Pasta-tively delicious: Italian markets in Metro Detroit

Want to whip up some linguini covered with some amazing marinara sauce for an unforgettable Thursday evening meal? Looking for that jaw-dropping slice of pizza that'll absolutely blow your mind?

Nearly everybody's familiar with the more famous staples of Italian cuisine like pasta and pizza; and there's a reason for that: Italian-Americans are well established in our region nowadays. But that wasn't always the case.

As a group, they were slow to get a foothold in the Detroit area. In 1900, there were only a few hundred Italian-Americans in Detroit, clustered in what we today refer to as the city's Eastern Market and Greektown neighborhoods. As a matter of fact, at the turn of the 20th century, there were only a few thousand of them living in the entire region.

Over the years, however, many more immigrants from the boot-shaped country were drawn to the area by the lure of jobs tied to the automotive industry. By 1925, 42,000 Italians made their home here in Detroit, and an Italian-American community had developed along Gratiot Avenue on city's East Side.

As time passed, Detroit's bustling Italian-American population moved further out into the suburbs, establishing footholds in places like Livonia, Clinton Township, and the Downriver area, all of which are today home to community halls celebrating the Italian heritage.

Although current data on the region's Italian-American population is difficult to come by, the Order Sons of Italy in America (OSIA) estimated there were roughly 321,000 Americans of Italian descent in Metro Detroit in 2000, based on U.S. Census data from that year.

Some of them have made it their business to open markets to share Italy's rich food legacy with others in our region. We visit three of them here: an upscale boutique market in Birmingham, a venerable establishment in Dearborn and an enormous Italian foods complex in Plymouth.

Primi Piatti, Birmingham

Monica Bisignano Zamler, the owner of Birmingham's Primi Piatti Market, has a passion for authentic Italian cuisine that's rooted in personal experience.

She regularly takes trips to Italy, so she can enjoy the Mediterranean country's food first-hand and pick up artisan-made ceramics and linens for her shop. She's even gone so far as to check out olive fields where the olive oil brands she carries come from to ensure everything is up to her high standards.

"I've been to their orchards," she tells Metromode. "I've watched them pick 'em. I've seen their processing of olive oil, so I can guarantee what they are."

This dedication to quality and authenticity is at the heart of what Zamler is trying to achieve with her boutique market, which is known for its fresh-made pastas, wide selection of Italian meats and cheeses and extensive collection of imports.

Primi Piatti opened in 2011, after Zamler, a single mother whose husband had died several years earlier, decided to go into business doing what she loved best: cooking Italian food. When space opened up on Old Woodward Avenue a few doors down from where she worked, she jumped at the opportunity to turn her dreams into reality, using the money she had invested in the stock market to finance the venture.

The market's name means "first plates" in Italian, a reference to the first course of a meal which in Italy is traditionally pasta. Zamler has a pasta extruder which can make eight different shapes of pasta. These pasta offerings are made with all organic ingredients and come in a variety of flavors.

"We have our traditional pasta, but then we also have a basil pasta, spinach pasta, porcini mushroom pasta, and lemon pepper," she says. "We even have a roasted beet, a roasted red pepper. During the holidays, I make the black squid ink."

The pastas are complemented by homemade sauces, one of which is made by the shop owner's mother, Judy. On Sundays, Zamler offers up hand-made ravioli (in both meat and a vegetarian option). Another weekly event is her "Tasting Tuesdays," which involved taking one item off the shelves in cooking it into three dishes for customers to try.

Customers can also pick up sandwiches made fresh at the deli counter with high-end Italian meats like prosciutto and mortadella. The store also offers antipasto platters, regular and chicken meatballs, cannoli stuffed right at the time of purchase, and a wide range of imported goods including olives, artichokes, honey, jams, cookies, crackers, pastas and sauces.

Primi Piatti attracts a diverse clientele including native Italians, many of whom who work for Fiat and MOPAR, people from the neighborhood, local business people who want to grab some lunch and others who drive in from as far away as the Upper Peninsula to get a hold of the shop's unique food products.

Asked why she thinks her shop draws such a passionate customer base, Zamler chalks it up to a combination of enthusiasm, quality merchandise, and great customer service.

"I take the time, and we always give free tastes," the shop owner says. "We don't expect anybody to buy anything without knowing what they're buying.

"And I'm friendly," she adds. "I try to make it a fun experience."

Alcamo's Market, Dearborn

Alcamo's Market is well-known in Dearborn as the place to get tasty submarine sandwiches and fresh homemade Italian sausages. And according to Emily Chimento, daughter of owner John Chimento, it's also a family tradition with deep roots in the region's Italian community.

Established more than 55 years ago, the market is named after a small town on the island of Sicily. Chimento's grandfather, Antonio, immigrated from Italy, where he was a gardener, and later came to Michigan where he worked as an auto worker. Eventually, the family opened a market in Detroit that catered to Italian immigrants, one of the first ethnic specialty markets of its kind in the state. Following a shift in the region's Italian population, the family opened the Dearborn location in 1972.

Being around such a long time means people start to know you for things. For Alcamo's, Italian sausage are one item that has earned the market a reputation.

"We've been making old Sicilian and traditional-style Italian sausages since my dad's been in business," says Chimento, "and we have several different flavors...plain, garlic, fennel, green pepper, and onion."

Alcamo's is also the originator of a popular style of Italian sub that's priced at a very reasonable $5. Other homemade specialties include Arancini Sicilian rice balls (risotto rice stuffed with pasta sauce), Chicken and eggplant parmesan, and pasta and lasagna prepared in the store.

The meat counter is well-stocked with prime cut, high-grade, all-natural meats that are cut fresh daily by Chimento, who is a trained butcher. The store also carries other Italian imports, including cheeses, a whole aisle of pasta and bread and pastries brought in from local Italian bakeries.

Although the Italian community has, for the most part, migrated out of Dearborn, Alcamo's enjoys a good relationship and gets regular business from Italian-American customers who used to live in the area. They also get visitors from a wide range of ages and cultures coming from all over the state and even out of state visitors.

"We're a destination store, and if you're going to go to Dearborn, magazine articles will tell you to stop here, which is pretty cool. I'm honored to be a part of that."

Cantoro Italian Market & Trattoria, Canton

Totaling around 50,000-square-feet, Cantoro Italian Market & Trattoria in Plymouth is certainly large enough to be called a superstore, but the term doesn't really do the place justice; instead the market-and-restaurant complex feels much more like high-end department store dedicated to Italian food.

"The things on the shelf you'll find are more geared towards Italians," Cantoro's General Manager Alex Bazzy tells Metromode. "We have things that are directly imported right from Italy. We have a wine shop, a bakery, a full-service market, deli counter, prepared foods, house-made pasta section, cheese section."

"More or less they've become eight small companies under one roof," he adds.

Walking through the store, it's easy to see why Bazzy feels this way. The facility is enormous and buzzing with staff members stacking shelves, ringing registers and making food products.

So what's the story behind the Cantoro chain, which also includes a smaller store in Livonia? Owned by the Fallone family, they were both started by Mario Fallone, who comes from Italy's Lazio region and immigrated to the United States in 1954. 
After years working in the sales and groceries industries, he purchased a Detroit market from another owner in 1968, keeping the name Cantoro. Eventually that was superseded by the Livonia market, which was established in 1972, and now the flagship store in Plymouth which opened two years ago.  

Visitors to the market certainly have no shortage of options.

In the prepared food section, they can pick up a wide selection of in-house meals including pizza, sandwiches, pastas, lasagna salads. At the deli counter, customers can choose from many brands of meats including Boar's Heads. The bakery section offers an expansive assortment of Italian breads and pastries and is popular with folks looking for wedding cakes or desserts for catering events. Imported goods include cheeses, cookies, pastries and more. Representatives from the store attend a yearly Italian foods convention in Italy and use that opportunity to do direct importing from there.

"We have an extremely Italian portfolio focusing on every region of Italy, while also showcasing other regions of the world including France, Spain, the U.S., Australia, Argentina, Chile and even other European wines," says Tom Newsted, Cantoro's Beverage director.

The lower level of the complex features a curing room, where cheese is aged, as well as a rather stately looking cantina room, which doubles as a wine cellar and is used for banquets and private parties. Banquet facilities are also available at on the Mezzanine.

Folks looking to sit down and eat while visiting Cantoro can stop by Trattoria, an upscale full-service restaurant that makes dishes prepared from foods available at the market. And those who want it delivered to their home or a special event can make use of the market's catering services.

Located on Haggerty, near the I-96, I-275, M-14 expressways, Cantoro's Plymouth location is well placed to attract visitors from Detroit and Ann Arbor, as well as Livonia, which has an established Italian-American community. In fact, the market pulls people from as far away as Lansing and Ohio.

Newsted says there isn't a day that goes by where he doesn't meet a new customer who hasn't  been to the store before. He attributes this to hard work and care that the Fallone family and Cantoro's staff put into making the market a wonderful place to shop and eat.

"I just think were absolutely unique in what we're doing," he says. "Every single product we put out, we put great effort in putting it out, focus highly on the quality...and [we have] a lot of goods you can't find in other locations."