BELMONT — Zohreh Beheshti sobbed when she learned Russo’s in Watertown was shuttering after more than 100 years of business. Owner Tony Russo chided her. “Why are you crying,” she recalls he told her. “It’s even better for you. Take advantage of this opportunity!”
Russo predicted Super Vanak, a Persian grocery store which Beheshti co-owns with her husband, Babak Shams Asef, would benefit from his store’s closure. The store on Belmont Street is sparkling and chock-a-block with fragrant waters for cooking (i.e. orange blossom, rose petal, chicory, etc.), Indian rice varietals (smoked, parboiled, and traditional), cream-enriched Persian ice cream with saffron and more.
“We have a lot, a lot of Persian quality items,” says Beheshti, who opened the store in March. “What you find here you can’t find anywhere else” locally.
It’ll take more than one store to fill the void for customers who shopped the globe at Russo’s. No single store in Greater Boston carries as wide a range of cultural and ethnic foods, fruit, vegetables, cheese, and Italian specialties as Russo’s packed under one roof. Yet there are a number of places offering deep dives at reasonable prices into specific food cultures, or at least going beyond the requisite selections of spices and seasonings.
Ming’s Supermarket and CMart Supermarket, near one another on Washington Street in Boston’s South End, offer extensive tofu, noodle, and Asian vegetable options. Maruichi Japanese Food & Deli in Brookline recently moved across Harvard Street and is now a full-fledged grocery store with everything from bitter melon to beef cuts for shabu-shabu.
Mount Auburn Street in Watertown boasts Armenian and Middle Eastern supermarkets — including Arax Market, Massis Bakery, and Sevan Bakery — crammed with specialty produce, spices, breads, olives, cheese, freshly made pastries, and savory treats. Volante Farms in Needham sells produce from its own farm and local farms, John Dewar’s cuts of meat and features a large onsite nursery.
Many Market Basket stores (there are 86 in total with another three under construction) cater to the ethnic and cultural communities within their neighborhoods. The Market Basket in Waltham, for example, carries Salvadorian and Bosnian product lines as well as Indian foods. Russo’s former customers may also see some familiar faces at the Waltham store and other Market Basket branches.
“We’ve been fortunate to have quite a few of the associates that worked at Russo’s come to us and gain employment,” says David McLean, Market Basket’s operations manager. “We reached out directly to [the Russo family] to say ‘If you have people trying to gain employment and stay in the same business and, if we can help, we’d like to meet them.’ Over 25 persons were employed [as of] a couple of weeks ago. I’m sure, now, there’s even more.”
There are a number of specialty Italian food stores in the area — offering imported beans, canned tomatoes, and pasta brands not carried even at Russo’s — though they tend to be small in scale. Among them: Salumeria Italiana in the North End and Capone Foods in Somerville. (Capone’s small ready-made pizzas were sold at Russo’s.)
If there’s one regional market most closely reflecting Russo’s range then Wilson Farm rises to mind. The family-owned farm has been in Lexington since 1884, operating on 44 acres and another 600 acres in Litchfield, N.H. It also partners with local farms. The bountiful Lexington store has wooden produce displays like those at Russo’s, even similarly jam-packed with pantry items in the shelving below.
“You really can complete your shopping here, inside your home and out,” says Kerri Wimberly, the farm’s marketing manager, referring to the outside garden nursery. “There’s something to be said for a family business. Scott and Jim Wilson are here every single day just like Tony Russo was at Russo’s every day. Jim is out in the field and Scott is out back right now with the pumpkins.”
Wimberly says Wilson’s saw an immediate increase in customers after Russo’s closed on Saturday, Sept. 18. “At 2:30 there was a line and it was a Monday. That was unusual.”
Wilson’s won’t be the only store to see a bump in customers. McLean says every store in the Watertown region is anticipating additional business. While not an exhaustive list, here are some places for shoppers who relied on Russo’s.
Arax Market, 585 Mount Auburn St., Watertown, 617-924-3399. (No website but on Facebook)
Opened in 1974 by the Bassmajian family when they couldn’t easily find Armenian specialties, this jam-packed store has an abundance of produce for Mediterranean cooks (think fresh dates still on stems and large green fava beans), pantry items, a refrigerated case of mezes, domestic feta as well as Greek, French, and Bulgarian styles cut to order. Street parking.
Styled almost like a US grocery store, this cramped spot offers a wide range of Asian produce, tanks of live seafood, fresh and dried noodles, tofus, frozen dim sum, pantry items, and cookware. Small parking lot; street parking. (Sister store: 28 Hayward St., Quincy, 617-328-8181)
A large freezer of house-made sauces, ravioli, and lasagna commands attention at the door of this 35-year-old family-owned retail and wholesale business. Also: Italian pantry items, deli meats, and cheese, fresh pasta cut to order. Cash or check only for in-store purchases. Street parking.
Number 79 of the 86 branches in New England. This branch has a wide spectrum of produce, including some Asian varieties, a comprehensive spice section and a range of Indian, Bosnian, and Salvadoran specialties. Also a bakery and deli on site. Large parking lot.
Maruichi Japanese Food & Deli, 306 Harvard St., Brookline, 617-505-5009. (No website but on Facebook) Good selection of Japanese vegetables, tofu, meat and fish trimmed Japanese-style, aisles of soy sauces, soft drinks, bread, crackers, cooking ware and exquisite hand-made pottery. Frozen udon and ramen kits. Large dry goods section. A cafe will open soon. Meter parking lot behind store.
Operating since 1977, this market specializes in Armenian and Lebanese cookies and pastries, but it also has a made-to-order falafel counter, Armenian pizza, an array of fruit syrups, abundant spices, and a range of dried fruit including various brands of dates. The produce section is small. Street parking.
AKA New York Mart, this store has an almost overwhelming range of inventory and a deceptively large footprint. One refrigerated aisle, for example, is solely fresh noodle varieties while dried noodles line multiple aisles. On hand: extensive Asian produce, live seafood, frozen goods, and pantry products. Street parking.
This small shop features chicly wrapped Panettone boxes, Setaro dried pasta from Naples, jars of arrabiata and stuzzichino from Italy, and Italian sandwiches made to order. Street parking a challenge; try paid lots at nearby Lewis Wharf.
Serving the area since 1972, this shop brims with dried fruit, wine, pantry items, a self-serve olive counter, and an extensive prepared selection of meze, savory pies, and wraps. Also on offer: seven types of baklavas, including apricot with pistachios and figs with walnuts. Street parking.
Persian specialty produce (including green sour plums) and pantry items, large quantities of Persian saffron. Specialty Persian ice cream. Extensive nuts selection. Prepared foods. An adjacent cafe will open this month. Street parking.
The Volantes established their first farm in Newton in 1917 before moving to Needham in 1962. The store offers home-grown seasonal fruit and vegetables, locally sourced meat and poultry, a beer and wine shop, pantry items, specialty New England breads, butters, honey and cheese, an ice cream counter, a deli counter, and, outside, a nursery. Parking lot on site.
A garden nursery greets customers entering a vast greenhouse shopping area attached to the “farm stand” building. On offer are ample bins of produce, pantry items, bakery pies and cookies, domestic and imported cheeses, seafood, meat, poultry, and prepared food. On weekends: cider doughnuts. Parking lot on site.