“Aw, forget about it!” says cheese section manager Bob Derrico when you ask him how many cheeses Liuzzi Gourmet Market in North Haven carries. “We stopped counting years ago! Hundreds! At least four or five hundred, with 10 or 12 varieties for each type of cheese.” You won’t find any Kraft amongst those hundreds, but you will find the house brand, made in their own local caseficio (cheese factory).
Cheese-making, it turns out, runs in the Liuzzi family. In 1960, Pasquale Liuzzi left Italy, arrived in America and answered a classified ad in the New Haven Register for a job at C&F Cheese in East Haven. Given a one-week trial to start, it wasn’t long before he was running the place. For the next 20 years at C&F, Pasquale gradually laid the foundation for his American dream: opening his very own caseficio, continuing the tradition started by his great grandfather in the Puglia region of Italy more than a century before.
In 1981, that dream came to fruition. Pasquale and brother Nicola opened the shop at the same location where it stands today, making cheese out of the back room. Over the years the family kept adding to the store, which eventually outgrew the space; they opened a separate cheese factory in Hamden about five years ago.
“The cheese was always the driving force behind the business,” says Dominic Liuzzi, Pasquale’s son and the Market’s current big cheese. “At the time they opened, nobody in America was really making fresh mozzarella. We were one of the first.”
Dominic worked there from the very beginning, starting part-time after school and on the weekends stocking shelves and ringing up the register, eventually jumping behind the deli counter. “It’s the only job I’ve ever had,” he says.
In 2012, Liuzzi won two first-place gold medals at the 28th annual American Cheese Society judging and competition in Raleigh, NC, chosen from among more than 1,700 entrants by 34 judges—cheese aficionados with a variety of backgrounds, from PhDs in food chemistry to nationally recognized food editors. The winners? Their classics: ricotta and mozzarella.
It’s the fifth time they’ve entered the competition. “Every year we try to make it better,” Dominic says. They took second place with their burrata last year, a pouch of mozzarella filled with sweet cream and strips of pasta filata. They make each one by hand, a labor-intensive process that takes up to three hours a batch, though Dominic says they just bought a machine from Italy to help. Under the Liuzzi label, in-store options for sale include smoked mozzarella, basket cheese (great for lasagna filling), caccioricotta (a semi-hard grating cheese), and mantece, a pear shaped cheese molded around sweet butter, to name a few.
Should you wish to venture beyond their bountiful display case of cheeses, the store brims with Italian delicacies. For the holidays, there’s Pannetone (an Italian fruitcake that’s light and slightly sweet), flavored chocolates and Torrone, a nougat candy.
They’ve also got their own brands of canned San Marzano tomatoes and extra virgin olive oil. Some 20 years ago, one of Pasquale’s friends connected the family with tomato growers in Italy. A similar thing happened with their olive oil, which is made in Martina Franca. It’s fertile ground—the Puglia region is known as the largest producer of extra virgin olive oil (and red wine too) in all of Italy.
At the Liuzzi deli, the first stop when you enter the store, bestsellers are the Parma di Prosciutto, sausage, black angus certified roast beef, meatballs and the antipasti trays of soppressatas, olives and pickled mushrooms. Further inside, three floor-to-ceiling freezers hum as they cool the frozen homemade pasta and sauces available to take home. The pasta is made in a New Jersey shop to Liuzzi’s specifications, using their own cheese and delivered every week.
Sandwiches are made fresh, and prepared foods lay in packaged rows, ripe for the picking: mouthwatering crab cakes, chicken with broccoli, tortellini with peas and pancetta, broccoli rabe, green beans with almonds, stuffed manicotti. It takes five full-time staff members—a baker, chef, and three prep hands—to keep up with demand. Still, during a recent Saturday morning visit, I found myself smiling as they took the time to sing “Happy Birthday” to one of their regulars. From staff member Vinny popping out from behind the cheese counter to recommend a good brie to the cashiers offering to help little old ladies carry purchases to their cars, you can feel it: people are happy here.
“It’s a delicate balance,” Dominic says of the atmosphere. “I’m very selective about my staff. Some of my people have been with me a very long time. Service and quality set us apart and our customers can feel it. They come in, get to know us, we ask about their family, and they ask about ours.”
As if you need to ask—with the Liuzzi cheese legacy living large and tasting like a winner.
Liuzzi Gourmet Market
322 State St, North Haven
Written and photographed by Jane Rushmore.