In the video above, Tom Fitzmorris interviews Karen and Bennie Terranova.
Article by Ian McNulty
Terranova’s Supermarket isn’t well known as a place to pick up a sandwich, and that’s fine with Benjamin “Benny” Terranova and his wife Karen, who run the Faubourg St. John grocery and meat market along with their son Anthony and his wife Jennifer. After all, the shop sells only muffulettas and only has them at all on Saturdays, when Benny comes in at 4 a.m. to slice the meats and ladle the olive salad. He makes 10, which he cuts in half, wraps in plastic and stacks by the cash register in front and along the butcher counter in back. It means an early start to a long day at the grocery for what amounts to the possibility of only 20 sandwich sales. But there’s more going on here than simple math.
“This was my late father-in-law’s idea. Eighty years old and he always wanted to do new things,” says Karen, referring to Anthony Terranova Sr., who died last year. “Now we have to keep doing it or else I’m afraid he’ll come back and haunt us.”
Terranova’s Supermarket has been in business on Esplanade Avenue since 1925. Anthony Sr.’s father opened it in the building next door, which now houses the Spanish restaurant Lola’s, and he moved it during the Great Depression to its current location. Benny grew up in the apartment upstairs from the store, and his mother Lorraine still resides there.
To compete with much larger grocery stores, including the various markets that have occupied the spot just across Esplanade Avenue for many years, Terranova’s cannot afford old-fashioned practices. But there is a family devotion that is essential to the place. It explains why a token supply of muffulettas materializes on the butcher counter, altar-like, each Saturday. And it helps explain why this is the neighborhood market for many people who live nowhere near the neighborhood.
The family food traditions of Terranova’s have become the traditions of its customers, and that’s never more evident than during the run-up to the holidays when so much attention turns to the kitchen. For many, Terranova means roasts crammed with artichoke dressing, stuffed pork chops, T-bone steaks and calves’ livers arrayed with reverential order and care on sheets of green butcher paper. But most of all, for those in the know, the word Terranova is so synonymous with great sausage that it might as well be the English translation of the Sicilian family’s name.
Long before he convinced Benny to take on the early-morning muffuletta shift, Anthony Sr. passed down a hands-on inheritance of sausage-making. His sausages include Italian, redolent with fennel; hot, seething with garlic; and green onion, sweet and herbaceous.
“I got broken in to this place by the sausage, now I’m hooked,” says Darryl Geraci, a regular customer who was visiting one recent morning.
On this particular day, Geraci clears out the shop’s entire sausage selection in one fell swoop, and that still is not enough. He’ll be back for more in the afternoon, he says, after Benny and Anthony have a chance to restock.
Terranova’s maintains a small inventory of everything. Karen attributes that to the financial imperative to run out rather than throw out. It also means perishables are especially fresh, and this applies to sausage as well as satsumas and parsley.
So no sooner has Geraci toted all the sausage out the door than Benny and Anthony start another batch. The sausage begins as slabs of raw pork, which they bone, cut and grind in-house. Benny is in charge of the seasoning, and the composition is a secret he keeps not only from curious customers but also from his son. Anthony, 25, has worked in the store since he was a kid, but he is still kept in the dark about the essential recipes of the family business.
“You got to be ready for that,” Benny explains. “You can’t just throw things in there, modify them, because this is our calling card, people know us for this.
“You’ve got to earn it,” Benny says quietly, before switching the conversation, with no discernable segue, to his ongoing complaint that Anthony has no children yet. “He’d rather get another dog,” the father says, eyes rolling.
Benny operates a machine that uses water pressure to push the filling into casings. Anthony twirls the coiled length to create links, which he packs into trays for the display case, where another regular turns up just in time to find a freshly stocked butcher counter.
At the front register, Karen points out customers who first came to the store in school uniforms years back and now bring in their own children. She grew up just a few blocks away and remembers shopping here as a child, long before she met her future husband and joined the family.
“We’re making a living, but it’s more than that,” Karen says. ‘You see people come in looking upset, worried. And when they leave, they’re smiling just because I guess people were nice to them, treated them like people. It’s like you’re putting something else in their bag besides the groceries.”
Terranova Brothers Superette | 3308 Esplanade Avenue | New Orleans