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.
In the intervening years, the Russos keep talking longingly about getting back into the food business and keeping their eyes on likely spaces that would come on the market in and around town. Debbie had lots of nostalgic stories to tell about hanging out at Ed’s in her youth; “We always felt this place had amazing potential,” she says. So when they heard that Paul’s Kitchen was about to go out of business, they jumped at the chance to lease and renovate the space. “I’m getting older,” says Carmine with a smile. “I don’t want to climb roofs anymore.”
Still, his experience in the construction trade paid off in the rebirth of the former greasy spoon and SUNY faculty hangout. The Russos reconfigured the space, installed new flooring and a wraparound counter and repainted the vintage woodwork in tasteful shades of slate blue and rust. They put a cozy loveseat and coffee table in one corner and hung lovely prints of Italian streetscapes on the walls. Under the glass tabletops are collages of real newspaper clippings from the Old Country, and there’s a vase of fresh-cut flowers on each table. Music from the ‘50s and ‘60s plays softly in the background. Rather than the kitschy look of a stereotypical American pizzeria that’s striped in the red, white and green of the Italian flag, the space has the welcoming feel of a genuine Old World café.
Wraparound windows fill the seating area with daylight even on a dull winter day, and the five wrought-iron tables on the patio out front are sure to become a draw once the weather warms up. “In Italy, that’s what people do,” notes Carmine. “They want to be al fresco and have their coffee.”
While they wait for the outdoor café season to arrive, the Russos are taking steps to get their neighbors into the mood by providing a daily Coffee Happy Hour from 2 to 5 p.m., with price discounts on all desserts and the espressos and cappuccinos to wash them down. The baked goods are all made in-house by Anya Ritz, the daughter of Trudy and Ed Ritz, former owners of the late lamented New York Video Exchange; and the organic fair-trade coffees are custom-blended for Russo’s Italian Deli by Chris’s Coffee Roasters of Albany. If cold drinks are more to your liking, the place carries a full line of Pellegrino sodas imported from Italy — including the hard-to-find Chinotto flavor, which somewhat resembles birch beer — as well as Manhattan Special coffee soda.
Debbie, who claims not to be much of a cook herself, handles the business end: ordering, bookkeeping and so on; and both of the Russo children have come to work for the family business full-time. “My daughter knows more about cheese than anyone should,” says Debbie proudly, and Marina is also in charge of making up the salad and antipasto party trays that are an intrinsic part of the Deli’s growing catering service. The Russos’ big kitchen is equipped to provide both freshly made hot foods and salad trays for Christmas parties, and a smaller version called the Mini-Tray is available for takeout as a healthful and tasty alternative to fast food for harried working people.
But so far, the busiest time of day at Russo’s Italian Deli has been lunchtime, when the lines sometimes grow long for a custom-made sandwich of high-quality imported hams, salamis and cheeses. Prices are quite reasonable, with all hot heroes going for $7 each and specialty sandwiches ranging from $7.95 to $9.50. My Cousin Luca — named after a real-life cousin back in Italy and consisting of prosciutto, a chicken cutlet, provolone, lettuce, onion, mayo and olive oil on Italian bread from the Rockland Bakery — is the hottest seller, according to Debbie.
There’s a grill for traditional American breakfasts, and plans are in the works to introduce Italian breakfast specialties like frittatas and potato, pepper and egg sandwiches quite soon. Evening dining is also available, though less busy. “We’re building that,” says Carmine, indicating that evening hours will likely be extended come summer. At present, the Deli is open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday and from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Sunday.
Who has discovered this new midtown hideaway so far? “We get lots of college students,” Debbie reports, “and lots of senior citizens for breakfast; business people as well. There’s a group of five or six ladies who come in every week to hold some sort of meeting.”
As word-of-mouth spreads that our town’s deplorable Italian deli gap has finally been filled, it’s a good bet that this space will start to fill up at all hours, so check it out now, while there’s still plenty of seating — not to mention free wi-fi service for those who wish to linger for an hour or two with an espresso and a laptop. And if you’re in need of some radical comfort food, try Anya’s cannoli-topped cupcake; it gives new meaning to the term “decadent.”
“We wanted to create something that the community needed, and would give us jobs,” says Carmine. “This corner needed a vision,” adds Debbie. “The building has good karma — it was just stifled!”