The Italian deli, with its packed, diverse, and sometimes overwhelming hero sandwiches, has long been a fondly regarded but no longer remarkable feature of the American urban scene. If they are located in one of the Little Italies, one can expect to find a richer selection of hot plates and imported canned goods. Yet if one is seeking to experience a true rosticceria, a refined establishment where every conceivable variety of roasted meat and vegetable dishes are surrounded by towering stacks of high quality tinned delicacies from every region of Italy, it is necessary to head up to Poughkeepsie, New York, where Rosticceria Rossi and Sons — universally known as Rossi Deli — has wafted its savors up to the bright Hudson Valley air since 1979.
“When the Florentine city fathers commissioned Brunelleschi to build the great dome of their duomo, they told him to make it “il più bello che si può – “as beautiful as possible,”
says Giovanni Rossi, the eponymous founder of the deli. “I took that to heart in opening and refining my rosticceria. I had learned so much over the years, had so many experiences
with the different varieties of Italian cuisine, I just had to keep making my place the best it could be.”
A proud native of Parma province, which has added parmigiana to the last names of some of the most beloved dishes on earth, Signor Rossi comes from a line of farmers who owned their own land near the village of Stradella in the township of Bardi. There they cultivated grapes, grew wheat, and milked cows, though making a good living proved elusive. “We simply could not make enough money at it,” he recalls, “though I won’t say that life was miserable. Coming from the province that gave the world Giuseppe Verdi, we sang as we worked all day long, though not opera, of course. We sang the traditional songs of the working people of the region of Emilia-Romagna.”
Still, a family that takes “il più bello che si può” as its creed had higher aspirations, and so the first Rossis came to America in 1937, eventually gravitating towards Poughkeepsie with its long-established Little Italy, where Giovanni joined them a generation later. “Thursday, November 27, 1965 at 6:30 PM,” Signor Rossi precisely and gleefully gives the moment
his plane came into New York, his love of his new country as strong as that of his old. “I spoke no English, and started out as a busboy. Having started cooking during my military
service in Italy, I returned to it as my fluency in English grew. Pizza man, 2nd chef, head chef at the best Italian restaurants in Poughkeepsie – Nick’s, Coppolas,’s, Milanese. I learned the whole old school tradition, and never stopped learning.”
Yet with so much restaurant experience, why was it a deli that Signor Rossi opted for when it came time to harvest his knowledge, and strike out on his own? “I chose to open a rosticceria because I wanted to do everything myself,” he explains. “Every dish had to embody excellence, either being made by me or subject to my direct and constant quality control. And the same for the canned goods we sell, which have always been personally vetted by me. At first I thought of buying a place in Little Italy in Manhattan, but I didn’t have the kind of money they wanted, so I opened this little place.”
Little it may be, yet the quaint and intimate store on a 19th century byway in Poughkeepsie’s historic Union Street neighborhood has reaped all the benefits that pioneers gain from being the first – and the best at what they do. Rossi’s, still at its original location at 45 South Clover Street, is unanimously acknowledged to be the finest deli in the Hudson Valley, with no competitors to speak of. And the reasons for this are apparent as soon as one walks through the front door and looks down the long but narrow space. To the left, behind a stretching display case of glass, are the hot dishes: chicken parmigiana, veal parmigiana, eggplant parmigiana, fettucine Alfredo, chicken francese, shrimp cacciatore, braciola di magliale, ziti with braised beef, lasagna, stuffed shells, meatballs, stuffed artichokes, roasted peppers, minestrone, ravioli, and, inevitably, something original – chicken a la Rossi. Within the same case, but on a different level, are a variety of cold meats waiting to be turned into cuts and fine imported cheeses, led respectively by an inevitable pair: prosciutto di Parma and formaggio di Parma. And the number of standard and house favorite panini are amenable to whatever mixing-and-matching strikes the patron’s fancy – within the limits of good taste, of course. Vegetarian salads, plates, and soups round out the sumptuous spread.
“People come from as far as Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Connecticut, way upstate New York, Canada, and of course Italy, where our rosticceria’s reputation has made the newspapers or has been spread by word of mouth,” says Signor Rossi. “A typical remark runs like this: ‘I came here from Brooklyn because of the good food and the good people – like it used to be when I was young.’” The good people have grown over the years from Signor Rossi and his highly personable wife of almost fifty years, Angelina, to include a full brace of the four sons of the deli’s name: Mauro, Fabio, Roberto, and Alessandro, all as engaging as their parents. “I met my wife in Caffe Aurora, that other great Poughkeespie Italian institution, and we have made this into a full-fledged family business. Our sons learned the trade from their father, working from boyhood in all aspects from cooking to delivery to product selection to bookkeeping. It was a long but steady journey to ‘Rossi and Sons,’ which we only officially became two years ago.”
And “good people” is not just a fond expression in their case, as was vividly demonstrated in 2012 in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, when the whole Rossi family headed over to Staten Island to offer the victims a very high quality of disaster relief. “We made two trips, bringing as much hot food as we could carry, and other packages that would keep longer,” Signor Rossi recalls. “One weary survivor told me, ‘Well, there has been at least one upside to this catastrophe: we have tasted the best food we have ever had.’”
On the right side of the store are the stacks and shelves of canned and bottled goods, ranging from Roman artichokes to aceto balsamico di Modena to funghi di Parma, and of
course many varieties of olive oil. Imported sweets such as Mulino Bianco cookies and anisette biscotti round out the far end of the deli’s palette. Rosticceria Rossi and Sons continues to develop and expand, having recently opened a sandwich counter in the cafeteria of nearby Marist College, and developed a strong relationship with the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park. It has long been capable of catering anything from intimate parties to vast affairs.
Signor Rossi feels that the unique world-wide popularity of Italian food springs from the fact that “it has evolved for generations, and in such diversity, both in types of dishes and regional variants. They are always inventing something new in Italian cuisine.” And what is the most popular dish among the patrons of Rossi Deli?
“Chicken parmigiana,” Signor Rossi answers, with no small amount of regional pride in his voice. And what is his favorite dish? “Chicken parmigiana!” he answers, with the joy of a man of the people who knows and serves his people.