Papa’s Food Market keeps Ralph’s traditions alive
WILMINGTON, Del. (AP) — When Ralph Papa stood behind the deli counter at Papa’s Food Market, he seldom honored a customer’s request for a half pound of cheese, lunch meat, salami or homemade Italian sausage.
To Papa, a half pound was never really a half pound. It was more.
“It’s just a little over,” Papa would say after he sliced and weighed the items that almost always went over the mark. “Is that all right?”
His ability to nudge customers to increase their order is a long-standing joke at the 90-year-old market, sandwiched between Union and Lincoln streets, in the city’s Little Italy neighborhood.
Few shoppers minded the extra amounts because abbondanza, the Italian word for abundance, is a hallmark of Papa’s Food Market.
It also was hard to say no to Papa, a caring, friendly figure at the old-fashioned, Old World-style market, who always asked patrons about their family members.
When Papa became forgetful and seemed distracted around 2012, longtime customers of the 1910 W. Sixth St. store, a fixture in the city since 1927, became concerned. After more than two years of illness, Papa died in March 2015 at age 70.
Rosemarie, his wife of 32 years, has continued the Papa family legacy and is keeping many of the Italian market’s traditions in place.
But she also has made some recent changes and upgrades that she believes would have earned Ralph’s approval.
Wednesdays through Saturdays, Papa now makes and sells homemade lasagna (marinara or meat-based), along with foil containers of eggplant parmesan and chicken parmesan. There’s also meat-stuffed peppers and portobello mushrooms. All the products Rosemarie uses in the dishes come from the store, and the tomato sauce is her own family’s recipe.
“I have a customer who says, ‘Rose, I can drink your sauce,’” she jokes.
Rosemarie, like Ralph, has a heavy hand and the lasagna, enough to feed two or three people, is a hearty serving. One of the 8-1/2-by-6-inch containers, with its layers of boiled noodles, snow-white ricotta, freshly sliced mozzarella and tomato sauce, can weigh about 3 pounds.
“I do it heavy. When you cut it, you get that nice wedge,” she says. “People like that.”
Prices are more than reasonable: lasagna with marinara is $11.99, while the one with meat sauce is $13.99. Chicken parm is $8.99, and eggplant parm is $7.99.
Cooking for customers is helping to heal Rosemarie’s broken heart.
“Food should be about happy times. When I cook at my house, everyone shows up. We’re an eating store. Whatever you want, and we can help out with it, we’ll make it,” she says.
Rosemarie doesn’t even mind if anyone tries to pass off her lasagna or eggplant parm as their own.
“I tell people, ‘Bring me your pan. I will make it in your pan and no one will know,’” she says, laughing.
Papa’s Food Market was founded by Pietro Papa, known by his nickname as “Peter Pop.” Ralph, the youngest of his 12 children, worked in the store his entire life.
He was so devoted to his customers, he once sold the store’s last Thanksgiving turkey - the one that was going to feed the Papa family on the holiday - to a customer who waited too long to buy one.
“This was his baby. He grew up with it, he loved it and it showed,” Rosemarie says.
Ricky Dilan, an employee of Bierig Brothers in Vineland, New Jersey, who has been delivering veal to the store for more than 15 years, says he always enjoys his deliveries to Papa’s
“I knew Ralph. He was a good man. He was a funny guy,” he says. “They’re nice people.”
Rosemarie had never worked much in the store. She was busy raising three children who now have their own careers. But when Ralph became ill, she began assuming more and more responsibilities, and made changes.
Walls have received fresh coats of paint, and a new brick red awning will soon grace the outside entrance. Shelves have been cleaned, restocked with various items and rearranged.
The packages of dried, imported Italian pastas, once situated near the dairy aisle, are now near the jars of tomato sauce. Gone is some of the clutter and items that were popular in the 1980s.
Produce is piled in baskets. Fresh, crusty loaves of homemade bread from Wilmington’s Market Street Bakery & Cafe are ready to be bought, sliced and swiped in tomato sauce.
Rosemarie now carries gluten-free pastas, but still keeps traditional items like bottles of anise oil that’s used to make pizzelles, the classic Italian waffle cookies.
There’s also more prepared food than before. Rosemarie and longtime employees Arturo and Felix Romero fry a variety of colorful peppers, sauté broccoli rabe, prepare marinated mushrooms and cherry pepper poppers and make a variety of bruschetta toppings. Trays of tomato pie and focaccia line the top of the deli counter.
The cannoli also is housemade. Rosemarie says the shells, stored in glass jars on the counter, are only stuffed with Papa’s blend of ricotta, mascarpone cheese, sugar and a hint of lemon zest when a customer orders the Italian desserts. That way they stay fresh and crunchy.
“Ralph always said ‘We could be so much more.’ He knew there was a need to have food ready to go. But he left before he had a chance to do it.
“I’m just trying to do what he wants,” Rosemarie says and rubs Ralph’s wool checkered cap that sits by a cash register. “But it’s not easy.”
She then shows the engraving on a bracelet she bought soon after Ralph’s death. It reads: “She believed she could, so she did.”
“I needed a lift. I have his hat and I have this bracelet. All I need now is a couple of dragons,” she jokes, referring to a character from the “Game of Thrones” series known as the Mother of Dragons.
“I want to make him proud,” she says, her eyes welling up with tears. “And when I see him, I’m going to wring his neck.”
Rosemarie says the store, open Mondays through Saturdays, operates like a well-oiled machine. “Ralph left a format, and we just follow it. It’s easy to run something when someone did it so well.”
She is grateful for longtime employees Arturo and Felix Romero who make the sausages and do all the butchering, but Rosemarie acknowledges, as she grows older, she can’t keep running the business on her own forever. There are no plans to close.
“I don’t want to be that person that leaves because Ralph wouldn’t have done that,” she says.
But none of Rosemarie and Ralph Papa’s children are interested in running the store. Rosemarie says the door is open and she would like to bring in an apprentice or partner to keep Papa’s going for future generations.
“I want to pass the baton to someone.”
For now, Rosemarie plans to continue on. And soon, in remembrance of Ralph, she plans to sell soft wine carriers that have the Papa’s Food Market logo as well as personalized koozie drink holders with Ralph’s famous saying, “It’s just a little over.’”
Rosemarie looks at the koozie and laughs.
“It was always more than just a little over. It was more like a half pound over! But everyone would just say, ‘OK, Ralph.’ He did it because he knew they really wanted more.”
Information from: The News Journal of Wilmington, Del., http://www.delawareonline.com