Nourishing The Neighborhood

Article by Susan Frome

   At 72 America Street, in the Town Plot section of Waterbury, you will find a small red square building with hardly any distinguishing features. Open the door – and it is just like Dorothy opening her door to the glorious Technicolor world of Oz! Suddenly you are in a bright, new, open, airy space known as Avventura, a gourmet Italian deli – the real thing. “We redecorated in July 1990 for $250,000,” said owner Rosario Minnocci, “and re-designed it so that the customer can see the whole store at once. It creates a flow of movement so that as you move along you have to go by and see all the products.”

   Mr. Minnocci and his wife Luci bought the business 15 years ago after he received his MBA from the Thunderbird Institute in Phoenix, Arizona and then ten years in the corporate world as a vice-president of an importing company in New Rochelle, New York. “But my wife and I have a love of food and I wanted to do something on my own. Luci had been a nurse at Waterbury Hospital for ten years (they met at the University of Connecticut Waterbury Campus), and so we found this building which had been a deli (and a bar originally) for 35-40 years. We opened it as a butcher shop/Italian deli with traditional products here in Town Plot, which has the highest concentration of Italians in the country.”

   Mr. Minnocci’s business education and experience were well utilized in this “adventure.” A trend had been developing over a number of years in which immigration slowed down. “It became difficult because of new laws to come from Italy to this country,” he explained. “So what happened was that families stopped coming and the youth of old families here moved away. The demand for Italian [foods and products] became less. There are almost no Italian delis left in Waterbury. What to do? In the past, we had not made sandwiches here on the premises – customers would buy the ingredients and then go home and make their own. Well, we realized that what customers want are sandwiches prepared here as well as many other ready-to-go prepared foods. So, four or five years ago, we began doing just that. Today we make 300 sandwiches per day!”

    But the main ingredient stayed- – quality food. “You have to have good food,” Mr. Minnocci insisted. “And good food is good food – it does not necessarily have to be Italian. Last week we sold out of our chicken fiesta wrap, a Mexican special, and we offer New England clam chowder, too, and other different kinds of dishes as well. But, again, what matters is quality-people will come back for quality.”

   Another business concept that Mr. Minnocci uses as a guide is to carefully gauge the rate of growth. “Right now we could grow at any pace we want, but we have to be careful in how to do that. In fact, we have actually learned to slow down in order to provide our quality of service. The future is bright, but it’s how you control it that matters.”

   Avventura is very busy around the lunch hour. In three hours, 80 percent of the day’s business is done. But all the preparation takes much longer. The pastry chef, Kristy Oulette, arrives at 4 a.m. to begin the fresh-daily baking, while other preparations go on as well. “We butcher our meat here – 400 lbs. of chicken breast a week, 200 lbs. of meatballs per week, and 25 lbs. of eggplant are cut and fried especially thin to bring out its best flavor every day.”

   Co-owner Luci Minnocci added that the recipes used in the shop “are from my family and friends. Salads, breads, chicken parm, the bakery – they are all home-style. Seven years ago I gave up nursing to work here full time. I have a passion for cooking, and I get involved with our customers, their families and how they’re doing. All of our four children have worked here. My son, Alessandro, was a math whiz – he ran the register when he was in the fourth grade!”

   Glen Thomas, the chef of the kitchen and head of catering, chatted for a while with this writer, too. He said, “The most important rule of the business is to offer what the customers want – not what we want. For instance, we recently added full-size cakes and specialty cakes instead of just slices to our menu because there seemed to be a need there. It has worked out very well. We are constantly changing and trying new things.”

    Mr. Thomas also pointed out the different kinds of customers in the store at the same time, each with his or her own needs. “There’s a gentleman,” he said, “who has come in for his daily chicken salad sandwich while he reads the paper. Someone over there wants something new and interesting and is going to try our new special today, ‘Il Capo’ panini, while someone else is discussing what to order for a special occasion. It is always busy like this and exciting to see everyone getting what they want.”

   The specials for that day were: chilled shrimp stuffed avocado, rib-eye steak sandwich, jumbo lobster ravioli, and Il Capo panini. The deli section always offers cheeses, meats, salads, and hot dishes to take home. There are shelves of packaged pasta, a large bakery section, and a case full of a wide variety of gelato, a unique, flavorful, ice-cream-like dessert with 2/3rds less milk fat and less artificial ingredients than traditional ice cream. The gelato is made on the premises.

    Under the name “Avventura” on all the menus is written the phrase: “Experience the adventure in Italian eating.” It certainly was an adventure for this new customer – it’s worth the trip to go “over the rainbow.”