Interview: Connie Rizzo of DeLaurenti's in Seattle

ConnieDeLaurenti Specialty Food and Wine is one of those Seattle institutions like the Space Needle, only it's been around a lot longer than the Space Needle. Located at the entrance to the the Pike Place Market, DeLaurenti's has sold wine, cheese, meats and a whole variety of specialty food products for over 60 years. While the DeLaurenti family, original owners, sold the shop six years ago, the store continues to be a destination for tourists and locals looking for good food - and good cheese.

Connie Rizzo has worked at DeLaurenti's for seventeen years and has been the cheese buyer for about ten of those years. A few weeks ago I sat down with her to talk about how she got into the cheese business, her approach to developing her cheese counter and her impressions of the rapidly expanding Northwest cheese scene. Matt Snyder, DeLaurenti General Manager and co-owner, joined us during part of the conversation.

* * * * * * * * * * * *  * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

When I lived in Seattle I remember stopping by DeLaurenti's to get pizza, back when they sold it out of the corner window. When did the DeLaurenti family sell the business?

Originally, Louie DeLaurenti's parents started a grocery store in the lower level of the Pike Place Market in 1946 that was the original store. Louie bought it from them and moved it to where it is now in 1973. The family sold DeLaurenti's to Pat McCarthy and partners in Jan/Feb 2001.

I know they sold cheese, but I don't recall that they particularly specialized in cheese back then?

They sold a lot of Feta. We would go through cans of feta every week. Even when I started working here in 1990, we would sell a tin (28-30lbs) a week or more. They also sold a lot of provolone and a lot of mozzarella. They were really selling what the ethnic population in town wanted at the time, mostly Greeks and Italians.

How did you get into the cheese business?

I did social services which was my degree from college. I did that for 17-18 years. I lived in Alaska during the 1980s and I would stop by DeLaurenti's anytime I came to the city to get those hard to find items I was reading about in food magazines. When I moved here from Alaska I said enough, I'm going to do something I like and I loved this specialty food store.

I moved to Seattle in 1990, and I walked in the store two weeks later and said I want to work here. Mrs. DeLaurenti said well, we do have some openings but I have someone else in mind. And then I just bugged her and the next week she had hired that person but said she might have another opening in a couple of weeks. So I called her every week and she finally hired me. Her standard question was can you use a slicer? And I said no, I'd never touched one in my entire life. But told her I could learn. And I did know how to use a knife.

Then the cheese buyer who was here before me left around 1996-7 or so, rather quickly, so I just kind of assumed the position on an emergency basis, always thinking that if somebody comes along that's really good I'd be replaced. And I'm still doing it today!

What kind of social work did you do?

Initially I was working with delinquent girls. Then for awhile I worked with emotionally disturbed children who were also developmentally disabled. Then it was working with people who had drug and alcohol problems.

Did you grow up on a farm, or make cheese at any point in your life?

No, but I grew up in a very small town in Northwest Iowa - Sibley. My father was one of two doctors in town, and his family had come over from Italy when he was two years old. He grew up in Olwein, Iowa where his father quit the railroad and opened a grocery store, and then went to med school in Chicago. While doing his residency in Des Moines, Iowa he met my mother. When we finally settled in Iowa he would call this little deli in Chicago and say €“ I've got to have this Salami, I'€™ve got to have this Provolone, I've got to have some Caciocavallo and so on. And before you knew it, down in the basement he would push my mom'€™s laundry out of the way in the winter and hang the cheese off of the clothesline. It was a cement basement and she had the washing machine down there with the roller and such, but then dad always had this stuff hanging down there too.

Do you have a guiding principle or approach to how you develop your cheese counter? How do you think about it?

First, there are staples that you just have to have. There are things in our case have been there for decades - like the Greek Feta - that I continue to bring in, because if we change them customers don't like it. We have a very loyal and regular clientele. Then there's the other stuff that I change or rotate for other customers who get bored by the same thing all the time. Those customers will come in every week and ask what'€™s new? You have to keep things rotating. We still have Havarti because people want to make a sandwich with it, you have to have Jarlsberg. But you also have to have the Guor Noirs and the Pouligny Saint-Pierres and the special stuff. So overall, I keep some things rotating and the constant things constant.

And that depends in large part on what kind of customers and customer interest you have.

Absolutely. A lot of people ask - do you have a lot of domestic cheeses in your case? And to tell you the truth, we don't really get asked for those a lot. We've got a real European-focused clientele, so as a result our concentrations are a little bit different. Do I want to expose them to something else? Sure, and we try and do that too.


In the past five years or so there'€™s been a real artisan cheese renaissance locally, with new cheesemakers starting up all over Oregon and Washington. I think I've heard you tell the story of how Kelli Estrella of Estrella Family Creamery started bringing you her early cheeses to try. Can you talk about that a little bit?

Connie: Kelli started to bring cheese in to me around 1999 or so. They hadn'€™t even moved to the old dairy where they are now and she was making cheese in her kitchen. She had gotten Anthony (her husband) to build a cave underneath their house. She would come in here every 3-4 months or so packing cheese and a couple of kids and she'€™d bring Anthony with her too. And she'd give me these little samples of cheese and say – what do you think? And I'd say they'€™re great, when are we going to be able to sell this? She€'d  tell me that they weren't that good and that she wasn't ready yet.  So I was so pleased when she came in to tell me they were licensed.

Matt:  Earlier this year during the Seattle Cheese Festival we had a reception in the store. Kelli was walking around downstairs and I saw her staring at the cheese case. So I walked behind the counter and said do you want to try anything?  We were there for 45 minutes opening and trying cheese. She wanted to look at the cheese and handle it. She would say things like I love this cheese, but this could never come from my farm.

So much of cheesemaking is such a natural process, so indigenous to the place and the breed of cow and vegetation and the cheesemaker. And she feels the fraternity of cheesemakers and has a real respect for what people are doing, takes those things and gathers inspiration and goes back to her mad scientist ways (Anthony calls her the '€˜mad scientist') and cranks out phenomenal cheese.

How did the idea for the Seattle Cheese Festival originate?

Matt:  Early on when we came in here we didn't want to do anything to different, we wanted to carry on the traditions of the old store. So for awhile we said to ourselves, let's just not screw it up. Then we got to a point where we wanted to do something creative, to get better, to provide opportunity for people in the store and the community to appreciate what we do.

So the idea for the Festival hit Pat in a brainstorm moment. Then we started doing some research; there's a cheese festival in Bra, Italy and Connie went to that and brought back some information about it. We tried to create something like that, where the'€™s commerce and information and appreciation and a celebratory aspect, but also where people can just come to a fun gathering and get close to the people who make the cheese.

Have you observed any effects from the festival, like a greater interest in cheese?

Connie:   I see a younger crowd coming now - though maybe that's because I've gotten older! I really do think that there are more people interested in cheese. They'€™re coming in and asking us what's new, what's different and putting their confidence in the people behind the counter.

Seattle doesn't have quite as many stores devoted to specialty foods or cheese as Portland does. Why do you think that is - is it that large grocery stores dominate the market so much more here or...?

Matt:  To do this on your own requires a complete and total commitment, monetarily and in time and in experience. You can talk to anybody who'€™s making cheese and it's the same thing. It's a tough life. To be successful you have to be at a point where you know as much as Connie does about cheese, know where to get it, and have relationships with people, and buying it at the right price and having a following and a patronage that will allow you to support the business. We have the luxury here of a trail being blazed before us. To drop a cheese shop out of the sky would be tough. Especially when there'€™s grocery stores around here that have a lot of good cheese.

Connie: The price of real estate is another thing, it'€™s really high.

Matt:  If you can sell enough Comte to support yourself in Seattle, then good for you.

What are the hardest and most fun parts of your job?

Connie: The most fun part is looking around for cheese and finding it and tasting it, having something new in your mouth. That's absolutely the best part of the job. The worst is probably when you get something in that you'€™ve fought to get and it comes in and you can't send it back and it's in bad shape and I've got a total loss on my hands. It's frustrating to know that what I had in my mouth a few weeks ago isn't what I've got now.

The other fun part is having someone come up to the counter and say I don't like this and I don'€™t like that and I don'€™t like goat, what should I get? Then I'€™ll give them a taste of goat cheese and they say what is that, I like that?! And I'€™ll tell them that it's a goat cheese. I love being able to turn somebody on to something they thought they wouldn't like, to open up a new world to them.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

DeLaurenti Specialty Food and Wine
1435 First Avenue   
(in the Pike Place Market at the Corner of 1st and Pike)
Seattle, WA  98101
206-622-0141 or toll free 800-873-6685

Monday - Saturday 9AM - 6PM
Sunday 10AM - 5PM