A big Italian Sunday supper is like a hug—warm, familiar, comforting, and shared. A tangle of pasta, made from scratch the same way it’s always been, cooked just al dente with enough to feed twice the actual crowd. Succulent meatballs, with the right ratio of meat and crumb, or a link of zesty Italian sausage so familiar it’s like part of the family. And, of course, the sauce, tomatoey and simmered low and slow. Red remnants on the plate are mopped up with hunks of crusty bread, kneaded by hand as it was generations ago. To finish, the dolce—biscotti, panettone, pizzelle—all at once expected and still special.
Part of what makes the meal fulfilling and magnetic is the love and time that goes into carefully crafting each traditional dish. But these days, as hockey league play spills into Sunday mornings and everyone’s got to be dressed, packed and out the door early Monday, the love is there—but the time to cook from scratch often isn’t. As is no surprise in the City of Good Neighbors, families right around the corner sometimes step in to help.
Many of Western New York’s favorite Italian food brands are family businesses that started as small mom-and-pop shops and have since grown into regional, national and international companies still run by new generations of the same families using many of the same handed-down recipes. Their names are as familiar as childhood friends—Gondola, Rosina, Mineo and Sapio, Pellicano, DiCamillo—and together, they help families in Western New York and beyond get a good Italian supper on the table in less than 30 minutes.
Wendy Colla-Bianco’s grandparents, Guido and Maria Colla, started Gondola Macaroni Products in a small shop on Buffalo’s West Side in 1958 shortly after they arrived from the Venice region of Italy (hence the Gondola name), where Guido’s family had made pasta. They started out with tortellini—which is still served, in soup, at Colla family meals—and added other cuts of pasta like shells, ravioli and tagliatelle as customers asked for them. The full menu of fresh and dried pasta is still made in a small storefront off Niagara Street using a machine Guido built by hand to work the pasta dough, and Colla-Bianco thinks he would be pleased to know that.
“My grandparents would be proud,” she says. “It’s part of the American dream to see their hard work thrive over generations. The fourth generation is teenagers, and hopefully they’ll want to get involved. My daughter is just a baby, but it would mean a lot to me if she wanted to work here and keep it going.”
A few years after the Collas started making pasta, another Buffalo family got into the meatball business. James Corigliano named his shop “Rosina” after his wife Rose, and together they started making sausage for local meat markets and restaurants. But when asked to make meatballs for a church picnic, Rose’s recipe was such a hit the shop switched its focus. Over the years Rosina expanded several times, acquired other Italian food companies and now distributes as far as Mexico and Canada with the second and third generation of Coriglianos still at the helm.
While Rose’s recipe is still the root of the company’s frozen Italian Style Meatballs, the product line has expanded to cater to newer generations’ dietary and taste preferences. There are now gluten-free options, meatballs made with lower-fat chicken and turkey and a variety of new artisan flavors like smoky maple bacon and pineapple-chorizo. Even though the flavors have changed, the heart of Rosina’s remains the same.
“Our meatballs are frozen, so we can still use natural ingredients and no preservatives and keep the recipes close to what people used to make themselves,” explains Chris Tirone, director of marketing at Rosina. “It’s good, clean food that can be made quickly, even in the crockpot, so people can spend time with their families instead of making things from scratch.”
While Rosina’s started with sausage and switched, Mineo & Sapio started with sausage and stuck with it for almost 100 years. John Mineo opened a meat market on Buffalo’s West Side in 1920, and quickly became known for his fresh Italian sausage. Thirty years later, his son-in-law Ralph “Cy” Sapio joined the family business as its second generation, and Mineo retired a few years later. With no children of his own, Sapio began passing down recipes to Michael Pierro, who started working at the shop at age 15 and later bought the business following Sapio’s passing. To this day, says Pierro, the company continues to use many of the original recipes and has kept that same close-knit feeling
“I lived a block away from the original shop growing up,” says Pierro. “I always felt like part of the family. When Mr. Sapio started showing me the recipes, it was two handfuls of this, two of that. But Cy’s hands were bigger than mine, so we started measuring for the recipes to make sure they stayed consistent. We have people who have been here for more than 40 years, and we’re still a small company with 12 employees—and we treat them as family.”
The same year Mr. Mineo started making sausage, Tomaso and Addolorata DiCamillo and their 11 children opened a bakery in Niagara Falls. The ovens were in the basement, the bakery store was on the street level and the family lived upstairs. Horse-drawn wagons and then early trucks delivered fresh bread to Italian homes and grocers all over Niagara Falls. After World War II, the family bought a pastry bakery nearby and expanded into sweets. Several expansions and three generations later, DiCamillo Bakery is a household name across Western New York and beyond. In almost a century since the cellar wood-fired hearths, the DiCamillo bread recipe hasn’t changed and every loaf is still rolled by hand and delivered to stores fresh every day. But some things, like the biscotti, have evolved.
Michael DiCamillo, grandson of Tomaso and Addolorata, started working in the bakery when he was a kid, slicing bread in the 1960s. He left to live and work in New York City for a time, then came back to the family business. While in New York, he had a hard time finding good biscotti outside of Italian neighborhoods and had an idea.
“People didn’t know what they were outside of Italian communities,” says DiCamillo. “So I started bagging them, bringing them to New York and selling them to high-end stores. We sold to Bloomingdales, Macy’s, Saks and Dean & Deluca. Neiman Marcus is still our biggest customer. By the mid ’80s, biscotti was a sensation, and everyone was coming out with it. Things have evolved—I can tell you right now my grandfather did not put chocolate chips in biscotti. We stay with tradition, but we stay current.”
As many Western New York Italian family food brands transition into third and fourth generation ownership, another is still in its first. In 1992 Mario Pellicano began making pasta sauce at his dad’s grocery store, then started selling it to other supermarkets and gourmet shops. The store kitchen gave way to a commercial kitchen, which expanded into a production facility that now produces jars of sauce bursting with the distinctive flavors of fresh tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, basil and Romano cheese. Pellicano’s sauces, in a variety of recipes, are now on the shelves at Tops and Wegmans alongside the biggies like Prego and Newman’s Own.
Whether first generation or fifth, the Western New York’s Italian food families share the same sentiments surrounding the value of gathering for a meal.
“We’re all about eating at home,” says DiCamillo. “Take it home and enjoy. There are so many ethnic food traditions that are kept alive here because people care so much about them. My grandparents would be overjoyed that what they created kept our family together and stayed in business—and true to our roots.”
Story topics: Food + Drink