In the Heart of Little Italy, You'll Find Marche Tania


Wind and chill begin to settle in on this overcast Friday afternoon in Montreal. I'm walking to Marche Tania and I'm as prepared as I can be. I've got my tape recorder in my pocket and my notepad and lucky pen in hand. I don't know much about the guy I'm meeting, but I know his store and I've heard some of the nicest things. Walking through the small streets from where I was on Clark, the city is peaceful in Little Italy. It may be grey out but the market is business as usual with cyclists and walkers roaming from one stall to the next. Though vendors have set up indoors, the colors are vibrant and the smells are fresh. 


Fresh chestnuts from Italy

When I reach Marche Tania, Montreal has turned a slightly deeper shade of grey and a few degrees cooler. It's mid-November and this is my first visit to the cozy, family-run store. The first thing I notice is a great big wicker basket filled with chestnuts from Italy. Smiles rise in me to see these deep brown rounds in a heap right at the center of rows and rows of fresh produce. This seasonal staple reminds me that despite the snow and severe cold still to come, there are warming and comforting foods to look forward to. There is a long history of tradition in just this one basket.  

From where I'm standing I see bright colors of green asparagus and the sunny skins of clementines, people moving indoors and out and conversations happening all around. There's a register set up outside where a woman bundled in her red jacket is smiling and speaking closely with a customer. I hear them talking about how good last week's grape was, and I have to smile to myself and jot that down in my notepad because this is the sort of closeness you see at the market so often. The Jean-Talon Market is a wholesome escape. I didn't only come here to interview a produce guy, more than anything, I came to get close to something special he has been a part of for a long time. 

photo 5.jpg

Marche Tania mid-November display

Marche Tania is a quaint little haven in a great big market. On the far right of the outdoor display, the last of the Greek figs are slightly over-ripened, and if you've ever eatten figs right, you know their present state is downright sublime. Looking around, there are only a few red apples left and even less of bell peppers. This sight would have me running out of a grocery store, but at the market, it's a pleasure to see small quantities of produce in baskets that are left for empty at the end of the day. There are gorgeous matte pears, jewel-colored plums, and yellow mangoes sitting in baskets, rows of apples, and bundles of onions and carrots. Between the exotic items, seasonal items, and the traditional ones this time of year, the fruits and vegetables are stars here. That is, until you meet Joe Romito.

Joe is the guy behind the beloved family-run Marche Tania. Immediately upon meeting him, he lights up, "So, this is Ruby!", and apologizes about the paint on his hand when he reaches to shake mine. Joe and his neighbor John are in the middle of painting the indoor produce tables a vibrant grassy green. With new, softer lighting and a fresh coat of light blue paint on the walls, the store is getting a face lift.

The first thing I learn about Joe is that he's a very open person who likes to talk; the second our conversation begins, the hours pass in a flash. Rosie, Joe's wife, and her brother Reggie are here today working outdoors while Joe is putting the finishing touches indoors. At its root, Marche Tania is built on family. 

photo 4.jpgJoe Romito, proud Montrealer

In the early 50s, Joe's parents immigrated from Sicily to Montreal. He was born here, and from the pictures of Impact players and his beloved "Allez Montreal!" plaque on the wall, I can already tell he's proud to be a part of this city. It's love for this city and neighborhood that has earned Joe his "great guy" reputation, and in turn, earned Marche Tania a reputation for feeling like home. 

Ruby: How, if at all, is your Italian heritage reflected here at the market?

Joe: The number one thing we bring here is the family atmosphere.

Ruby: I can already see that. You have your wife here.

Joe: My wife works here, my daughter works here. It's a family owned business, it's always been family oriented. We're very friendly to our customers, we know a lot of them and at least 75% of them know us by name.

Ruby: When people come here do they know it's a family run business?

Joe: They do. I've been here 28 years now, so it's like a landmark. 

Rosie's father and uncle began their start at the Jean-Talon Market in the early 60s. They were pioneers in their own right as one of the first importers of rapini (also known as broccoli rabe), in Montreal. Back in the 60s and 70s, rapini were hardly known, but when Marche Tania opened their doors in 1984, distributing the slightly bitter and peppery green became a staple.

Before it was Marche Tania, Joe and his brother-in-law named the store Nick and Joe's Juicy Fruits. When La Protection de la Langue Francaise was implemented, it forced them to change their name. Joe decided to name the store after his only daughter, Tania. There isn't one aspect of Marche Tania that isn't touched by the idea of family and togetherness.

Still, when I probe Joe about passing his life work down to one of his kids, he hesitates for a moment. I can see how humble he is about his hard work, but an average week for Joe runs 60 to 70 hours. He works 7 days a week and hardly sees a Sunday off. Though his kids work at the store part time, he's honest about not wanting them to takeover. Joe is wide-eyed and proud when he speaks to me about his kids. He's especially proud that they attend school and are following their own career paths. 

photo 3.jpgJoe and wife Rosie in the middle of sprucing up the store

The entire time Joe and I speak, he doesn't spend any time making excuses for his honesty. When we get to talking about  produce as his business, he's forthcoming and unpologetic about where his produce is from and why he chooses to provide Montrealers with fresh food that isn't local.

Ruby: Where does most of this produce come from - is any of it from Quebec?

Joe: No, most of the produce in the summertime is from California, and most of the produce in the wintertime is from Chile.

Ruby: Was that a decision you made or was it out of necessity?

Joe: That's basically where the fruit and vegetable market brings us; this is what Montreal, Quebec, and Canada brings in. In the summertime, 90% of peaches, prunes, plums, nectarines, apricots, and cherries are coming from California.

Ruby: Why do you choose to import?

Joe: If there's a demand, and other countries are importing, then why not? We grew up in an era, the Italians, when a pastry was only eaten at Christmas. Today, you're watching a movie and say 'let's go get some cannoli's' - you know what I mean? We used to eat cherries once in the summer and now you're eating them at Christmas and after Christmas.

Ruby: Do you carry anything that is Quebec-grown?

Joe: Strawberries, sometimes. When strawberry season comes in I let the farmers sell it because it's their time. I'm not greedy; I'm not looking for a piece of the pie. It's the farmer's time. People want to go and see the farmer themselves rather than a guy like me. I don't want to compete with the farmers because it's their time to shine. The sun is there for everybody.

Ruby: At this time of the year, what do you find sells most?

Joe: More greens, like rapini and escarole and fennel. People ask for more potatoes and carrots too.

Ruby: How do your own values about food get incorporated here at Marche Tania?

Joe: Coming from an Italian background with good food, we didn't have too much when we were growing up, but we always had love on the table; we always had quality. My parents presented us with that good food and it was special. Today, I'm not only looking to make a dollar, I'm looking to give something good back to the customer. You know what, I'd rather hear them say that what they bought was amazing over me making a buck on that purchase. That's more gratifying for me because that's going to be a recurring customer who comes back and says what he bought was spectacular.

Ruby: Really?

Joe: The dollar is always the bottom line, but it's gratifying when the customer comes back and says 'what I bought last week was out of bounds'. I'm the buyer of all the fruits and vegetables here, so I look for really high end. If it goes 1-10, I'm only looking at 8, 9, and 10. That's the only way because I have to compete with the chain stores. Chain stores focus on price and quantity, but my store is quality and service. The personalized service - that's what I give my customers and that's what they come back for. Sometimes they just linger here for 20, 30, 40 minutes after they've even shopped.

Ruby: What is your relationship with your customers? Do you have your regulars?

Joe: I have customers who used to come with babies in carriages and now they're teenagers or married or have kids of their own and that's amazing.

Ruby: It's pretty incredible to think you watched your own daughter grow up here, as well as your customer's kids.

Joe: It's amazing when I start to think about it. I never thought about it that way.

Ruby: It's even making you emotional now.

Joe: Yeah, it is.

I'm blown away by Joe's vulnerability. He has had a rich history with the people who have come through the store. Joe's relationship with his customers is the basis for how well his business has done over the last three decades.

Ruby: Going back to those who like to come and linger for a long time, do you ever mind people who come in and don't buy?

Joe: I let them be, as if they are home. Almost 10 years ago, I bought an expensive espresso machine so we could offer them a coffee.

Ruby: Are you serious?!

Joe: Yeah yeah, so anybody who just comes in or stays a while, we offer an espresso. Before the machine, we used to go get them at the cafes, but it used to take me so much time to go and then come back. If I would go and get three coffees, and I had three customers in the store, by the time I'd come back there'd be another three customers, so I said to myself, I need an espresso machine.

Ruby: That is seriously the nicest thing!

Joe: People appreciate it. It's not a cappuccino, but it's an espresso. It's a coffee!

Ruby: It's like you're inviting them to your house.

Joe: That's exactly it.

Ruby: It's very much like Italian culture; when someone comes over, what do you do? You offer them a coffee!

Rosie: It's exactly true, you're right. It's a way of making you feel welcome. You don't feel like you have to rush out of here.

Joe: We have a customer, her name is Chi, she asked my wife to make her a tiramisu, and she did. That's the kind of relationships we have.

Ruby: Wow. You just made her a tiramisu because she asked?

Joe: Yeah, why not? She loved it. She comes to the store all the time.

Ruby: I noticed you carry biscotti here also. Where are these from?

Rosie: My sister and I have a small home-based operation in St. Leonard. We opened a little company and we decided to go ahead and bring something Italian to the place. We make them all ourselves.

Ruby: Again, bringing your heritage in.

Rosie: It's nice, we make specialty biscotti's out of Nutella and you can find them in a few cafes around Montreal.

Joe: We're going to make you taste the Nutella cookies after.

Ruby: I don't say no to anything Nutella!

Joe wasn't lying when he said Chi visits the store often. In the middle of our conversation, Joe spots her outside buying a few things. She joins us for a chat and I can see and sense that she's as much part of Marche Tania as Joe and Rosie are. Her response to my asking about the tiramisu? - "It's like, when you eat that, you actually start crying. Other than it tasting good, it feels good." She has history here, and she spends some time telling me how much she appreciates the closeness she's shared at Marche Tania.

nutella 2.JPGRosie's homemade Nutella cookies on display during the holidays

Chi's testimony isn't the last. All afternoon, a revolving door of good friends and familiar faces continues. Dominic, former owner of the restaurant Lucca, and an old high school friend of Joe's, stops by to chat and begins telling me how they meet old friends at the market all the time. Joe tells a comedic story about a guy from high school who he'd heard had passed away only to see him years later walking around the market exclaiming, "I thought you were dead!" It's hilarious, but it also sparks a conversation about how Joe stays connected to this part of the neighborhood in Little Italy.

Joe: I try to make a difference in the neighborhood. I know everyone and all the restaurants in the area, and they all know me too.

Ruby: Are there any chefs that come here to shop?

Joe: Robert from Primo & Secondo, Anthony from Lucca, Nick from Inferno, and the guys from Vinizza come here. They won't come to buy 90% of their stuff but if they're missing anything or need anything they come here. I don't oblige anyone. When someone asks me where they can get a good pizza, I don't send them to Old Montreal, I send them to them to my next door neighbors. I support this neighborhood big time. I sometimes bring them by hand. I say 'c'mere, this is Nicola Travaglini - they have really good pizza. Nicola Travaglini is a grocery/eatery like Eataly in New York. A lot of people don't know about it, I'll show you after.

As a fellow Italian and market-goer, I had to know if Joe and his family were keeping up with the traditions our grandparents and parents passed down about preserving seasonal produce.

Ruby: As an Italian do you practice any methods of preservation with your fruits and vegetables?

Joe: Yes, my wife does mellanzane sott'oilo (eggplant in oil), pomodoro sott'oilo (tomatoes in oil), peperone arrostito (roasted peppers), and tomato sauce - although because we're in the tomato scene here at the market all the time we don't do a conserva (a process of preserving tomatoes) like my mother used to do  all the time. We respect the fruits and vegetables; we don't take it for granted.

Ruby: First thing I noticed when I walked up to the store was a big basket of chestnuts from Italy. If you're not Italian you might not know how to use them. Do you ever catch anyone by the chestnuts, figs, or khaki's (persimmons) and try to get them interested in these slightly more exotic items?

Joe: We're here to educate, for sure. Today they may not know what that is, but we'll tell them how to eat it, and let me tell you, Italians aren't the only ones buying figs anymore - it's French Quebecers, Arabs, Mexicans, etc. who are buying them. 

Ruby: Have you noticed that people want to learn more about their food or experience more from varying foods?

Joe: Oh sure, Quebecers were born to not only eat carrots, onions, and potatoes. They've evolved the way we've evolved. We grew up eating zucchini and mellanzane (eggplant). Kids would say 'what the hell is that you're eating?' and it was rapini in our sandwiches.

Ruby: That is so true!

Joe: They thought we were eating grass, but look now, they all want rapini too!

Ruby: Rapini costs a pretty penny on restaurant menus these days as well.

Joe: Yeah, you see!

After a few good laughs, I realize that there is a painfully obvious question I haven't asked Joe yet.

Ruby: What would you say to someone who lives off the island or far off from the market and says that it's not worth it for them to drive all the way here - what could you say to bring them to Marche Tania and the Jean -Talon Market?

Joe: Besides coming to see me, I'd say, come early in the day. Come and have breakfast, shop a little bit, have lunch, shop a little bit, have supper, and just walk. Enjoy the aromas of the market, enjoy the people, enjoy the friendliness, and enjoy the way they speak. You have the one-on-one contact with the people, and you can spend a full day at the Jean-Talon Market.

Ruby: It's a joie-de-vivre to experience this, isn't it?

Joe: Oh yeah!

Ruby: What is your response to those who say that it's cheaper to shop at Provigo or Maxi over Marche Tania?

Joe: You know, there are specials out there and I don't discourage people to go and get them. Sometimes you save that fifty cents or dollar, but you won't get that satisfaction from service. At the chain store you get a cashier that asks you for your fifty cents and that's it. Here it might cost seventy-five cents, but you also get a 'thank you' and a 'how was your day?' and 'how's your family? and 'how many kids do you have?' and 'do they go to school?' It's priceless.

Getting to know Joe

Joe is the epitome of a nice guy. He's had a smile on his face all day, been completely hospitable, and has made it his business to make me feel invited. He's open about himself and his work, and there isn't a thing about him that is rehearsed or forced. He speaks with ease and enthusiasm. He's a hard working guy who takes pride in being a Montrealer. And sports, the guy loves his sports. Not only does Joe express himself on social media about the latest games going on in the city, he regularly appears on Team 990 with Tony Marinaro. 

Ruby: You have posters up of Impact players and I noticed on Twitter that you like voicing your opinions and get really into the dynamics of the games.

Joe: I'm a fanatic! I'm very opinionated. I want my teams to do very, very good. The Montreal Impact, this summer, used to practice twice or three times a week at Centre Club Boisbriand. I know the general manager because he comes by with his wife and kids. I know his kids by first name, they know me by first name, they wave at me and ask if they can have strawberries and I give it to them - not because he's the GM, but it's because we love kids and the kids love us. I used to bring a box of fruits to the practice facility. I used to bring Marco Di Vaio a box of figs without anyone telling me I should or shouldn't, I just did it. After the tenth time, the players started to call me by my name 'Hey Joe, thanks for the fruit!' They still thank me all the time, but I did it to show my support.

Ruby: When you're not at Marche Tania, where are you hanging out?

Joe: I'm a huge fan of Montreal, first of all. I'm all about the city, I love Montreal, and I love all the good things that Montreal represents. I love all the sporting events. I was sad that the Montreal Expos left town, but anything that's Montreal-related, even if it's cricket, I'll support it. I don't know anything about cricket, but just to say. I grew up with the Montreal Canadians, and I passed that passion on to my two boys and my daughter. All three are sports enthusiasts.

Ruby: Other than sports, what else are you passionate about or interested in during your down time?

Joe: I love watching tv.

Ruby: Now I have to know, what are you watching?

Joe: Right now, one of my favorite shows on TV is Boardwalk Empire.

Ruby: Great show. Season 1 was incredible!

Joe: Season 2, 3 - it's spectacular. When we lost The Sopranos, I think Boardwalk Empire took over its spot.

Ruby: You think it's more amazing than Sopranos?

Joe: I think it is better; the costumes, the era.

Ruby: The level of detail is impressive.

Joe: Oh yeah, and the history. They educate you.

Believe me, I have to restrain myself at this point because there is no bigger fan of The Sopranos than me, and I could talk TV all day.

Joe tells me that he has loved and enjoyed working at the most beautiful market in Montreal, being in the public-eye, and meeting so many interesting people. From Ginette Reno to Jean Chreitien to soccer players, he has commemorated these memories on his Wall-of-Fame behind the cash register. By the way, Jean Chreitien didn't buy anything but Joe did send him off with a watermelon.

joe.JPGJoe's wall of fame

Winding down, I ask Joe about the future. 

Ruby: So, Joe, as we're nearing the end of the interview, I have to ask you, where do you see the future of Marche Tania in 5-10 years from now and will you still be here?

Joe: I still see myself here; I'd like to give it another 10 more years. I've had a lot of offers to sell or go work for people in the wholesale industry.

Ruby: And you've never taken up those opportunities?

Joe: Actually, I tried it. I left my store for a couple of weeks just to try it out and I liked it but I missed the feeling of being with people. I don't want to be in an office.

Ruby: That's really for you, isn't it, to be one-on-one with the people?

Joe: Like my wife says, sometimes I don't stop talking, like in this interview, I go on and on and on. We're people who love people. Nothing educates you more than being around people. We have confidence in ourselves when we're talking to people. 

It seems as though I've met half the neighborhood already, and still, one by one, people keep coming in; customers who know Joe and Rosie, people you would mistake for being their actual family members. Owner of Villa Roma restaurant on St. Laurent comes in and asks Joe to pick a nice bag of grapes for her. Nicola of Nicola Travaglini passes by to chat and tells me that Joe sends his customers to him on a regular basis. Nicola's own establishment is so fiercely committed to quality and customers. In fact, after I turned off the tape recorder, Joe walked me over to the Eataly-esque store where Nicola, the passionate food lover, and I spent over an hour talking about the evolution of grocery food culture over the last fifty years.

I came here to interview Joe about his store and food philosophies, and I did, but I left with a whole lot more than I imagined I would. We spoke about the market and the store for a long time, but after the interview, I stuck around for a long time to linger with coffee and talk. I got the opportunity to talk with Rosie one-on-one and get her feedback about life at the market.

Ruby: Do you also feel, like Joe, that you're a part of the community?

Rosie: Oh yeah, definitely, we know everyone in this area. It's like our second home; actually it's more like our first home most times. It's a lot of hours, I'm on a double shift usually - I do this here and then bake 3 days a week.

Ruby: How did the baking come into the picture?

Rosie: Well, my mom had a stroke so my sister stopped working to help take care of her and we decided we could work at something from home. We wanted to try something different and take advantage of the store since we'd have a place to sell them. Then all our friends from the neighborhood encouraged us. They all bought the product and now we sell them at the cafes all around us.

Ruby: So, if they're not buying them at Marche Tania, where can people get your cookies?

Rosie: You can go to Capital next door, Cafe San Simeon, Cafe Vito, Cafe Ciociaro, and there's a place in Mascouche called Citron Que C'est Bon.

Ruby: If someone wanted to do what you and Joe are doing, what would you say to prepare them for this adventure?

Rosie: You better be ready to dedicate your life to it! Yes, the market is booming but there's a lot of competition, and the big store chains are a big threat to us little guys. The people who come to the market are the type who like to smell, taste, talk. There's people-contact here, you can't get that everywhere.

Ruby: Apart from hospitality and family, what does Marche Tania offer that none of the chain stores are offering?

Rosie: The chestnuts, the Moscato pears, you know they're coming straight from Italy, it hasn't been stored away. You may go buy it at the store but it's not actually fresh, it's been in storage. They don't transport produce every single day to the big chains. Joe goes to the wholesaler almost every single day. One day he'll buy something, the next day he'll get something else. Every day he's at the warehouses.

marche tania.JPGMarche Tania after Joe and his neighbor John finish the renovations 

In Joe's words, "at the end of the day, I'm not a millionaire, my richness is what I have at home" and truly, you, me, and anyone who stops by Marche Tania is a part of that. Joe and Rosie invite us in, offer us a coffee, and talk to us in the same way I saw them talk to their friends and family all Friday afternoon. They're genuine people who support and have big love for Montreal, Little Italy, and the Jean-Talon Market.

Do the right thing and go visit them. Go talk sports or food and enjoy these passionate Montrealer's and all around amazing folks. This is what the market is about - sharing, quality, experiencing a connection to food and people.

Marche Tania is located at 166 Marche du Nord. Minutes away from metro's De Castelnau and Jean-Talon. Open 7 days a week. For more info contact Marche Tania at (514) 272-5443 

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I'd like to extend a major thank you to Joe Romito for his unbelievable warmth, hospitality, and time. Thank you to Rosie Romito for her absolutely divine nutella cookies and for taking the time to speak with me without notice. In addition, I'd like to thank their neighbor John, friends Dominic, and Nicola Travaglini, regular customers Chi and Jeannette for their time, insight, and kind words. I had a memorable day at Marche Tania and Nicola Travaglini's. Thank you!

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