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Written by Erik Bojnansky, BT Senior Writer   
August 2019

Laurenzo’s Italian Market takes a final bow

DLaurenzo1avid Laurenzo has difficulty remembering the last time he had a vacation. For the past 50 years, since he was kid, he has worked at Laurenzo’s Italian Market. He visited Italy a couple of times in the 1980s -- once for five whole weeks -- but even then, he was buying products for the store. As for the other times he’s managed to venture outside South Florida, it was usually related to work or family.

“Basically, we are working 364 days a year,” Laurenzo tells the BT. By we he means himself, four of his six siblings, his niece, and about 50 employees. The only day the supermarket closes is New Year’s Day. Christmas? Thanksgiving? Easter? Laurenzo’s would be open.

And it isn’t just a market. The store also has a bakery, a deli, and a café. The products for sale aren’t just pasta and tomato sauce, but a wide selection of wines, fresh seafood, and many other items, imported, domestic, and house-made.

“A store like this you won’t find anywhere. We sell food from all over the world,” says Phil Basilone, Laurenzo’s general manager, who has worked at the store, on and off, since the 1970s. “Russian, Italian, Israeli, Spanish, Greek -- we sell everything.”

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Make that sold everything On the evening of Wednesday, July 31, Laurenzo’s, at 16385 W. Dixie Highway in North Miami Beach, closed its doors for the last time. The business has shut down. This month the Laurenzo family and its remaining staff are selling off excess inventory, fixtures, and equipment.

Laurenzo’s Farmer’s Market, a produce center located just north of the main store, remains open and will be run by David Laurenzo’s niece, Diana Tarquinio. Besides fresh fruits and vegetables, Tarquinio tells the BT she hopes to sell some of the more popular food items from the closed store. But there won’t be a deli, a bakery, or a restaurant. And it isn’t clear how much longer the produce market will stay open.

“We’re going to end up selling the whole thing,” says Laurenzo, referring to all the property owned by the family. “That’s why we don’t know how long the farmers market is going to operate.” That property includes the main store, the farmers market and adjoining storefronts, a parking lot, and a currently empty large building once used for catering. It’s a 2.4-acre parcel bisected by NE 164th Street, and all of it, Laurenzo says, is being marketed for sale.

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Thanks to legislation passed by North Miami Beach four years ago, the Laurenzo family’s property is zoned to allow construction of a residential tower up to 400 feet high, with retail on the ground floor. It also lies within the city’s redevelopment zone, where builders can apply for property tax rebates. David Laurenzo says there’s been plenty of interest from developers who’d like to build something new and big on the property.

The July 14 announcement of Laurenzo’s impending closure caught many longtime customers, and even some employees, by surprise. But David Laurenzo says it wasn’t an impulsive decision. “We’ve been talking about it for a few years,” says the 66-year-old. “We’re of retirement age. All the advisors have said, ‘Have you figured out there’s more to life than just working every day?’ We based it all on our father being 89 and working all the time.”“I got 20 different calls from different developers because we’re part of the CRA [community redevelopment agency],” he says. Those offers are now being handled by a real estate broker he declines to identify. “I’ll leave him alone,” Laurenzo tells the BT. “He has so many calls, he can’t get back to everybody he’s supposed to.”

The elder Laurenzo, Ben, died last year. “He worked until a Saturday and he passed away on Wednesday. No long illness,” says David. “The toughest guy in the world. He said, ‘I want to work until the end.’ And that’s what he got.”

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But working till death wasn’t for Ben’s children, though work they did. “We always had to be here,” David Laurenzo says. “We never left.”

The son of Italian immigrants, Ben Laurenzo was born Schenectady, New York, on September 18, 1928. He was one of six children. After altering his birth certificate, Ben enlisted in the Navy at age 16 in 1945. World War II ended before he was shipped out, but he did volunteer to help prepare a battleship for the infamous Bikini Atoll atomic bomb test in 1946.

After Ben’s father retired, the family moved to Miami in 1951. They soon opened a retail operation in Hialeah that sold Italian food items to stores and restaurants across South Florida and the Keys. Tired of traveling sometimes 100 miles to pick up a check, Ben and his brother Achilles partnered with John DiPuma and Nick Lotito, and started DiPuma Italian American Supermarket & Pastry Shop in what was once an A.G. (Associated Grocers) supermarket at 16385 W. Dixie Highway.

Soon after, Ben Laurenzo left the partnership to pursue other business interests, according to a November 1992 Miami Herald profile. He returned three years later and bought out DiPuma and Lotito. By December 1968, Laurenzo’s name replaced DiPuma’s in Herald advertisements.

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Even before it became Laurenzo’s, the market had a deli, a butcher shop, and a bakery. But the café? That started as a counter and a few tables in 1969.

“In those days, the men sat down and drank espresso while the ladies shopped. Different world,” David Laurenzo explains. “So it was just eight or ten tables, and they get a pastry and a coffee and whatever. Then the café evolved from there. By the early 1970s, there were tables and chairs and a full menu.”

David Laurenzo says business was amazing during the 1960s and 1970s, when the surrounding area was predominately Italian and Jewish. The 1980s were good, too, “because it was the ’80s,” and because Laurenzo’s had one of the largest wine selections of any store in South Florida. “We had 50,000 or 100,000 orders for wine and Champaign, and millions of dollars in sales of Bordeaux,” he remembers.

Laurenzo’s inventory and fine food attracted celebrities, including Sophia Lauren, Frank Sinatra, Jack Nicholson, Dan Marino, and the entire Miami Dolphins team from the 1980s.

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Through his sponsorship of Italian-themed food festivals, as well as his store’s reputation, Ben Laurenzo was a well-known individual himself. The Herald even asked him -- along with several North Dade politicians, activists, and other local notables -- what his New Year’s resolution was for a December 31, 1978, article. Ben’s answer: “I do right all year long, so I don’t have to make any resolutions. I stand on my record.”

That record included waking up every day at 4:30 a.m. to go to work.

Ben’s children worked hard, too. David Laurenzo not only oversaw operations at Laurenzo’s since the 1980s, he also helped find rare food and wine items to stock the shelves. David’s sister, Carol, balanced the books. Their brother, Robert, managed the fresh seafood and fresh meat sections. And sister Laura, who retired after 35 years at Florida Power & Light, worked as Carol’s executive assistant prior to Laurenzo’s closing. And then there’s Carol’s daughter, Diana Tarquinio, who not only manages the farmers market but also helps her mother with Laurenzo’s bookkeeping.

Nevertheless, Laurenzo’s wasn’t the same after Ben died. “When the master is gone, it’s different,” says manager Phil Basilone. “He was the teacher. He was everything.”

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Some longtime employees admit to the BT that business overall had been dropping off at Laurenzo’s for nearly a decade. The past year has been particularly difficult, according to Basilone, and not just for Laurenzo’s. “I have friends who own restaurants. They’re dying. This is the worst year and no one knows why,” he says.

Not helping matters was an inspection by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services in August 2018. The inspection found several violations, which were dramatically reported by Channel 10’s “Dirty Dining” segment. In response, David says, holes found in the 1950s-era building were sealed, a “deep cleaning” was conducted, and a month later the state agency gave Laurenzo’s a clean bill of health. “We handled the problem,” he tells the BT.

During Laurenzo’s last days, the store and restaurant were filled with longtime customers bidding the owners and staff tearful farewells, when they weren’t filling their shopping carts with discounted items.

On one afternoon, Anthony Dascoli, a professor at West Coast University in Doral, and his family were buying two carts’ worth of wine, prepared pasta dishes, seafood, and four or five large plastic containers filled with soup. Dascoli says he’s been coming to Laurenzo’s for the past 20 years. “They have really good-quality stuff from the homeland, back from Italy, and there’s a family vibe here all the time,” says Dascoli, a Palmetto Bay resident. “It’s very sad. We’ll probably be back every weekend to stock up.”

Laurenzo8Paul Di Benedetto has been a fan of Laurenzo’s ever since he moved to northeast Miami-Dade from New Orleans. “This is, by far, the best market. I absolutely love the selection of seafood, meats, Italian wines, and Italian products. You can’t get that in a lot of places,” he says as he sits in the café. “I am heartbroken.”

Just then David Laurenzo walks by. “It kills me, but you got to do what you got to do,” Di Benedetto, a construction contractor, tells Laurenzo. “But it’s a sad, sad day. You’re breaking my heart, though, you’re breaking my heart.”

“The customers are at a great loss,” Laurenzo admits to the BT. “The customers feel it’s bittersweet because nobody does what we did.”

When Laurenzo’s finally closes, the siblings plan to take a proper trip to southern Italy, one without any business pressures. “Our family has hundreds of years of history there,” he says. After that, he plans to retire and maybe do some investing.

Phil Basilone says he intends to retire, too. He’s 81 years old. “Things open and close,” he says. “There is a time to open and a time to close. It’s just time. The family is tired. It’s a big place.”

But Diana Tarquinio says she isn’t tired. The 33-year-old intends to run the farmers market as long as she can. “My grandfather started everything,” she says, “so it’s definitely important to keep the legacy living on.”

 

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