Stravino’s Italian Store

Stravino’s Italian Store

by Frederick Jerant

Early in the 20th century, many immigrants from southern Italy worked at the nearby Whitehall Portland Cement Company. Homeowners commonly furnished room and board to the workers… and you can imagine their Mediterranean palates clashing with the heavy Pennsylvania Dutch cuisine!

The foods they loved were in short supply locally – and a trip to New York could be a major undertaking. But where others saw difficulty, an enterprising Italian immigrant named Pasquale Stravino saw opportunity. He began buying bulk quantities of those favored foods in Manhattan, for resale to his hungry countrymen. And so began the shop in Cementon which was the foundation for one of the Lehigh Valley’s most treasured specialty food vendors – Stravino’s Italian Store.

By 1921, Stravino’s business had really taken off. In addition to his local trade, he supplied foodstuffs to McAdoo, White Haven and other locales. That year, he relocated the store to 4th and Washington Sts. in Allentown.

Generations of Ownership

His son, Joseph, took over the business in 1944, and moved the store again 22 years later; this time, to Penn and Washington Sts., just a block away.

stravinos2Joseph Stravino retired in 1967, and passed the business to his nephew and current owner Don Stravino, who soon expanded its services by making limited quantities of sandwiches.

And the fourth generation of the Stravino family – Don’s niece, Jonelle Yonak – entered the picture in 1986, at the ripe old
age of… TEN!

“That’s right!” she laughs. “Even as a little girl, I had a good business sense. So when uncle Don asked me to help out, I was really excited!” Thus, early on Saturday mornings – when other kids were sleeping late or soaking up TV toons – Yonak was already on the job, handling mainly cash register and bagging duties.

Changing Scenery

For years, Stravino’s had also been a place where residents knew each other by name, would pitch in to unload trucks, or congregated for coffee and conversation after a day of arduous snow shoveling.

But eventually, its Italian clientele moved to other parts of the city. The once-booming Italian Club folded, and the store experienced repeated attempted break-ins – even a robbery.

It Was Time to Move

Stravino had sought the 269 Fifth St. property in Whitehall for about 15 years. Although he’d been rebuffed repeatedly, he persisted – and in 1997, he was able to purchase the site of the former Gellis Market.

It’s the Real Thing

These days, it’s common for major grocery chains to feature a selection of ethnic foods. So what sets Stravino’s apart? For starters, authenticity. stravinos4

“The Italians have been making wonderful things for hundreds of years, and the American versions aren’t always comparable,” Stravino says. “For example, hogs for prosciutto di Parma are raised for 2-1/2 years with a special diet. The meat is aged for 10 months or longer, and
weighs 15 pounds or more. In the United States, the hogs are often just a year old, the meat is aged for about six months, and weighs around nine pounds.”

He adds that Italian pasta is made from a higher grade of wheat, resulting in better flavor and texture.

For years, Stravino’s had also been a place where residents knew each other by name, would pitch in to unload trucks, or congregated for coffee and conversation after a day of arduous snow shoveling.

And Stravino’s is the place to go for authentic Italian cheeses, too. Stravino explains that the real stuff is aged long enough to develop an excellent flavor – sometimes for years. But U.S. versions are packaged “young,” and that’s why he ages his domestic cheese himself.

Another reason is the sheer variety of food products:

  • Nearly a dozen brands of olive oil
  • Imported/domestic wine vinegars
  • 25-year-old balsamic vinegar
  • Pasta of just about every shape and size
  • Polenta (regular, instant and logs)
  • Anchovies, baccala and other canned and salted fish
  • Fresh-grated and chunk cheeses
  • Taralli in many flavors, and other snack foods
  • Ready-to-eat soups, pasta salads, antipasto mix and 20 kinds of sandwiches
  • Fresh mozzarella, made from buffalo milk (very limited supply)
  • Cold-cuts galore – high-quality prosciutto, mortadella, genoa and hard salamis, pepperoni, sopressata, cappicola from Citterio USA, and Thurman American-style meats and cheeses
  • Canned San Marzano tomatoes

And let’s not forget sweets! You could stuff yourself with traditional cookies, New York-style cheesecakes, Ferrara pastries and cakes, tiramisu, rum cakes and assorted cannoli – including Yonak’s brainchild, one filled with peanut butter and mascarpone cheese, then dipped in chocolate and garnished with mini-chocolate chips.

stravinos3The store does a brisk business during key holiday seasons, such as Easter and Christmas. Shelves burst with sweet (pizza gaina) and savory (pizza rustica) Easter pies; chocolate-covered nuts and fruits; traditional pannetone and columba sweet breads; nougat candies; chocolate-glazed mostaccioli cookies… well, you get the picture.

Yonak says the current location sees far more business than the previous locations ever had. And the customer mix has taken some unexpected turns, too. She adds that, although the Italian community is still a major base, “Our second-largest clientele is Arabic, and we’re seeing more Asian customers, too.”

Which only goes to show that everybody likes Italian food!

Visit Stravino’s Italian Store at 269 5th St, Whitehall, Open Monday – Friday 7:30 a.m. – 6:30 p.m., Saturday 7:30 a.m. – 5:30 p.m. Deli closes 30–45 minutes before closing. No Sunday hours.

Look them up on facebook or contact them by calling 610.432.2551.

Here’s a quick primer on some of the incredible edibles at Stravino’s. Ask the staff for more-specific product information.

Sopressata: A dry salami often eaten on crackers or sandwiches, or alone. Some pizzerias use it instead of pepperoni.

Prosciutto: Intensely-flavored dry-cured ham, usually thin-sliced and served uncooked. Can take up to two years to produce.

Mortadella: Pork sausage containing cubed pork fat. Typically flavored with pistachios and black pepper.

Baccala: Dried and salted cod.

Pancetta: Italian bacon, non-smoked, salt-cured and flavored with black pepper. Used in cooking and for cold cuts.

Pecorino Romano: Hard, salty sheep milk cheese that dates from ancient Rome.

Asiago: Cow’s milk cheese that varies in texture as it ages, from smooth to crumbly.

Parmigiano-Reggiano: Hard, granular cheese for grating or shaving. Produced in only a handful of provinces.

Polenta: Cornmeal porridge, sometimes chilled and sliced.

San Marzano Tomatoes: Meaty, sweet plum tomato from Italy. Excellent for sauces.

Taralli: Sweet or savory snack food with a pretzel-like texture.

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