WATERTOWN — Everyone who shops regularly at Russo’s knows about the alcove, to the left of the entrance, inside this Pleasant Street market.
That’s where the sweet potato leaves, the yu choy greens, Chinese celery, Thai basil, and several types of baby bok choy are displayed. Even if they don’t buy those items, customers marvel that Russo’s stocks them and, elsewhere, varieties of bananas, beets, chilies, eggplants, and more.
The message behind this cornucopia of produce, customers say, is that all are welcome in Russo’s regardless of ethnicity, culture, or religion. Now they’re lamenting Russo’s closure in mid-October, after more than 100 years of business, and the impending loss of shared camaraderie with strangers.
“It isn’t just a shopping place,” says Svetlana Sharapova of Waltham, who immigrated from Russia. “You go there and you catch somebody who is picking through this unusual root or fruit or vegetable and ask, ‘What are you using that thing for?’ and they start discussing their plans for cooking and you ask: ‘Can you share your recipe?’. French people, Mexican people, Guatemalans, people from Asia, Africa, all over Europe, just share recipes.”
Russo’s is “the real gusto of America’s food baskets,” says David Vos of Jamaica Plain, a Puerto Rican native. Vos, who runs the online show “Cooking with One Hand, marvels at the store’s breadfruit, tofu display, and imported canned San Marzano tomatoes. “I’ve been shopping there for years and you could see the slow growth of an exotic or unexpected delight and then you see it become a whole section,” he says.
That unexpected delight also offers a sense of place for immigrant shoppers.
When Stoneham resident Grazia Balestrieri and her husband moved from Italy 16 years ago, they were at a loss of where to buy groceries they considered “basic for our Italian cooking”: peppers, broccoli rabe, and good brands of pasta. They experienced an “open sesame feeling” when they found Russo’s with its “tight alleys surrounded by wooden shelves crowded with familiar colors . . . that was feeling like home,” she wrote in an e-message.
Konstantin Balonov of Newton, who moved from Germany 17 years ago, calls Russo’s “a happy grocery place” of high quality and good prices. In an e-message, he wrote: “For me, Russo’s is a little home corner.”
Russo’s has deep roots in the area. Owner Tony Russo’s grandfather, Antonio Russo, sold produce from his Watertown farm, along with hundreds of other Eastern Massachusetts growers, at Faneuil Hall in the early 1900s. Around 1930, as his wholesale business grew, Antonio built a small barn (and eventual warehouse) on Lexington Street, next to his farm. By 1970, the Russos opened Town Garden on Main Street, their first retail store, when the Armenian diaspora escaping genocide was firmly settled among the Italian community.
Amanda Jordan, a fourth-generation Newton native living in Norwood, says her Italian-born grandfather regularly took her to the Pleasant Street store, which opened in 1992. He had shopped at the Russo stall in Faneuil Hall and taught Jordan how to pick the best fruit and vegetables by smell, touch, and weight. “It was the most fascinating place to be,” she recalls.
Russo’s offerings dramatically increased in 2003, when the store enlarged its footprint. The evolution was simply good business, says Tony Russo. “When we had a chance to expand, we could include interesting products that we [previously] didn’t have the room to display,” he says, “especially from the Latin, Indian, and Asian communities.”
“We’re not interested in the status quo,” Russo says. “We’re interested in an evolving experience.” By keeping prices closer to wholesale costs, customer curiosity is piqued by a new product, which, in turn, he says creates curiosity in other products. “You can’t be afraid to try new things in this business,” he says. “You can’t be afraid of losses. So many people sell the same things over and over because they’re afraid of losses.”
Listening to Russo give a primer on volume sales and talk about okra and mountain yams makes it harder to digest that his store is closing. Pressed on what he would say to customers relying on his products, Russo states “I can’t say anything” and adds he’d be criticized no matter what he says. Customers, he says, will have to find their own way to other markets.
Kerry Batte, a Watertown native who’s been shopping at Russo’s for more than 25 years, recently moved to Pleasant Street in order to be closer to the store. Batte, who is Italian and Irish, gravitates to Russo’s Italian deli, cheese, and bread offerings. Yet, she also relies on the store for persimmons, lychees, and, for Passover dishes, horseradish root. Batte, in a way, is as transformed as Russo’s.
Tony Russo’s legacy will be broadening the area’s understanding of ethnic foods. “That huge Market Basket in Waltham, just west of him, has a very sophisticated aisle for Indian cuisine that would not have seen the light if not for Tony Russo,” Vos theorizes. “Tony Russo showed the way down ethnic aisles a long time ago.”
Russo doesn’t have regrets about the paths his store has taken. “All of it was worth the investment,” he says. “I think we’re lucky and blessed that people have come from all walks of life into my store.”