It was 1994 that two brothers from New York, Tommy and Chris Guarino, moved to Wilmington, NC, to open an Italian Delicatessen.
Following high school in Westchester County, NY, just outside the Bronx, Tommy’s head for numbers propelled him to business college for a year, but he didn’t like it. He married at 19 and became a father soon after. Hw became a union carpenter who moonlighted as a soda distributor’s cashier and bookkeeper. The two jobs had him working 15 hours a day for nine years.
While in high school, Chris fell for cars and worked after classes at an auto body shop. He stuck to the trade, got married and started a family. In the mid 1980s, both Chris and Tommy joined their older brother’s beverage center business, a retail/wholesale drinks operation. During his down time there, Chris, always more interested in eating than cooking, watched television cooking programs.
While neither brother started out pursuing the hospitality business, their entrepreneurial spirit and their delicatessen’s recipes of good food and strong family ties started simmering when the men were young. The Guarino’s grandparents came to the US from Sicily and Naples, Italy, bringing along deep rooted Italian food traditions. Chris and Tommy’s maternal grandparents had a yard near the Bronx that was planted with gardens and grape vines. Grand feasts were staged there and at the homes of many other relatives.
In Chris and Tommy’s own middle class family of seven children – four boys and three girls – Dad was a “real good guy who didn’t cook but loved to eat,” Chris says. Running a garment factory and then a tailor shop, Dad set an example that Chris and Tommy credit for their unwavering work ethic, but he also made time for his children. Cancer claimed Dad at 42, when Tommy was 16 and Chris just 6 years old, leaving the pair’s oldest brother to carry the family with the help of many relatives as well as his siblings. Throughout good times and hardships, ever-patient Mom remained the devoted homemaker. She had a meal in mind for each night of the week and her food was superior to that of most restaurants.
When an uncle moved to Wilmington in the 1990s, Chris and Tommy followed to scout for business opportunities. Around lunchtime, they searched for a delicatessen that served the Italian sandwiches they liked in New York, but never found one. So, they decided to open their own in Wilmington. They did a crash course at the delis of friends and family in New York and then jumped into the business.
From the beginning, relatives played key roles. Dad’s World War II medals hang on a wall, as do black-and-white family photos, many depicting Guarino family feasts. A family business photo album is full of pictures showing happy Uncle Tony Polliccio by the stove and smiling mother Mary in an apron. Wives scurry to help customers. Chris’ son, Carmine, and Chris’ godson and the Guarinos’ business partner, Craig Berner, show off deli platters in one of the many articles written over the years about A Taste of Italy’s food and atmosphere.
Despite rising food costs and growing competition, the brothers have upheld their original standards of preparing fine Italian food from scratch and stocking traditional, top-quality authentic Italian products that appeal to their paesani as well as the general public. Each sandwich still gets a half-pound of meat. Fresh, fried eggplant always goes into eggplant parmesan. Meatballs are rolled on site, and Italian bread arrives hot daily from nearby bakery Apple Annie’s.
The Guarino children have worked at A Taste of Italy. Tommy’s four daughters moved into other careers as has one of Chris’ sons. Chris’ daughter still works at A Taste of Italy, but it is his other son, Carmine, 21, and Tommy’s son, Tommy Jr., 25, who are poised to take over the business.
“It’s funny to watch it happen,” nephew, Mike Guarino, says of the fledgling transition. Already, Tommy Jr., who handles deliveries, displays his father’s calm, thoughtful approach while Carmine, who often works the counter but likes the kitchen, is more open and vocal, Mike Guarino says. Just like Tommy and Chris.
Neither he nor Carmine mind the parallels to their fathers. The elders, they say, have taught them valuable people and business skills but also devotion to family, good food and the Guarino Italian heritage. The Guarino brothers are proud and happy to see their sons interested in the business, but they remind the boys that nothing comes easy, not even with Dad behind you. In some ways, the brothers are as old-fashioned as that quintessential Italian patriarch. “You got to learn the business really good, save money to get in the business” Chris says, before giving older brother Tommy the final word, “They have to earn it.”
Edited and updated from an interview published in the StarNews Online by Liz Brio June 18, 2011.