Now that the nice weather has finally arrived, I have noticed a marked increase in the auto and foot traffic in our beloved Strip District. Over the winter months I normally found a prime parking spot on either Smallman St. or Penn Ave. and was able to shop at my favorite markets and stores and routinely deposit my purchases in the car rather than carry the many bags about. Lately, I have had to do a bit more cruising to find that primo parking spot, but patience is something I have a lot of.
One of my favorite stops is Jimmy and Nino's on Penn Avenue. I enjoy stopping in to buy, snack and visit with Jimmy. Over the years, I have come to appreciate the store and the import and domestic products that are carried there. I have to admit that I have fond memories of going to buy similar products in the neighborhood stores as a child and young man. We always knew the owners of these small stores and of course the owners knew all of our parents and us. This is what kept us honest and kept our fingers out of the penny candy boxes near the checkout register.
Jimmy and Nino's is just the right size. Small, but stacked with oil, tomato and other canned and jar products that move quickly from shelf to checkout. The meat counter is crammed with Italian specialties and cheeses. The counter workers have been there for years and are very familiar with the products. Behind the sandwich counter, Jimmy Sunseri reigns supreme. Overlooking the crowd with his unlit cigar, Jimmy will make you a mammoth Italian hoagie or an eggplant and shitake mushroom sandwich on store baked bread that will satisfy both you and your wife too. Meat ball and sausage sandwiches loaded with peppers, onions, his own tomato sauce and secret cheese fill out the sandwich menu. Pizza by the slice and pasta are also available. Grab something to eat and settle into a seat at a table outside to enjoy the street scene.
If you visit the store in the early morning, you will find Jimmy in the back room baking fresh breads and rolls for the store and for retail and wholesale sales. There is an old style five tier rotary bread oven that can bake 100 plus loaves at a time. On Friday and Saturdays, they bake five specialty breads and foot long pepperoni rolls that Nino's son rolls out on racks in front of the store and hawks to passers-bye. This is old style selling that puts a smile on your face and adds to the atmosphere of the Strip. As Jimmy and Nino's, the brothers have been in business in the Strip for over twenty-five years. The Sunseri family, which originated in Sicily, has been involved in the Italian food business for decades longer.
Nino's domain is the Bella Notte Italian Eatery on the corner of Penn and 20th Street. The building was the original Jimmy and Nino's that took up four stores and housed a large fresh vegetable area, a large Italian market that contained the many oils, pastas, and Italian products that we are familiar with. The complex also contained a large meat and cheese counter that was loaded with Italian cold cuts, sausages and specialty items such as their home-made hot pepper shooters. The stores also contained cookies and baked goods and I recall that Jimmy and Nino's father Anthony Sunseri would stand outside with a small oven and bake fresh sfogliatelle and sell them warm to people to enjoy with their cappuccino. These were the first sfogliatelle that I remember seeing here in Pittsburgh.
The Bella Notte serves some of the best fresh pizza in the Strip. In good weather, the glass doors open and it is as if you are seated in an open-air restaurant. There are also outdoor tables on the sidewalk in front of the building for dining and people watching. The restaurant enjoys a brisk business during the lunch and late evening hours when diners stop for a drink and something to eat after an evening at one of the Strip's nightspots.
In addition to the grocery store and restaurant, the brothers operate a successful wholesale business that deals with stores, restaurants and groups from their warehouse on Smallman Street. The enterprises keep both Jimmy and Nino very busy and you can often see them walking from one operation to another keeping everything moving along smoothly.
When you next visit the Strip for Italian specialties, sausages, wine grapes and juice (in season) or something quick and delicious to eat, stop in to see Jimmy and his cigar or Nino and ask him about life in the Strip District. Dig a little into your past and compare your memories with this classic Italian market. It's yours to enjoy.