This fall, months after a surprise tornado wreaked havoc in the city of Springfield, residents and business owners still found themselves struggling to recover from the devastation. In the South End, an area of the city especially hard hit, there were lingering signs of the storm everywhere: piles of splintered wood, blue tarps where roofs used to be, plywood sheets where windows once were, and empty lots where homes and stores used to stand.
But there were also signs that the South End's heart was still beating. Red Rose Pizza, which had been forced to shut down for a week after the tornado for cleanup and roof repairs, was back in business. Across the street, a group of older gentlemen was enjoying the sunshine outside La Fiorentina pastry shop. And next to the bakery, Rico Daniele was where he always seems to be: charming customers and spreading good cheer behind the deli counter at Mom & Rico's, the Italian market his family has run since 1976.
Forget tornadoes—Daniele is a force of nature himself, a hurricane of energy and enthusiasm for the city of Springfield; the Italian-American culture that still permeates much of the South End; the game of bocce and its transformative powers. And, of course, good food. On my last visit to Mom & Rico's, he greeted me with a slice of soppressata and provolone on a thick wedge of homemade bread. "You eat that, you'll turn a cartwheel," he promised. I did, at least in my mind.
Mom & Rico's is a full-on sensory experience, starting, of course, with the taste and smell of the food. Running down the center of the store is a long counter with a deli and a hot buffet; customers can get food to take out, eat at one of the bright orange tables in the shop, or load up a bunch of to-go containers from the buffet to heat up at home for dinner.
You'll find all the typical deli food on the menu—egg salad and tuna grinders, beef stew, ham and cheese on a water roll—although, to be blunt, why would you be so pazzesco as to go to Mom & Rico's and not partake of the home-cooked Italian food? Pasta fagioli, minestrone and tortellini soup. Grinders with veal parm, mortadella, prosciutto and provolone, meatball and sausage.
Mom & Rico's is also a well-stocked Italian grocery, its shelves stacked with homemade pasta, sauces, oils, imported coffee and teas and cheeses, olives, fresh meatballs and ravioli, marinated eggplant made from Daniele's parents' recipe. This past summer, I had a Christmas-in-July experience at Mom & Rico's, when I treated myself to a box of torrone, the almond and nougat candy I associate with the holidays. Mom & Rico's caters events as well; the menu is almost overwhelmingly extensive.
Mom & Rico's is also a sight to behold, cheerfully, but not uncomfortably, packed with all sorts of memorabilia. Seemingly every flat surface is plastered with newspaper clippings and posters and photos, including shots of Daniele with prominent politicians. The store's well-landscaped parking lot includes a memorial to boxer Rocky Marciano; inside, the sports theme continues with banners and posters from all the Massachusetts teams—and, yes, Daniele's team of choice, the New York Yankees. "I'm a Yankee fan, but I root for the Red Sox," the affable Daniele explains.
And Daniele's enthusiasm is not limited to the American League; he also displays a signed photo of Chris Capuano, the West Springfield kid who pitches for the Mets, with a handwritten note expressing his wish that he could make it home for the annual South End stickball game, held every June.
Daniele made sure the game took place this year, just a week and a half after the tornado, although it had to be moved from its usual site, the parking lot at the Zanetti School, due to storm damage there. Mayor Domenic Sarno, whose own roots lie in the South End, played, Daniele notes, as did "Representative Cheryl" (Coakley-Rivera, the state rep whose district includes the South End). Sarno caught; Coakley-Rivera pitched. Both acquitted themselves well on the field, Daniele reports.
But Daniele's most beloved sport—as anyone who's ever spent more than 30 seconds in his company can attest—is bocce, the Italian bowling game played on outdoor courts. (Daniele proudly claims to have written the "first bocce book in the U.S.A.") Tucked into a spare bit of space on Mom & Rico's menu is a diagram showing the dimensions for an official bocce court; for the less handy players, the menu adds, "we will build your customized bocce court." In the back of the shop, Daniele stocks bocce equipment and T-shirts.
One of Daniele's many side projects is a campaign to build bocce courts at city schools and parks. He sees the game as an inter-generational connector; if old-age homes built bocce courts, he says, "maybe the kids who go there after school or work to see their grandparents could play bocce, instead of sitting in those chairs playing gin or bridge or whatever."
This story first appeared in the Valley Advocate's sister publication, Preview Massachusetts.