Life’s Work

Life’s WorkLife’s WorkLife’s Work

A s a boy, Giuseppe Sabino watched his father take a pickaxe into the fields of Caserta, Italy, and upturn acres of cracked Italian soil so they’d be ready for the rain. Meantime, Sabino would jump on the back of his brother-in-law’s tractor and watch him operate the pedals and levers. After memorizing the workings of the machine, Sabino begged for a go at the controls, and his wish was granted. “Okay,” said his brother-in-law after a single run, “now do it again.” Before long, Sabino had tilled the entire plot of land. He was 11 at the time, and for the next five seasons, he drove that tractor.

Then his life took an unexpected turn, though it’d been long in the making. Four years before he was born, Sabino’s grandmother began putting her name in the U.S. green card lottery. After 20 luckless years, she won. By then too old to go herself, she transferred it to her daughter, so that she and her adolescent sons could go instead. With money he’d saved driving the tractor and picking fruit as a day laborer, Sabino paid for his own ticket and left for America.

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New Haven, to be precise. Unable to speak a word of English, he worked a short stint at a handbag factory, then took a job along the conveyor belt of the Cott soda plant, where Sabino says his drive to succeed quickly distinguished him. By the third week at the factory, he was running the three-man conveyor belt on his own. Just like with his brother-in-law’s tractor, Sabino watched carefully, learned quickly and moved up the ranks. He left the soda plant and by the age of 20 became the general manager of a local steel factory. “The only one above me was the owner,” he remembers proudly.

At 24, he met his wife, Giovanna, while vacationing in Italy. Together they had children Antonio and Rosanna and then, at the age of 33, he retired from his factory job in New Haven, returning to Italy to raise his children in the Italian way.

It was a young age to retire, and for Sabino, it quickly proved too young. Soon after returning to Italy, he opened his first grocery market. Yet he realized there were too few opportunities for his children in the homeland, where he remembers seeing young people with college degrees working as street-sweeps.

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In 1989, the family returned to New Haven where, with partner Romeo Simeone, Sabino opened his second market: Romeo & Giuseppe’s Gourmet Shop. Then came a harsh split between the partners, for mysterious reasons. “We don’t want to talk about it,” says Sabino.

Yet again, Sabino started over, but this time with the help of his wife, Giovanna, and his two kids, Rosanna and Antonio. They opened Nica’s Market in 2002, growing it into a popular spot to pick up groceries and a meal along East Rock’s stretch of Orange Street. During meal times on nice days, the front patio teems with diners and loungers at latticed metal tables, shaded by rows of white and red umbrellas.

Nica’s also has rows of accolades. “Best of” awards from the New Haven Advocate hang on the wall as you walk in. In the Connecticut Specialty Food Association’s 2008 competition, Nica’s Organic Garlic & Basil Sauce and Organic Marinara Sauce swept 1st and 2nd place, respectively, in the “Outstanding Organic” category, and their Vodka Pasta Sauce snagged 3rd for “Outstanding Pasta Sauce.” And out of the blue, Nica’s has been ranked by Connecticut Magazine as one of the top five “Unusual Places” to get pizza in Connecticut.

While the whole Sabino family can cook, Giovanna commands the kitchen. “In forty years,” says Sabino, “I have never had a dish by her hand that I’ve disliked—” He stops to think. “—unless there’s too much garlic.” Many of the recipes at Nica’s have been in the family for generations, but tweaking is allowed, and so is inventing. “Cooking is like music,” Giovanna says. “You mix and match and you make your recipe.”

The market’s actual groceries are quite solid as well. You can find dewdrops on the vegetables and quality in the deli. Murray’s family-farmed, “certified humane” chicken comes especially recommended. And the bed of cheeses is long enough for even the tallest of cheese-eaters to lie down and sleep easy. If you’re looking for quality sauces, their prize-winning recipes can be bought in jars along with seven other varieties. Or search for it outside New Haven: Nica’s distributes to the tri-state area as well as Florida.

Nica’s name actually carries much further. Memories of its 2,400 square feet have traveled thousands and thousands of miles in the heads of Yale graduate students—a sizable contingent of whom live in the neighborhood—who leave for other parts of the world when their time in New Haven is done. Sabino says he’s run into Nica’s fans in St. Lucia and Barcelona; I recently ran into one in Buenos Aires.

“We achieved a lot. With a lot of work, we succeeded,” says Sabino. At 66, he claims to have recently retired a second and final time, but once again it doesn’t seem like it’s taking. Sabino still comes in at six in the morning, hires new hands and takes phone calls in his office. “Antonio and Rosanna will have to take over eventually,” he says.

Eventually.

Nica’s Market
603 Orange St, New Haven (map)
Mon-Sat 7am-7pm, Sun 7am-4pm
(203) 787-5919
www.nicasmarket.com

Written and photographed by Daniel Shkolnik.

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Daniel is an aspiring novelist. He owns a Yale sweater he will never wear and takes his Faulkner with vermouth and his vermouth with an orange wedge. An avid traveler and retired hooligan, he was kicked out of the largest club in Africa for breakdancing, joined an Andalusian metal band and, while in Istanbul, learned to read the future in his coffee grinds. Despite the omens he finds at the bottom of his morning joe, Daniel continues to write.

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