Nestled in a heritage building on George Street in the historic ByWard Market, La Bottega Nicastro has been serving customers seeking Italian groceries for almost 30 years.
Current store owner Pat Nicastro took over the building in 1995 from the previous owner, J. Saso and Son. This summer, La Bottega is celebrating 100 years since J. Saso first opened, and the memories could fill an entire shelf of scrapbooks.
Since 1923, 64 George St. has been a specialty Italian grocer and Nicastro said he has been “honoured” to carry on the legacy. For many in the area, the specialty store is a multi-generational staple, with stories and legacies passed down like a secret recipe.
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“It was really a special place,” Nicastro said. “It was an Italian grocer and they were one of the first families to start one here.”
Charles Saso took over the store from his parents. A good friend and business partner of the Nicastro family, Saso was determined that the business carry on as a grocer after his retirement.
“Mr. Saso lived upstairs and … he said, if he retired, he wanted a Nicastro store there,” explained Nicastro. “So when the opportunity came up, that’s when I started La Bottega.”
In fact, it began as his fourth-year business project as part of his studies at Carleton University.
“We loved the location and, interestingly enough, George Street was going through a lot and the ByWard Market was going through some restructuring,” Nicastro said. “We took a risk and decided to go for it.”
But there was lots of work to do to update the space and its technology, he laughed.
“With all due respect, it was an antique grocery store. We had to basically gut the store and start off fresh,” Nicastro explained. “(Saso) had stuff there from when he started — antique cash registers, counters — and had basically kept it the way it was from when it opened.
“We gutted the whole thing and brought it back into a modern grocery store. The scales and registers were all antiques, so antique dealers came in and bought most of the stuff. Then La Bottega was a hit from day one.”
Saso, who lived upstairs from the shop, maintained a presence in the store for years, Nicastro said, often setting up a lawn chair on the sidewalk outside the store to chat with pedestrians and customers.
In the nearly 30 years since La Bottega opened, Nicastro and his co-owner and cousin, Rocco, have seen rapid growth and huge challenges.
“Our family had been in the business for a long time and it’s part of why Mr. Saso wanted us there. We were a successful Italian food family,” Nicastro said. “It became a hit, it was really needed in the area and there was nothing like it.”
La Bottega soon expanded into the next-door unit and the cousins opened La Bottega Market Cafe with locations in Gatineau and West Ottawa.
Like many local businesses, the pandemic was the “biggest challenge” La Bottega has had to navigate, Nicastro said, and it resulted in permanent changes for the grocery store.
“We’ve seen (the Market) go through a lot of changes, but this one was a bit different,” he explained. “We miss office workers and people working downtown and we’ve really had to pivot.”
To adapt, La Bottega partnered with Ottawa-based Trexity for local deliveries, expanded e-commerce and bumped up catering and event services.
“We’ve evolved to make it work and we’re still surviving and we’re not going anywhere,” Nicastro said. “We’ve become a destination here and we were dependent on people who worked in the area but we’re fortunate that people are still coming out to visit us.
Despite the struggles currently facing the ByWard Market, Nicastro said he is determined to “keep the talk positive.”
“The Market tends to get a bad rap but it’s still a magical place, it’s still a great place to shop, and we’re grateful that we still have a loyal customer base,” he explained. “We get a lot of bad news, but there is a lot of good still down here.
“It’s easy to pick on this area, but the future for the Byward Market is bright for sure.”
Nicastro said his focus is still on providing the experience of a family-run business and carrying on the legacy of the Saso family.
“We employ over 60 people in this location and there’s always an owner or Nicastro family member in the shop at all times,” he said. “Kids were born with parents who shopped here and now they’re adults. You see the generations change, families that have been shopping since they were kids, and we still have employees who started from day one.
“My dad retired four years ago, but he’s still here every day helping out, talking to suppliers, and Rocco’s dad, too,” he said. “They’re in their 80s, but it’s still in their blood.”
Plus, since Charles Saso died, there has nearly always been a Saso living in the apartment above the store, Nicastro said. Saso’s son, Joe, and his grandson manage the building, so Nicastro still makes his rent cheques out to “J. Saso and Son,” he laughed.
“They were always still a part of it and never really left it,” he explained. “This is our job, but it was still a part of their lives and always would be. People talk about him and have stories about him, it’s a really special place, and Mr. Saso’s character is still here, too.
“It’s a beautiful thing.”
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