Food & Drink

Italian Importing Co., a midtown lunch favorite for generations, will close soon

Larry Otten, whose Italian Importing Co. is closing in April, rings up the lunch purchase of Mike and Valerie Lake on Feb. 28. He’s been behind the counter there for 27 years.
Larry Otten, whose Italian Importing Co. is closing in April, rings up the lunch purchase of Mike and Valerie Lake on Feb. 28. He’s been behind the counter there for 27 years.

In its heyday in the 1990s, well before the surge of new restaurants and bars on the midtown grid, Italian Importing Co. was known as an essential destination for lunch.

The sandwiches were well-crafted, affordable and delicious, and you’d often get a little bit of banter on the side.

Current owner Larry Otten, an alumnus of the famed Corti Brothers deli counter, has been there daily the past 27 years, serving customers, getting in his wisecracks and rolling his eyes just enough so a newcomer would instantly realize it’s a crime against Italian culinary humanity to ask for mustard on a sandwich with perfectly good imported prosciutto. Heaven help you if you requested American cheese.

If you were a regular, you knew the specials each day and probably had a favorite sandwich – roast turkey, veal scallopini, meatballs topped with mouthwatering marinara. The line at noon stretched from the deli counter in the back to the front door, and it went on like that for two-plus hours. Times changed, but those sandwiches never did.

Though business at Italian Importing Co. remains steady for lunch, those impossibly hectic days are in the past. Midtown and downtown have grown up, and there’s competition at every turn. Soon, more progress will spell the end for a beloved business that has been a humble part of Sacramento’s food legacy as far back as the early 1905.

By the end of April, the business will close for good. The building with the big windows and well-worn tile floor at J and 19th streets will soon be demolished to make way for an 11-story residential building with street-level retail. The developer is Nikky Mohanna.

Otten was startled at first when he got the news. In his mid-60s, he figured he was too young to retire and too old to wait a couple of years to restart the business.

A few days back, he put up signs that read “End of an era” and announced that all the specialty groceries and wine were 10 percent off.

Many of his best customers are major figures in local food, including Maryellen Burns, author of the 2013 book “Lost Restaurants of Sacramento and Their Recipes,” and Paulette Bruce, a longtime cooking instructor through her business, Good Eats.

“I’m heartbroken. I used to work right across the street from them in 1976,” said Burns. “They supplied my lunch about four days out of five for several years. It’s hard when these places close. There’s this sense of community, people who shared that experience. That’s what you lose as much as the food they provided.”

In those days, Mario Velo ran the operation and knew all the regulars.

“My favorite was actually the meatloaf sandwich. Mario would suggest the right wine to go with it, and he almost always talked me into a bottle on payday,” Burns said. “In late 1979, I got divorced, and he would give me a ready-made sandwich, claiming someone ordered it and didn’t pick it up, and he’d only charge me for my drink. He would occasionally call me a luftmensch, someone whose head was always in the clouds, as I would often walk out, forgetting my change.”

Best known for her research into local culinary history, Burns traces Italian Importing Co. back to Mazzuchi Bros., a noodle and ravioli company at 622 J St. that opened in 1905. She says it was common in those days, especially for Italians, to have brothers form a food business, including Corti Brothers. Italian Importing changed hands several times, but the business has run uninterrupted to this day.

After graduating from Christian Brothers High School in the late 1960s, Otten worked at a Land Park liquor store and deli for several years before landing a job at Corti Brothers, where he learned the largely underappreciated craft of cutting cheese.

“A lot of cheese you have to learn how to cut them properly, otherwise you’re going to lose money. It’s a skill and an art,” Otten said with a shrug.

Stationed at the Corti Brothers deli counter, which is renowned to this day for its sandwiches, Otten learned plenty about food and business during his time there.

“Darrell (Corti) is probably the most knowledgeable man on food and wine in the world,” he said.

By 1990, Luigi Velo approached him with an opportunity. His brother, Mario Velo, was looking to sell the business and Luigi invited Otten, then 39, to be a partner.

“It was exciting and scary at the same time,” Otten remembered. “I had never owned my own business before and it was a challenge. I was like, ‘Wow! This is all mine.’ 

Luigi Velo died in 2015 from complications from diabetes. Even though he sold the business years ago, Mario Velo, who will turn 80 this month, continues to come in and work a few days a week.

Being your own boss has its advantages, but life as a small-business owner is not all imported prosciutto, marzipan cookies and leisurely lunches. Otten was there every day. He was on his feet for so many hours on end that his back hurts, his feet ache and his knees aren’t what they used to be. Although he was raised Italian and spent much of his life working around Italian fare, Otten has never found the time to actually go to Italy. In retirement, he hopes to remedy that sooner than later.

“You have to be there and run the business yourself seven days a week. When you’re a small business, the customers want to talk to the owner,” Otten said.

Part of that customer-owner interaction at Italian Importing includes bantering and ribbing. Otten is known to crack jokes that some might interpret as insults. Otten has learned to pick his spots.

“You gotta be careful with some of the people who walk in because they don’t get it,” he said. “You have to have a smile on your face and laugh. It’s just a little ribbing.”

For more years than she can remember, Bruce has been shopping at Italian Importing Co. She raves about the ricotta. She loves the canned San Marzano tomatoes and the pasta sheets for lasagna. For a treat, she adores the torrone – individually wrapped Italian candy – which she can’t find anywhere else. Her favorite sandwich is the ham special on Fridays. At her behest, many of her cooking students have become regulars, too.

“I’m probably here twice a month and I stock up,” she said when she dropped by the store Tuesday to pick up a large box of tomatoes. Referring to Otten, she said, “He’s very helpful, he’s very knowledgeable and he can always correct my Italian.”

When she got the news of the closing, Bruce was distraught – the end of an era and all that goes with it.

“I cried,” she said. “I rely so much on Larry and the products that he has for my cooking classes. I buy pasta sheets for my lasagna. And the best ricotta in Sacramento is right here.”

But it turns out, Otten is not going away.

When fellow Italian Michael Sampino, owner of Sampino’s Towne Foods, heard Otten was being forced to close, he soon approached him with an offer. Sampino’s shop on F Street has extra space next door. Sampino would install a deli case and Otten could come in, make his sandwiches, see all the old-time regulars, give them hell, and do it a couple of times a week. Sampino wants Otten to pass along his knowledge to Sampino’s employees.

And more than anything, he wants Otten to call it quits when he’s good and ready.

Blair Anthony Robertson: 916-321-1099, @Blarob