A Taste of Home With Jimmy and Nino Sunseri

By Alexa Veselic

Freshly baked bread in varieties not found in the average supermarket sit on a rack along the wall. A case is filled with over 10 flavors of biscotti begging to be taken home and dipped in a hot cup of coffee. A sign on the door proclaims, “It smells like grandma’s house in here.” Every customer walking through the door is immediately welcomed by Jimmy Sunseri, an oldschool Italian with a large, unlit cigar jutting out of his mouth.

“I bet I get more kisses than anyone else in the city,” Jimmy says. “When my friends, my customers, come in they don’t shake my hand. They give me a hug or a kiss – that’s women and men. You know how emotional Italians can be.”

Photo by Fred Blauth

Photo by Fred Blauth

Sunseri’s in the Strip District just feels like home.  Certainly there is no shortage of Italian food markets in the area, but the characters and products that Sunseri’s offers customers create a whole different atmosphere.

“Being in here all day, all day long it’s interacting with customers,” Jimmy says. “I may have three generations of one family come in and I know all of them.”

Jimmy, known as “Old Man Sunseri” to other Strip District merchants, seems to be the official mascot of the store, with his image displayed on t-shirts and grocery bags. A true character, he was raised in the business and knows what is needed to operate in the Strip District.

“This is our roots. You just don’t come to the Strip to open a business,” Jimmy says. “If you’re a true Strip merchant, you’re bred for that like a fine racehorse.” Jimmy and his brother Nino are third-generation entrepreneurs. Their grandfather started a similar business in 1902. Jimmy began working in his father’s store at 13 and learned everything he knows about running a business. In 1985, Jimmy and Nino branched out and opened their own store.  “My father didn’t believe that his sons should have idle time, so he taught us a good work ethic,” Jimmy says, grinning. “When I think about it now, he got three years of free labor from me, because I didn’t get paid until I was 16.”

Photo by Aaron Warnick

Photo by Aaron Warnick

Originally, Jimmy had no intention of taking on the family business After graduating from Duquesne University in 1970, the English major and French minor had aspirations of becoming an attorney. But somehow the food business pulled him back to his roots. He didn’t need books to learn the business; he had access to the wisdom of generations.  “Technically I don’t know anything about this business,” Jimmy says. “The knowledge that the third generation has, you can’t buy that and you certainly can’t acquire that.” Jimmy pauses to ask a customer, “Can I help you, sir?”

Clearly Jimmy must be doing something right.

According to a framed picture on the wall, he is currently employee of the month. Jimmy receives this honor every month.

“Well, voting takes place at 6 a.m. and guess who is here at 6 a.m.?” Jimmy explains. “Me. Guess who else is here? Me.”

One of the missions of Sunseri’s is to provide customers with homemade, signature products they can’t get anywhere else.

Sunseri’s bakes all its breads fresh daily and uses no preservatives. By far, Sunseri’s most popular product is the two-pound pepperoni roll stuffed with homemade pepperoni, mozzarella and provolone cheeses. On a typical Saturday, Sunseri’s will sell between 400 and 450 pepperoni rolls.  “When the Steelers played Green Bay for the Super Bowl, we sold over 900 the Saturday before,” Jimmy recalls.

Sunseri’s also has other signature products, like their Legendary Dipping Peppers, the second mostpopular item. For the concoction, Jimmy mixes hot banana peppers, cubanelle peppers, Portobello mushrooms, jalapeno peppers and prosciutto and bakes it for two and a half hours.  Asked about the store’s trademark “mystery cheese,” Jimmy is tight-lipped. “I could tell you,” he says with a mischievous grin.

“I’m assuming you can keep a secret. Well, so can I.”

Sunseri’s also offers a full-scale deli with homemade sopressata and pepperoni, as well as a hot sandwich counter for the lunch crowd.  “Where else are you going to get a six-inch sandwich like that and a drink for six bucks,” Jimmy says, pulling a cigar cutter out of his apron pocket and snipping off the end of a cigar. “It’s not going to happen.”

Photo by Aaron Warnick

Photo by Aaron Warnick

But customers aren’t just coming in for the unique, quality products; they are also coming for the tradition of the Strip District.  “Even though some of the old stores aren’t still here, the notoriety of being an old neighborhood brings people here,” says Erin Nolan, who works at Sunseri’s. “That old world essence is here. There may not be anything you want down here in particular, but you’re still going to come down.” Perhaps this quality is what allows Jimmy and Nino’s customer base to expand, while keeping the atmosphere of the store the same.  “When you come into Jimmy and Nino’s, you’re not walking into a sterile environment,” Jimmy jokes, as customers come in to talk about their father or brother. “Everyone here knows everyone. There is so much love, camaraderie and friendship in this business.

“I could never do anything else,” Jimmy says. “This is what I do. This is what I breathe.”