Local Gems of Syracuse is a series of posts designed to highlight the unsung heroes of our culinary life. Each of them, in their own way, elevates the food scene of Syracuse.
Lombardi's is a veritable Syracuse institution. When I first moved here I would hear about it all the time. Co-op staff would stop in the aisles of the Co-op, thrust a piece of waxed paper holding something delicious toward me, saying "You gotta taste this!" Inevitably I'd find myself chewing on some proscuitto salami, saying--"oh my God--where can I get this!?" The answer was always Lombardi's.
Lombardi's Fruit and Produce on Butternut Avenue on Syracuse's North Side reminds me of the kind of Italian salumeria I grew up with in Brooklyn and Staten Island. I remember the smells of well-aged cheeses, cured meats, and fruit--and walking into Lombardi's brings it all back. I also remember the sounds of people ordering their "regular" and the man behind the counter knowing exactly what that was. Like those places of my youth, Lombardi's is only partly about the food--it is about community. It is where the local news is shared, where everyone feels like they are known and where the staff care to spend the time to help you choose from the dozens of vinegars, oils, pastas, cheeses, and salumi on offer. In fact, they may have the most comprehensive olive oil and vinegar section in all of Syracuse.
I went in to browse around recently and decided to bring home some of that proscuitto salami and whatever else looked good. To my surprise the man behind the counter was Vince Lombardi himself. Lombardi's is a family business and Vince presides over the store as a doting father--knowledgeable about everything on the shelves, and invested in making sure customers (doesn't even seem right to use that word) find just what they're looking for.
Take proscuitto for example. I've been eating proscuitto for a long time and all I ever knew was that Parma Proscuitto was the best. But Vince says, "you gotta try this". He sliced some San Daniele Proscuitto, it melted on my tongue and I said, "I'll take a 1/4 pound!" As Vince explained how San Daniele Proscuitto is made from the finest pigs and is the very best there is, I thought--this is the value of a place like Lombardi's. You just don't get this kind of expertise and time in most supermarkets. When I asked about some good balsamic vinegar to go with it (not $100 good, but you know, good) Vince led me down the aisle and compared bottles and described tastes and helped me make the best purchase for my money. I grabbed a package of some of their house-made pasta and was all set.
The thing about writing about Lombardi's is, most folks who have been around Syracuse a bit know how great it is. It has been written up in the Post-Standard over the years and generations have shopped there. But it is exactly the kind of locally-owned business that is so fragile in today's marketplace. It is uncertain whether the next generation of Lombardi's will take over and the competition is fierce for business. But as many readers of this blog know, Lombardi's is the kind of authentic place that makes Syracuse great. It is not as ritzy as a Balducci's or Zabar's (both in NYC) and it is not a one-stop shopping place like Wegman's but the food is fantastic and there's always a genuine smile on Vince's face when you come in the door.