Garry edges in closer. “Jerry makes a very good…” He pauses and looks around. “My mother’s not around is she?” Everyone laughs. “Jerry makes a very good sauce. I like it better than my mother’s.”
By Clara Inés Schuhmacher
“Hanging over there are the taralli.” Jerry points to a plastic bag full of golden cracker knots. “There’s fennel, garlic, black and hot pepper. And scorze di limone there, below them. Lemon-flavored pasta. People think they’re lemon skins and I say, ‘they’re not lemon skins! They’re pasta!’ You know, Italy is like America now, coming up with new crazy things every day to sell.”
“And this here is Casacaval,” Jerry swings at the waxy balls of cheese hung in red netting above his counter. I stare at him blankly. It looks like mozzarella to me, but my textbook Tuscan Italian extends only north to the Bolognese dialect. I have no idea what’s coming out of his mouth. He chuckles. “It’s like a dry, slightly smoked, mozzarella. I dunno know how they come up with the name. Casacaval is ‘house horse.’ How is ‘house horse’ a cheese?” He laughs. “Ou pan – some bread. You know, you’d say il pane but we say ou pan, damoupan, give me some bread. That’s Napolitano.”
The phone rings and Jerry disappears into the back. He’s yelling about some order. My unexpected audience for the evening introduces itself – Garry and Frank, both aficionados of Jerry’s cooking. They live down the block and, it seems, spend much of their time filling the Italian Specialty Store with their own stories (“the neighborhood gang” Jerry tells me later). Jerry returns, grumbling about Motorino — the celebrated pizzeria two blocks down – and how they’re always changing their order (that sopressata pizza everyone’s been clamoring for? Yup. Sopressata’s handmade by Jerry.)
I’m standing in Emily’s Pork Store on Graham Ave in Williamsburg. It’s just a bit past closing, and the half-drawn gate casts a warm shadow on shelves crowded with olive oils, bright red bottles of san bitter, nutella and beans and crushed tomatoes, roasted red peppers in jars tied with ribbon, biscotti, pastas in every imaginable shape. Dried salamis hang above the counter, pink and brown, some wrapped in white paper, some small, some dangerously heavy. The cold display is packed tightly with coils of sausage. At my feet is an open cardboard box stacked with savoiardi biscuits, for tiramisu.
Jerry is Gennaro Aliperti, and he’s been running Emily’s since 1989. It’s hard to believe I’m in Brooklyn – Emily’s even carries Mulino Bianco Abracci, only my favorite cookie ever, and not one that’s often seen alongside other Mulino Bianco products, even in the bigger Italian stores in Manhattan. So who is this Jerry, and what’s the story behind his store? And where’s Emily? I met up with Jerry and learned a little bit about how he got started, and why he’s still in the business. He even told me how to make his famous tomato sauce…almost.
So, who’s Emily?
Emily is my aunt. My uncle Frank opened up the place, and Emily’s his wife. [My uncle] was in the mason tenders business, and he got bored with that. So he started working in a pork store and decided to open one up. He took over one on Lorimer Street – it’s not there no more. And then he came and opened this one up here on Graham in 1974. He was here from ’74 – ’89, and I took over in ’89 and I’ve had it since.
How’d you get in to the business?
I just wanted a job for the weekend, to make some money. I was 13, you know. So I says ‘hey, just give me a job for two days and see how it goes.’ And it went well! I was 13 making $15 a week for like, 20 hours of work. Ha. But $15 in ’76 for a 13 year old, that was a lot of money!
I bet. What did you spend it on?
Well I saved most of it. My mother –she’s traditional. She’d say, ‘give me the money’ and she’d save $12 and give me $3 and I’d have $3 in my pocket – I was rich! I’d buy a slice of pizza for 50 cents, with a soda it’d be $1.25 all together.
What was your first task that weekend when you started?
Well when you make sausages, there’s a little puncher. After you tie the sausages there’s a little puncher with like 6, 7 pointy nail type things and you have to pinch the sausages and it lets the air out and the water out. And I says, ‘what else do you want me to do,’ and he says, ‘get the broom out,’ so I start sweeping, and next thing you know I’m packing shelves. It took me about a good year and half until my aunt taught me how to bone the meat out. I was already tying the sausages, but doing the meat, the real part, you know boning and grinding – she taught me that later. I learned it about 14 and a half, 15 years old. Then came taking care of customers. My uncle was always watching me, though, you know, wondering if I was giving them the right price. But it was nice working here.
So was it a started-at-13-and-never-looked-back kind of thing?
Oh yeah, I kept working and never stopped. I didn’t work all the way through – I worked from 13 to 18 years old, and then I went to college, and I was helping [my uncle] out a little bit on the holidays. After college, I helped my cousin Gino. He has a one-man construction company. And after that I went to work for Manhattan Specials, the coffee soda company. He’s a friend, and he needed someone to do sales, start orders. And then my uncle wanted to sell the business. I wasn’t a suit-and-tie type of guy. I couldn’t get on the subway in a suit and tie and go work in Manhattan in an office. I wanted to get comfortable and do what I enjoyed doing and I enjoyed doing this.
And is there a reason it’s called a pork store? There’s a lot of other stuff in here.
Well, you got your butcher, which is basically beef and sometimes they’ll carry other meats, but a pork store is where you make your own salamis, sausages. Salsiccia, they say in Italian. That’s what [my uncle] did. He made sausages. So he called it a pork store.
Looks like you still make the salami.
On yeah. We make the sopressata, and the dried sausages, and the fresh sausages. The sopressata takes about 8 weeks to cure. We got the table back there where we make the sausages. You see the sticks hanging from the ceiling? We hang them there to dry. In the summertime we don’t make them. We make them in the wintertime – until April. We make enough to last the summer. When they’re cured, we put them in boxes and we freeze them. They don’t freeze like ice cubes, they just get cold. They don’t dry out that way. If we leave them in the fridge they dry out more.
(Garry calls from the back: “That hot sopressata. I’ve been other places but this one is the best.”)
Yeah, Motorino buys the hot sopressata for their pizza. And Fanny’s across the street does too.
So are the recipes you make now the same ones you learned from your aunt?
Yeah, same thing. Same recipes we’ve always been using. We make all types of sausages, stuff to barbeque – peppers and onions sausage, broccoli rabe sausage, hot sweet, fennel sausages, pinwheel steaks, pork patties with cheese and parsley. We make chicken sausage too with Asiago and sundried tomatoes. All different things, ready to grill.
And where does the pork come from?
Most of the meat, most of the pork, comes from Pennsylvania, but we also deal with Rojo meats over here in Brooklyn on North 6th. I’ve had the business for 22 years, and my uncle started with him, so it’s like 37 years of doing business with the guy.
That’s awesome – those long relationships, it’s amazing everyone’s still around doing business together. Anything changed since you came on in ’89?
I added a lot more Italian products. And more cheeses. My uncle only carried a couple cheeses, like Parmigianino, Pecorino, Provolone. I added a lot of other cheeses because the neighborhood, that’s what it called for. There are a lot of cheese freaks out there, people that love their cheese. Every time I try a new cheese, I buy a wheel and try it out and if people like it, I keep buying it. I buy things that I like because if I like it, I can tell you it’s good. If I don’t like it, I can’t say, ‘try this cheese, it’s great.’
I have some cheeses from Spain – the Manchego – but most of the cheeses come from Italy. And a lot of groceries – cookies, pasta, tomatoes, chinotto, olive oil.
Same suppliers as from your uncle’s time?
Most of them have been here since I took over, a couple have been around since my uncle was a around. They’re all 20 years, 15 years doing business with them. When you have someone you can rely on you stick with them.
Good to know — I have a lot of cheese freak neighbors. I, uh, guess I should count myself among their number. How else has the community changed since you started?
Being in the business, you know what moves off the shelf and what doesn’t. Olive oil is big, cheeses, mineral waters, pasta. The community – they’re into ethnic food. The food channel [Food Network] has helped out a lot, all those recipe shows. Like say someone sees a show for shrimp fra diavolo. They’ll come in here with their list and say, ‘you got this, you got that’, and I’ll say, ‘hey, you making shrimp fra diavolo?’ You know, I can tell what they’re making. And they get all excited. The neighborhood just loves that ethnic food.
Ha. When I think of ethnic food I don’t really think of Italian food but maybe that’s because it’s what I grew up eating.
I’m telling you, it’s the ethnic food!
What’s your favorite thing to make from all the stuff in the store? When you don’t feel like cooking something complicated, just want to take some ingredients off the shelves and make something delicious.
Tell you the truth, I’ll take a piece of pork and slice it up and fry it up with some vinegar, peppers and potatoes, throw in an onion in there. That’s what I like: pork meat, sliced up and fried in oil.
(Garry edges in closer. “Jerry makes a very good…” He pauses and looks around. “My mother’s not around is she?” Everyone laughs. “Jerry makes a very good sauce. I like it better than my mother’s.”)
Woah, that’s some compliment!
Ha, that’s true. I make a good sauce. But it’s not a spur-of-the-moment type of thing. I’ll make a pot for the week and make chicken parm. But if it’s just for me, I’ll slice up that pork. And I’ll get some bread. I try to start with the size of a hero, but the next thing you know I’ve got the whole loaf going and then maybe Garry comes in and I give him a piece or some other friend comes by and they try a piece, it’s fun. You got the gang who hangs out here, always in here.
So this sauce…
People think you gotta cook sauce three, four, five hours. Personally, when I make a sauce, I don’t use whole tomatoes.
Right, too much water.
Exactly. I’m against whole tomatoes. Too much water and that’s why you gotta cook it for three hours, to evaporate all that water. I like using a nice crushed tomato. It’s not Italian, it’s not Greek, it comes from California. The brand is 711. A big can of crushed tomatoes. It has nothing to do with the 711 convenience store. You open it up and it’s just fresh, no preservatives, just natural.
I’ve never seen that brand before…
I found it in NYC, in the warehouse where I buy wholesale. I was like, ‘hm, I’ll try it.’ One of the best tomatoes I’ve ever had. I start with onions in oil – I don’t like starting with garlic, I just put onions, oil, dump that in, a half can of water, to wash out the rest of the tomato. You let it cook for an hour, an hour and twenty minutes.
Yeah. Salt, pepper and, uh, another special item I like to put in there I can’t tell nobody.
(Everyone laughs. Frank and Garry talk over each other: “That’s what makes it good!” “Yeah, then we’d all make it!”)
And you don’t have to cook it long. It’s not watery and it’s not thick either where it’s mud. It’s just right.
That’s a huuuuge can of crushed tomatoes. Do you freeze some or do you really eat in all in a week.
Well I’ll make chicken parm for myself, and it helps to have friends around. Sometimes if I’m in the mood I’ll start boiling up a huge pot of pasta, I’ll slap on the sauce and start giving it out, friends, customers I like, they’ll take a plate home. It’s fun.
And then on Thursdays here we make hot foods. So I’ll think of something else to use the sauce up with. We always make a broccoli rabe and a fried tilapia filet. And we always make potato or rice balls. This week we’re making rice balls and next week we’ll make croquets. My Ma makes it for me – but it’s too much for my Ma to do it all, she can’t stand too much. She comes in and prepares one or two dishes for me and the rest I prepare. I cook it on Thursday morning and put it out.
That’s nice that you get to do that together.
Yeah, she actually makes most of it, really. Like I boil the rice and then she comes in and does the arancini. I can’t make them – my hands are too big, they’re like monsters. She has perfect sized hands and people are used to the size she makes. So she got the job.
Have you ever gotten any particularly weird requests for products?
I’ve had requests for different types of sausages. Somebody wanted a pineapple pork sausage – a sweet and sour type of thing. Another guy asked me if I made a pizza sausage and I said ‘listen buddy, we try to stick to a basic sausage, we’re not a pizzeria.’
What’s a pizza sausage?
It’s mozzarella, garlic, and whole tomatoes chopped up, mixed up with the pork meat. But I’m not sure, you know, you end up making a pizzeria and you’ve got taco sausage and this sausage and salad sausage.
Ha. Salad sausage. Did you make the pineapple one in the end?
Yeah, I made it for him. I told him he had to order at least five pounds of it and he said, ‘yeah, I’ll take the five pounds.’ He did it a few times.
(Garry smiles broadly. “He ships a few times a year to Joy Behar” he says, nodding.)
Joy Behar? Is she up there on that amazing wall of photographs?
Yeah. Joy Behar. Her aunt lives in the neighborhood and every time Joy wants something, she comes by and I ship it off. I had Mark Gastineau from the Jets, he came by. He’s on the wall there. And then my old friend Carmine, of Carmine’s pizza, who buys meats from me.
I got my dad up there. He’s a chief. He was always like that, he always dressed up, with that hat. What are they called? Borsalino. They make ‘em in Italy. My parents came from Naples, around there. He always wore them and the those long three-quarter length coats. He was a painter by trade and he worked on Stuyvesant Town, at 14th street and 1st Ave, all those buildings. He would never go in paint clothes. He’d go to work like that, get changed, and then when he was done he’d change out of his paint clothes and come back. That’s how he was. He was a classy guy.
Have you been back to Naples?
I’ve gone there, a lot of times when I was younger. The last time I went was in ’92. It’s nice, it’s changed, but I want to bring my kids now. They’re 13 and 11, two girls. So they’d understand it better.
How’s their Napolitano?
I talk to them Italian, they’re starting to understand.
Are there still a lot of Italians in this neighborhood?
Yeah, there are still a lot of Italians in the neighborhood. A lot of them are old, they own these houses. They bought them years ago for pennies. A lot of people still know each other, it’s a strong community. There’s Our Lady of Snow, down the block. There are these little Italian societies – Lady of Mount Carmel. The older people get together and have a party or something.
Are many of them your customers?
Not really – they make their own sausages! I don’t get too much business from them. You know, I took over the business in ’89. I got married in ‘91, and by ’92, ’93, it felt like I was working 70 hours a week and it wasn’t going nowhere. I thought, you know maybe I should get out and go work for a butchers union. To tell you the truth ever since the neighborhood started changing, since the younger kids started coming in, it’s boosted business a lot, brought it up so much that it changed my mind completely about leaving the business. They love their food. They love to try to different things. Like I was saying, they love their ethnic food.
So most of your customers not Italian?
It used to be predominantly Italian but now it’s a big mix. They come from all over the world. You know [the Italians] are getting older and the kids don’t bother any more. I’m talking about people like my mother. She’s 80 now. People like her, they used to make their own pasta, bottle their own tomatoes, make their own wine, everything. My Ma would always bottle tomatoes and my Dad made a great wine. He never really liked going out to dinner. He’d say, “why do I got to spend a lot of money when I can just cook up a nice pasta at home, with a nice sauce, and everybody’s happy?”
But their kids, which is my age, maybe younger, they don’t want to be bothered with it no more. They don’t have time to come home and bottle tomatoes. So once that generation of parents is gone, everything is gone. Now I see their kids, like the kids your age, coming in, buying stuff. They don’t have the recipes no more. So they come here and buy prepared foods.
What about that 13 year old daughter of yours, does she work in the store?
Nah, I want my daughters to go to school. I got blessed with two good kids, smart, both of them. I told them, listen: this business is my business. I don’t want you in this business – you gotta use your brain. And they say, ‘but dad, you use your brain, too right?’ Yeah but I use it in a different way. I use my hands more. I want them to get a good job and make some money and not have to worry about nothing.
So what’ll happen to this place?
Ha. We’ll see. For now though, it’s a good business.
Luckily for us, Jerry’s not going anywhere yet. Stop by and visit him at Emily’s Pork Store (426 Graham Avenue in Williamsburg). You might get lucky and catch him in one of those making-pasta-and-dolling-it-out-to-customers moods. Or if you go early on a Thursday you’ll get to meet his Ma. I for one will be carting home a heavy tin of 711 tomatoes to see what all the hype is about (and I have some ideas as to that, ahem, special ingredient.) Until then, ‘baci and buon appetito.’