Not long ago, the Italian American community boasted an array of organizations that fostered the values and customs of "the old country." Many of these institutions are disappearing. Increasingly, people of Italian heritage turn to their Italian food markets to find old friends, a familiar atmosphere and the delicious foods of their upbringing.
Jimmy's, at 3930 Belmont Ave., Youngstown, is an award-winning specialty food retailer offering a wide selection of imported Italian groceries, homemade breads, gift baskets, prepared meals, and cookies and pastries. It also boasts a large selection of cut-to-order Italian deli meats and cheeses. For many in the Youngstown area, Jimmy's is the place for cafeteria-style lunches and for takeout.
Recently, Jimmy Occhibove, founder, and son Frank, store manager, welcomed La Gazzetta to their attractive Italian specialty shop.
La Gazzetta (LG): Good morning. Thanks for inviting La Gazzetta to your store. Can you tell our readers how Jimmy's started and where your roots are in Italy?
Frank Occhibove (FO): My parents came from Caserta in the early 1970s. In 1974, they opened a business on Youngstown's West Federal St. The original Jimmy's started as an Italian gift shop that sold imported glassware and Capodimonte porcelain, among other items.
LG: Jimmy's is very popular in the area, and not just with the Italian American community. What draws people to your business?
FO: When you walk through our doors we try to make you feel at home. Tell us what your needs are and we'll try to fulfill them. New customers walk in not knowing what to expect and they leave smiling. That's our goal.
LG: I notice that you have a wide selection of cooked foods. What are some popular items in this area?
FO: All our cooked foods are prepared fresh daily. Our cavatelli and meatballs are a big hit; also chicken parmesan and greens and beans.
LG: I notice that you have a tremendous selection of pasta from Italy; so many varieties.
FO: Yes, we carry Molisana, the number one brand in Italy. If it's available in the States from Molisana, we have it. It cooks up very nicely, staying al dente. It's hard to overcook it.
LG: What about the beautiful gift baskets I see on display? What are some of the items that go into them?
FO: Basically, our gift baskets contain the ingredients for a meal. For example, you'll find an antipasto, pasta and sauce and cookies. When you open one of our gift baskets, you have all you need to make a delicious meal for yourself.
LG: Can you talk about the store's unique layout?
FO: It's developed over the years. We expanded many times at this location: from a small specialty food store to one with a dining area, then to one with a party room, and now to our latest innovationâa very pleasant piazza with a fountain. This last feature is a big draw with wedding parties who come here to have pictures taken. It's a very unique European space that all came out of my father's head.
LG: Do you offer items that appeal to those looking for healthy food choices?
FO: Yes, we have a self-service bar that offers salads and other wholesome food choices. Even the lunch meats that go into our submarine sandwiches are the better quality brands. We bake bread daily that is preservative-free and low sodium.
LG: You carry books on Youngstown history and the Italian community of Youngstown. Why is that important?
FO: People look at us as a local cultural fixture. The book sales say to the community that we support you and local authors. We are part of the area. This is our community. We have many people from out of town that are passing through. They're interested in finding out more about local history.
LG: Do you have customers, former residents of the area, who stock up on your products on their way home to, say, Georgia or another area with few Italian stores?
FO: I'm thinking now of a customer who, on a monthly basis, buys our cheeses and homemade dried sausage to ship to his niece in California. She's unable to find these products in Los Angeles. Truthfully, our items end up in many "care packages."
LG: What about customers from nearby Youngstown State University?
FO: Many of our customers are YSU professors and students. We offer them a 10% discount when they show their University ID at checkout. Students, especially, take advantage of this.
LG: Mahoning County suffered when the steel industry collapsed. In the past few years, there's been an upturn in construction. Downtown is making a comeback. Do you feel any of these positive changes at your store?
FO: Oh, definitely. With the rise of new industry in the area, there are more employees coming into our store for lunch. For example, the Italian and French machinery installers at the new Vallourec Star plant developed a real liking for our dishes and atmosphere. They said we had the foods closest to what they were used to in their home countries. We saw them over a period of two and a half years. We still keep in contact with some of them via our Facebook page. You see, our business is built on relationships.
LG: Frank, thanks so much for your time. It's been great.