In operation since 1902, the Pennsylvania Macaroni Company is one of Pittsburgh’s oldest retail establishments and one of the area’s best-known Italian specialty stores. A popular shopping destination for locals and out of town visitors, Penn Mac anchors a bustling international shopping neighborhood of independent vendors. Owner David Sunseri talks with La Gazzetta Italiana.
La Gazzetta (LG): Good morning. 1902 marks the birth of Penn Mac. Can you tell us a little about its history?
David Sunseri (DS): That year, we began to manufacture pasta in a small Pittsburgh neighborhood called Sharpsburg. Around 1910, the pasta factory burned down and we moved to our current location on Penn Avenue. We started our importing business. In fact, we were the first U.S. company to import DeCecco Pasta.
LG: I know that in that very early period Penn Mac supplied wholesale pasta to Youngstown’s Italian merchants.
DS: From what I remember, as a child working in the early 1960s, the store was a wholesale outlet. Before the advent of supermarkets, most people shopped at their local corner grocery store. We had a showroom with all of the wholesale products we sold to independent grocers. We marketed salami, ham, soppressata, cheese, and other perishables from refrigerated cases.
LG: So, at first, strictly wholesale.
DS: The grocer would place his order with my father, Sal Sunseri, or with one of his brothers. Then the warehouse guy would pick out the order, the office manager would price the invoice, then it would be double checked and the customer would be on his way. As far as I know, the store was always open to the public. Not only did we sell Italian items, but we carried all the major brands of groceries and paper products.
LG: How did the arrival of supermarket chains affect Penn Mac?
DS: In response, we shifted our wholesale focus to supplying Italian restaurants and pizzerias. The transition worked perfectly because around 1956 the first pizzeria opened in Pittsburgh. Then we became a full service Italian store with selections such as pastas, cheeses, oils, tomatoes, and specialty vinegars.
LG: I can see that your stock goes well beyond Italian domestic and imported selections.
DS: In the mid-1970s, the children, including myself, got involved. We shifted to an international store offering products from most European countries. We continue to stay very active with food trends so we can offer cutting edge items to chefs and consumers.
LG: What makes Penn Mac so popular with locals and out-of-towners?
DS: I like to think we’re a great place to buy good ingredients for a reasonable price. One thing that makes Penn Mac so popular is that of the 500 cheeses or so that we sell every pound is cut to order right in front of the retail customer. I feel tourists like our store because it’s almost exactly as it was in the early 1900s - wood floors, tin ceilings, and a 100-year-old Italian smell.
LG: Can you talk about some of your most popular items?
DS: We love to sell and sample cheese. We also try to stock high quality items such as extra virgin oils, balsamic vinegars, Italians tomatoes, olives, and pastas. We travel worldwide scouting many food shows to seek out these products.
LG: I read that you sell 200,000 pounds of Italian cheese each week. Tell us about your cheese department.
DS: As far as selling 200,000 pounds of cheese, that was written back in 2000. Today, I’m not sure. We do sell a lot of cheese to pizzerias in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, and Maryland. Also we ship our products to the whole country through our website www.pennmac.com.
LG: Speaking of the cheese department, you have people behind the counter with a lot of personality. There was one woman I used to look for who sold me Fontinella cheese. She was there for ages.
DS: In the past 40 years we have had two iconic female cheese mongers. The first was a short, older woman named Ursula Janotti. Carol Pascuzzi took over her reign, so to speak. She was the one with the big smile and she called people “dear heart.” She’s retired to Oklahoma. Our current lineup of cheese mongers is a great group of guys extremely knowledgeable and eager to serve!
LG: David, thank you. I’ve learned some interesting facts about Pennsylvania Macaroni, a time-honored business in the heart of Pittsburgh’s Strip District.
DS: You’re very welcome. People love to come here with their relatives and guests and the Strip offers an array of things to do and experience, all in a five-block area.
Pennsylvania Macaroni is located at 2010-2012 Penn Ave. Open Sundays 9 A.M. - 2:30 P.M. and Monday through Saturday 6:30 A.M. - 4:30 P.M. www.pennmac.com