A European Vacation, Just Around the Corner
Enter the always lively St. Petersburg food emporium known as Mazzaro Italian Market and you can easily mistake the scene for a bustling, European street lined with butcher shops, bakeries, produce stands and displays of fresh caught fish and fragrant cheeses.
Mazzaro’s Old World ambiance may even trigger a childhood memory of a long ago visit to a neighborhood grocery with a loved one.
“We are selling time travel,” says Kurt Cuccaro, whose family founded the local landmark. “Shopping at Mazzaro may transfer you to a time when, growing up, there was a place you used to go to with your grandparents. Or it may remind you of somewhere you once lived, a store you used to shop at or a market in Europe.”
From its humble beginnings as a boutique coffee roasting operation, Mazzaro grew to become a beloved, robust retail destination that is among the Tampa Bay area’s most enduring –and endearing – businesses.
That metamorphosis from a modest mom-and-pop shop into a sprawling, 25,000-square-foot market makes Mazzaro the ultimate convenience store. With just one stop, shoppers can fill their baskets with foods from around the world, as well as locally sourced items from around the block. They can select from vast arrays of fresh meats and seafood, freshly made breads, pastries and pastas, signature soups and sandwiches, and well-stocked shelves displaying whatever is needed to make gourmet meals from scratch.
Family owned and operated for more than 20 years, the market has a long-standing reputation for a hands-on approach to doing business, commendable customer service and a commitment to quality. Kurt, along with his wife Mary, and parents Sam and Patricia, are adamant about maintaining those high standards.
“Not long ago we were approached with a new ricotta cheese. We tried it and felt it was superior to what we were using. We probably go through 1,000 pounds a week. Its cost was higher but we liked it and switched. There weren’t any complaints and sales were growing but we felt it was more important to provide a better product,” Kurt said.
Family History in the Making
Familiar with the area after years of family vacations in Clearwater Beach, the Cuccaros made the move to St. Petersburg from Pittsburgh in 1982. Upon graduating from high school, Kurt embarked on a culinary career by busing tables and working as a server at a local seafood restaurant. He learned to cook in that kitchen and eventually moved on to open a small seafood market and restaurant of his own. The business grew into an 85-seat restaurant that still operates today as 4th Street Shrimp Store under different ownership.
After running the restaurant for a few years, Kurt and family launched a wholesale bagel business and opened the first of six St. Pete Bagel locations. The bagel business was eventually sold, but the coffee his parents had been roasting and supplying to the restaurants was still in demand. The couple relocated to a small site within Mazarro’s current complex and began to offer an inventory of specialty foods, featuring those imported from Italy.
From that original store’s footprint, Mazzaro gradually grew as adjacent buildings became available, eventually occupying nearly the entire block where it stands today.
“We never thought it would grow to be this size. It’s probably a good thing we didn’t know then because we might have been in one big, square box … the place would not look the way it does,” said Kurt.
There are many ways Mazzaro stands out and stands alone. Mazzaro continues to roast small batches of its proprietary blends of select coffee beans. It stocks more than 3,000 imported and domestic wines and offers a large selection of local craft and limited-production beers. It’s a purveyor of chef-prepared, ready-to-eat and ready-to-heat-and-eat dishes, and among its staff members are certified sommeliers and professional cheese mongers.
Three-deep crowds at the deli counter, a perpetually packed parking lot and tour buses that regularly deliver shoppers from Central Florida to Mazzaro’s doorstep prove that the mix of hard-to-find (truffles to caviar) and hard-to-resist (homemade gelato) merchandise and an increasing selection of locally sourced items continue the Mazzaro legacy of success.
Adding Room for Improvement
A new off-site kitchen designed to double production capacity for catering orders that customers pick-up, or have delivered, helps the prepared foods division ramp up to keep up with the ever-increasing demand.
“Prepared foods, in general, are a big part of our business. We want to be the opposite of everyone else and make everything fresh and from scratch. That’s what makes us different.”
Next year customers will notice a change in the overall layout and organization of the store floor. That means moving departments around but not moving any out. Pastry production will remain untouched, but some baking will shift off-site, along with behind-the-scenes storage space. Meats, cheeses and charcuterie selections will be more closely clustered together and packaged grocery items will be distanced from the deli counter to allow customers to more easily access all areas of the store.
The re-design will also free up space for special events, such as wine tastings and seminars, as well as for private parties.
“There are always interesting things going on here and we are always experimenting with new things. There’s never a dull moment because we can do whatever we want. If there is a new product and we want it, then we stock it.”
Finding fresh ways to keep up with trends and better serve customers requires on-going research that can include interviewing shoppers, reading on-line reviews, traveling to other innovative stores and gaining industry insights from suppliers.
“We are always trying to improve in ways that help our customers. I jump out of bed every morning eager to get here.”
Mazzaro Italian Market
2909 22nd Ave. North, St. Petersburg
This page and previous pages: A mix of international, gourmet and local foods is served up in an eclectic atmosphere that gives the feeling of Old World Europe with a funky, modern twist.