One of the things I like to do on the road is seek out the unique grocery and/or meat markets that are known as institutions to the local populace. One of those such places is Graziano Brothers on the south side of Des Moines. It's been awhile since I'd been in Graziano Brothers and I've wanted to do a Road Tips entry on the place. On a recent visit to Des Moines, I made the time to stop at Graziano Brothers to pick up some Italian meats before I took off for the Quad Cities.
For over 100 years, Graziano Brothers has been making some of the best Italian meats in the Midwest. It all started in the small Italian village of San Morello in Italy's Calabria region. Brothers Frank and Louis Graziano yearned for a chance to go to America to escape their impoverished surroundings. In 1903, Frank and Louis - ages 21 and 17, respectively - made it to America and found their way to Des Moines working for a railroad company. Working on the railroad was a tough life for the Graziano brothers and eventually it was decided that they would open a grocery store on Des Moines' growing Italian south side. Louis left the railroad to start the grocery store in 1912 while Frank continued to work at the railroad to support the two while they got the grocery store going.
They found a building at the corner of Jackson and S. Union that used to house a drug store. Their business neighbors to the south were a cobbler and a tavern. The Graziano brothers began to make sausage and smoked meats that they learned how to make growing up in San Morello. The exploding Italian population in South Des Moines - many of whom came from the same areas in Southern Italy as the Graziano's - found that the brothers sausage and meat-making skills were as good as what they could find back home.
After World War II, the Graziano's got into the wholesale food business in addition to their little grocery store. The were able to get hard to find Italian specialties such as olive oil, garlic, and Italian spices, and they began to distribute these products to other stores and restaurants.
In the early 50's, the Graziano brothers retired from running the day to day operation of their little grocery store/market. Sons Mose, Mike and Gene took over the business and guided it into the salad days of little neighborhood grocery stores in the Des Moines area. Mose's son, Frank, joined the company in the mid-70's after a stint in the armed forces and took over the business not long after.
As the 80's came, the Graziano family found that even their famous Italian sausage and meats couldn't keep up with the rapidly changing grocery store scenery in Des Moines. People who were walking to Graziano's in the 50's and 60's were now driving to larger, more modern grocery stores such as Hy-Vee and Dahl's. It was in the mid-80's that Frank Graziano decided to make Graziano Brothers a specialty meat and Italian food market. They were simply ahead of the curve when it came to specialty food stores and if you were looking for Italian cheese and meats in the Des Moines area - whether you were a restaurant owner or someone looking to simply make homemade lasagna - you went to Graziano Brothers.
Frances Graziano, Mike's daughter, joined the family business in 1996 and took over the business when Frank retired in 2000. Frances had a penchant for good Italian cooking and she added food stuffs such as andouille sausage, sweet Italian sausage, homemade pesto, imported canned goods from Italy, and a wide array of pasta imported from Italy. But the original Italian sausage recipe, the same one that Louis and Frank came up with when they first opened in April of 1912, is the same today. And that was what I was looking for when I stopped at Graziano's recently.
With cooler weather coming, I like to cook in the house more often. I like to make spaghetti with a meat sauce - usually a mixture of ground beef and Italian sausage. But more than that, I like to make my own Gizmo's - an Italian grinder made with ground beef and Italian sausage that I like so much from Carl's Gizmo at the Iowa State Fair. (Click here to see the recipe I use to make my own Gizmo's. It's as close as you can get, according to someone who used to work for Carl Cardamon a few years ago.) Carl's - like other places in Des Moines who make similar sandwiches - uses Graziano's sausage in bulk to make their signature sandwich.
There's still that old world charm to Graziano Brothers when you walk in the door. Almost immediately, the smell of fresh herbs and spices sitting on the shelf in the first aisle hits your senses. As you walk down the first aisle, there's an assortment of condiments and salad dressing, imported olives and olive oil, imported aged balsamic vinegars and sauces. The grocery store also has a number of imported tomato sauces and canned tomatoes including San Marzano tomatoes - the kind I like to use when I make my tomato sauce from scratch - just across the aisle from the olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
The bread aisle features a number of fresh baked breads from a local bakery - Amodeo's in suburban Clive . They also have some artisan breads form South Union Bakery, as well. Graziano's also has numerous types of domestic and imported pasta, and snack items including cannoli and biscuits.
The focal point of the place is Graziano Brothers meat and cheese counter. On their website, Graziano Brothers says there are over 400 different types of cheese that are made in Italy. They can't possibly offer that much variety in cheese, but they claim to have the staples of Italian-style cheese from fresh Asiago to fresh Parmesan to fresh Mozzarella.
The meat counter isn't all that big, but they have their famous medium-hot Italian sausage in there, as well as prosciutto, salami and mortadella. My neighbor, Murray, told me that he used to get "wet" salami at Graziano's when he lived in Des Moines years ago and was married to an Italian girl. "My mother-in-law always told me to get the 'wet' salami rather than 'dry' salami," he told me. When I told him I didn't know there was a difference in wet versus dry salami, he said, "I didn't either. That is, until I got the 'wet' salami at Graziano's. It's killer."
There didn't appear to be a lot of bulk medium hot Graziano ground sausage in the case and when it came time for me to order I asked the lady behind the meat counter if she had any more on hand. She sort of snorted a laugh out and said, "Oh, yeah. I got a lot more than what's in there." Actually, the last time I went there a few years ago, Graziano's was out of their signature ground sausage. I ordered up five one-pound packages of the ground Italian sausage. I figured that I'd freeze them all and use them up one or two pounds at a time.
After she got the sausage for me, I ordered up a quarter pound each of the "moist" salami, spicy cappicola, and pepperoni slices for Italian sandwiches. I also got 8 slices of provolone cheese from the cheese case. The only problem is that when I got home, I had Murray come down and we got into the "moist" salami. He said, "Oh man! This stuff is great! You should have brought home a pound of it!" He was right - it was gone quickly just from just snacking on it. But the cappicola had a great flavor - some of the best cappicola I've ever had. It had a great spicy bite to it. And a quarter pound of pepperoni slices goes a long ways. I was snacking on pepperoni slices throughout the day for the next couple three weeks. I never was able to make one of my Italian sandwiches.
Graziano Brothers has certainly been a fixture on the Des Moines food scene for over a century. Their famous sausages and Italian meats have fed generations of families over the years. The specialty Italian market is worth a visit to pick up pasta, olive oil, or tomato sauce. This is a place that anyone would wish would be in their hometown. I highly recommend a visit to Graziano Brothers if you get to Des Moines. And don't forget your cooler. (Note - Graziano Brothers is closed on Sundays.)