The Corner Mercato

Wednesday, 13 September 2000 00:00

From the News and Observer
By Susan Houston

Raleigh -- A little piece of Americana -- the Mom and Pop grocery store -- and a little piece of the big city -- the corner Italian market -- are happily co-existing in Oakwood these days, at Conti's Italian Market.

The owners, Rick and Vanny (rhymes with "bonny") Conti, celebrated their first three months of business Sunday afternoon with a small-scale grand opening for family, friends and their first loyal customers. They're hopeful that their combination of imports and Italian specialty foods along with more pedestrian staples such as eggs and milk will be the key to success in a location that hasn't always been kind to small businesses.

The store's tidy 2,400 square feet embodies a cozy Italian market, from the cheery awning and sunny windows framed with dark wood casements in the front to the bright orange and green tile walls in the back. Shelves are piled high with bottles of green-gold olive oil, pasta of every shape and size, cans and jars of red sauce in all varieties. Nestled among these more common items are the rarities: caponata, antipasto with tuna, stuffed eggplant rolettes, sliced conch, mozzarella with prosciutto, three brands of capers.

A lively version of "Funiculi, Funicula" plays in the background as Rick Conti scurries to the deli. He offers a paper-thin slice of mortadella from among the many fat and skinny dried Italian sausages and meats on display. Chicken cutlets for dinner tonight, ma'am? How about a slice of tiramisu for dessert?

"Do you have any feta?" the customer asks.

"We've got gorgonzola. That's the Italian feta," Conti tells her, only half-joking. The customer frowns slightly. "You don't want to go that far, huh?"

Remembering an earlier delivery, Conti moves a few boxes and finds the feta.

People continue to trickle in, not bad traffic for a weekday afternoon. Some come from around the Triangle, and even beyond, for Italian specialties that are hard to find at the supermarket. A couple from Wilson shops here twice a week, Conti says.

But many customers are also Oakwood and Mordecai neighbors, stopping to buy a gallon of milk or some eggs, asking the owners, with real concern, "How's business?"

"We're really pulling for Rick," says business neighbor Raymond Rogers, owner of Chef Rameaux's Louisiana Market in the adjacent block of Person Street. "Talk about blood, sweat, tears and fortune -- it's all in there."

Reworking a dream

A failed restaurant in its last incarnation, the 75-year-old structure at 618 N. Person St. was on the verge of condemnation when the Contis discovered it. Its windows were boarded up and its heating and electrical systems were shot.

But Rick Conti decided it was perfect for a neighborhood market; it was even in his neighborhood, just blocks away from the 1930s house he was remodeling in what he calls "Hysterical Oakdale."

His neighbors watched as Conti transformed the space. Starting in November 1998, armed with a 15-year lease and years of experience as a building contractor, Conti gutted the interior, stripping the plaster to the bare bricks below, leveling and repouring a concrete floor that he dyed a rustic reddish color, and rebuilt the roof.

Conti discovered a clerestory original to the building and transformed an old exhaust shaft into a second clerestory; the dark corridor of a building became infused with light. Ultimately, the renovation, which he planned to complete in eight months, took 18.

The market has already fulfilled the American dream for Conti. A native of Niagara Falls, N.Y., he studied to be an accountant but wound up a carpenter and building contractor. He had gradually reworked his dream of owning an Italian restaurant, like his father and brother, into the idea of a neighborhood market. He had entertained visions of owning a place of his own for six years, since the day he stopped in an Italian market in Naples, Fla., and wound up buying 40 pounds of pasta because he loved the place so much.

He sold his wife on the idea, just as he'd sold her on the idea of marrying him after meeting her on a trip to Peru, her native country.

It's still too early to tell if their business venture will be successful.

"It's like this guy says when I ask for his advice about the store." Conti affects a thick Italian accent, " 'Izza like a watermelon. You donta know if izza ripe until you cut it open.' I think that analogy is the best."

And he laughs, a rich contented laugh.