There are certain types of businesses that are essential to have in a town the size of New Paltz, if you want to encourage people to “shop local,” and one of those is a real Italian delicatessen. You know the kind that I mean: with strings of well-dried sopressata sausage and “piglets” of scamorze cheese hanging from the ceiling; trays of home-baked focaccia and cannoli displayed enticingly on the counter; bins full of a rainbow of varieties of imported olives, artichoke hearts and other essential antipasto ingredients in the refrigerated cabinets; bottles of intriguing products from Italy like fancy oils and hand-cut pasta on the shelves.
But alas, since the demise of Toscani’s several years back, Paltzonians have had to head out of town to Poughkeepsie or Kingston or Newburgh to find that sort of selection of Old World delicacies. So it should come as very welcome news indeed to local gourmets that in October, Debbie and Carmine Russo opened a brand-new, genuine Italian deli right on Main Street, in the building long known as Ed’s College Inn and more recently as Paul’s Kitchen. Even better, they’ve spruced up the interior and made it a most inviting place to sit in the sunshine and enjoy a cappuccino while watching New Paltz go by.
“I’ve always loved to cook,” says Carmine, who was born in Calabria and raised in Savona, Italy, “and I always cooked for friends when they came to visit.” He grew up hanging around the kitchen with four brothers and six sisters, soaking up their favorite culinary tips and tricks and the region’s native cuisine, using locally grown ingredients like chestnuts, olives, figs and “skinny red-hot peppers,” he recalls. Pesto Genovese was a local specialty; “You were making pesto before people here in America knew what it was,” his wife Debbie recalls.
Though also of Italian extraction, Debbie Russo is New Paltz-born and bred; well-known local “character” and memoirist Sadie Penzato is her aunt. The couple met when Carmine first came to New Paltz about 25 years ago to become half of the Russo Brothers building contractors, but, he says, “There was something about cooking that drew me back all the time.” They moved to Houston in the early ‘80s to open an eatery called, not surprisingly, Carmine’s Restaurant. The business did well — “Real Italian food was just arriving in Texas at the time,” he says — but their two children, Marina and Vincenzo, were born less than a year apart, and Debbie missed having the support of her extended family. So they returned to New Paltz in 1987, and Carmine rejoined his brother in the construction business.