of that time in my life. Until I walked into Cantoro Market and turned me into a seven-year-old again.

"Cantoros is a unique animal," says Michael Larranaga, general manager and sommelier at the newly opened Cantoro Italian Market on Haggerty Road in Plymouth. "We didn't just want to build a market. We wanted to build a meeting place. In Italy, the piazza is where people go to socialize, share recipes, share information, gossip, catch up with old friends and, of course, shop for meat or cheese or produce. That’s what we’re trying to accomplish."

The 30,000 square-foot space is an attempt by founder Mario Fallone to replicate the marketplaces of his homeland in Italy. Fallone grew up in Italy and moved to the United States after World War II. He opened his first market in 1966 after a family friend named Cantoro, who operated a small market in downtown Detroit, had an emergency back in Italy that forced him to return to the homeland. Fallone purchased the market and, out of respect, kept the Cantoro name. In 1972, Fallone moved Cantoro’s Italian Market to Livonia where it still operates. 

The family decided to build a larger store, adding every wonderful amenity of Italy to the new space. 

"In Italy, everyone does everything for a day, not a week.”

"Italians don’t buy 10 tomatoes to feed them for the week, they buy two for that day," says Larranaga. "They buy enough meat or pasta for dinner. In Italy, everyone does everything for the day, not the week."

The Cantoro produce selection is good, but the quantities aren't overwhelming. You won't see long rows of nine different kinds of apples or 60 heads of iceberg lettuce.

“We don't buy produce in large bulk,” says Larranaga, “but we buy daily. If it doesn’t look good that day, it doesn't get bought. You won't find bad produce here.”

Options expand as the goods become less perishable. The bakery is stocked with a nice selection of traditional and contemporary desserts along with freshly baked bread. The prepared foods section is impressive with pastas, dips, spreads arancini, roast porketta, paninis, meatballs and various chicken and fish options. The deli and meat sections are divine—standards plus old world favorites like liver sausage, head cheese, olive loaf and beef bologna. An entire wall of hanging salami.

The aisles on the end of the market are loaded with products I've never seen in stores before, imported from all over the world—rows and rows of pickled vegetables, tomato sauces and canned fish. 

"Mario tries to bring things to Cantoro that you wouldn't find anywhere outside of Europe," says Larranga. That includes staff and equipment.

Imported from Detroit. And Sicily.

Over the course of my interview, Larranaga constantly references this guy they brought over from Italy or that guy they brought over from Italy.

"We had an authentic wood burning pizza oven shipped in from Italy and brought someone in from Italy specifically to cook it …"

"Two guys from Sicily make all of our pastries …"

"We have a top of the line espresso machine in the trattoria and a guy brought in from Italy to do espressos and cappuccinos …"

Cantoro Market is its own self-sustaining Italian consulate.

"We make our sausages on property, on pastries on property, our pastas on property, our bread on property … we try and make everything as authentic as possible," says Larranaga. They have a guy who only does olive oils and balsamics. Cantoro Market isn’t messing around.

There are plenty of items that aren't branded with the Cantoro logo (though you can buy almost anything Cantoro, including a special blend of coffee) but Larranaga understands that the market needs to include inventory for an audience beyond expat Italians.

"Of course we realize that we’re not in Italy," says Larranaga. "There are so many different cultures in this area. In Europe, everyone goes to little markets squares and piazzas to gather no matter what the nationality. We have Polish style sausages and baked breads that are common in many different parts of the world. I’ll admit, there’s a bit of Italian in everything, so if we prepare a Polish dish, it will have a little Italian flare."

"You won't find Kellogg's or mainstream products here — we don't want to carry those," says Larranaga. "We want to be unique and small — we're family owned and by no means a large corporate-run store."

Endcaps and displays aren't too slick and the staff is helpful but not in the way that they're sure to hit all five points of helpfulness covered in the staff meeting that morning. There are a million products and a thousand tastes to sample. You can grab a coffee in the trattoria, get a panini and sit on the second floor, or just explore. 

I found a small unattended area on the second floor opposite the trattoria that serves as a mini Italian market all unto itself. It’s stocked with espresso makers, tomato presses, dinnerware and a bunch of Italian movies on DVD. I asked Larranaga about the tiny set-up and he laughed.

"We import a lot of things from Italy and Mario wanted a tiny Italian market within the market where you could find items you wouldn't see in the U.S. Kitchen utensils you won't see here or CDs and DVDs."

It reminded me of my dad picking up similar items at the small Hungarian store he'd shop at, coveting the latest Hofi Geza cassette or latest collection of traditional Hungarian gypsy music.

Wine is mandatory with food

"We believe that wine is mandatory with food," says Larranaga, who doubles as the market sommelier. "Everyone should be able to try something. Wine isn't for the elite, and we have a price point for everybody. Wine shouldn't be marked up and we want to make sure everyone can afford it. This philosophy continues right into our restaurant."

The Cantoro trattoria seats 80 inside and will soon accommodate another 50 on the patio under imported awnings from (you guessed it) Italy. The trattoria is where the sparkling imported espresso machine can be found (along with its imported master operator) along with a healthy stock of Fernet Blanca, Sambuca and Peroni. Open for lunch and dinner, it’s here that Larranaga hopes to play matchmaker and help customers find the perfect wine.  

"There's a 300 percent markup on wine at most restaurants but we have retail pricing at Cantoro," says Larranaga. "We have Italian, French, Spanish, California —all types of wine— and we invite winemakers from around the world to stop by and educate diners on new experiences."

Cantoro Market stores much of its collection in one of the most unique spaces in Michigan —an underground Tuscan wine cellar where Cantoro holds wine events, wine clubs or lectures. The facility is also available to the public for wedding receptions and gatherings of all types. 

"We're packed with bookings for the banquet space," says Larranaga. "Rehearsal dinners, bridal showers, graduation parties, wedding receptions. We've got the second floor and our Tuscan wine cellar seats 80. We're hot and heavy."

The Future: Bocce courts and opera singers

"We want to be the place where everyone goes to meet and talk," says Larranaga. "There's coffee to be had and wine to be enjoyed. You can meet people, talk and enjoy the day."

"In July, Mario wants to give back to the people that helped put him here. We're going to throw a big open house—free food and different pastas and wine. In the summer, we also plan to have musicians on the balcony — maybe an Italian opera singer. We also have bocce courts coming in any day now. Anything outside the box, we'll try and find it."