WALTHAM — Paul Ursino, 65, is retiring after almost four decades running Salem Food Store on Moody Street. With its deli counter, freezers, and well-stocked Italian pantry items, Salem Food Store specialized in imported cheeses, cured meats, specialty pastas, coffee, Italian bread, and handmade ricotta and sausages, produced locally. The store had such a devoted following that customers cried when they heard Ursino wouldn’t be there anymore.
The food retailer had his last day in the shop on Aug. 11, surrounded by his wife of 40 years, Joanne, their children Maria, 37, Frank, 35, and Carla, 32, who grew up helping their father in the store, and five grandchildren. None of his children will be taking over. “Frank is a financial analyst and Maria a teacher,” says the dad. “Carla loves it, and not to be sexist, but it’s no life for a young single woman. What if she gets married and wants kids? You could hire people to help, but in this kind of business you have to be here all the time.” Joanne shares these sentiments. Her husband was in the store almost daily, including Sundays, from early morning till closing. “I used to make him read to the kids before they went to bed or they would never see him,” she says.
A longtime customer, Joshua Smith, who also owns New England Charcuterie, often asked Paul Ursino if he could rent a small space to do a meat business there. Eventually, Ursino sold the shop to Smith and it will reopen in early fall as Moody’s Delicatessen & Provisions. He plans to produce homemade guanciale, the cured pork cheeks used in Italian specialties like amatriciana sauce, along with roast beef, and a host of cured meats. “We will offer playful interpretations of old classics,” says Smith, whose family owned a smoked fish business on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. “I want to build on what Paul had,” he says. He also plans to offer homemade pastrami, served on rye bread.
The market was originally opened by Ursino’s late father, Frank, and located on Salem Street in the North End. When they opened a second location in Waltham 38 years ago — well before the Moody Street revival — Calabrian-born Paul Ursino worked there, then his father joined him. A radio dialed to WJIB played nostalgic music like Dean Martin or the Beach Boys, and Ursino tended to the deli counter and an array of prepared foods such as arancini, the rice balls made with risotto, and frozen items from lasagna to Italian wedding soup. Behind the cash register hung talismans of all sorts — red, green, and white fuzzy dice, a red horn charm to ward off the evil eye, and a blue T-shirt with the insignia of Italy’s national soccer team, the Azzurri.
For a couple of weeks, Ursino has been telling customers in English and Italian that his shop will be closing. Some heard the news and are so startled, they seem off balance. Originally from Sicily, but long of Waltham, Felicia Farranda teared up. “I have been coming here for 45 years,” she said in Italian. Then in English, “I miss you so much.”
Ursino owns the building where the shop was located. In the 1980s, he says, “when things were really good and people had to take a number on Sunday mornings,” his father bought the property. Reflecting on his decision to close, he says, “The biggest mistake people make is thinking something will last forever.” He will be managing the property from an office nearby.
On closing day, balloons in the colors of the Italian flag waved in the gentle summer breeze in front, Italian folk songs played inside, sparkling wine was offered in plastic champagne flutes, and shelves were picked nearly clean.
One of the last customers arrived at the register with an armful of packages of savoiardi, the Italian ladyfinger biscuits for making tiramisu. “I had no idea, no idea,” she declared sadly. As Ursino rung her up, he thanked her and bid farewell.
“Grazie e arrivederci,” he said, pushing the cash register closed one last time.Debra Samuels can be reached at email@example.com.