You know you’re in Little Italy when someone in the crowd starts randomly belting out O Sole Mio during the soft opening party for a brand new food hall on Preston Street.
The guy was no Pavarotti but his singing — even if it got drowned out by a roomful of chatter — made for a nice moment inside Mercato Zacconi Fresh Foods, where hordes of double-vaccinated guests met Thursday for an evening of bubbly, wine and Venetian snack-style cicchetti.
Until recently, the 5,000-square-foot store was part of a larger banquet room at Sala San Marco Event & Conference Centre. Owner Tony Zacconi came to the realization in 2020 that the neighbourhood needed access to groceries more than it needed a massive special events venue, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic saw public gatherings fall by the wayside. He embarked on a renovation project that turned a sizeable chunk of Sala San Marco into Mercato Zacconi Fresh Foods, an Italian market, bistro and social house.
The new business officially opens today.
“I feel like a mom when she finally gives birth and is, like, ‘Ah, I’m glad it’s out’ and super happy at the same time,” Zacconi said during at interview at the store, right next to the giant wheel of imported Parmigiano Reggiano.
The pandemic made things challenging in many ways, said Zacconi.
First, there was the process of hiring staff. He’s still hiring, by the way. Then there were delays in the arrival of materials and equipment as well as specialty products that he’d ordered from Italy.
“I was working with some great suppliers and great people but they were like, ‘Tony, what do you want me to do? It’s on a boat somewhere.’”
What’s been wonderful to see, he said, is the interest from the neighbourhood.
“I’m very fortunate; the community has been behind us 150 percent. There have been people walking by with their dogs and stuff like that. They stop in and say, ‘When are you going to open? When are you going to open? I can’t wait until you open.’”
Zacconi, who's also vice-chair of the board for the Preston Street BIA, said he’s pleased to finally offer a grocery store for people who live in the neighbourhood.
“I’m ecstatic that we’re open and the concept has come to life,” he said. “I know we’re not exactly where I want to be in terms of our services and the variety of food that we have, and things like that. It’s a work in progress, no question.”
His vision is about bringing people together and making the experience of buying and eating food more social and fun (hence the shopping carts that come with wine-glass holders).
The store features fresh produce, specialty foods and wines, private-label products, imported Italian cheeses and meats, a wood-fired pizza oven, prepared meals, an eating area and café. The space retains the charm from its wedding venue days, with its crown moulding and chandeliers, along with a new marble tile wall.
“We’ve been waiting for something like this for a long, long time,” said Preston Hardware president Mario Giannetti, who was seen in the lineup for fresh pizza and sandwiches.
The takeout meals will come in handy for Little Italy residents such as Tony Lofaro. “It’s a godsend, especially for someone who doesn’t cook.”
Joseph Saikaley described the new store as “aesthetically pleasing”. He sits on the board of the Ottawa chapter of CIBPA (Canadian Italian Business and Professional Association) with Zacconi, who’s board vice-president.
“It’s almost like a touch of Beverly Hills meets a little bit of the Ottawa Valley,” said Saikaley, co-owner of the Omniscient Wellness Centre in the ByWard Market.
Also spotted was the project’s designer, Gord McTavish, who told OBJ.social how much he enjoyed working with Zacconi and his parents, Joe and Gina Zacconi, who opened Sala San Marco in 1987.
“I’ve got to say, I’ve done a lot of projects and worked with a lot of people, but Tony is special. His dad Joe, his mom Gina, they’re all in here helping out. There’s just such a family atmosphere.”