Restaurants / Openings

The Heights Gets a New Authentic Italian Grocery Store

This is no H-E-B, it’s a Throwback Specialty Shop With Unique Treasures

BY // 01.15.18

Get ready to add some international ingredients to your grocery list. Italian American Grocery Co. is opening tomorrow (January 16) at 3605 White Oak, come rain, shine, or even sleet. Louie Comella is bringing a slice of Italy to The Heights, one frozen, handcrafted pizza at a time. Rome’s not out of reach.

Other goodies that’ll have you saying, “Grazie“? Imported Italian goods: meats, dried pasta, wines, cheeses, cakes, olive oils, 60 kinds of pasta sauces, and more. Add to that a healthy helping of Italian-American sausages and breads, and more.

The store will also feature made-to-order sandwiches along with cookies, pastries, and custom-made cakes.

Comella’s been cooking up this concept for a while. He won’t tell us just how long, but he admits it’s been a long time.

“I think every Italian wants to open up a place,” he laughs.

If that’s the case, he’s ahead of the curve. The Italian-American Heights denizen also owns Gelazzi, the gelato and pizza restaurant right next door to the new grocery store.

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Comella makes his own gelato — though he remembers it simply being called “ice cream” back when his grandfather made it in Chicago.

“Ever since I was a kid, I kind of knew how to make ice cream,” Comella tells PaperCity. He created Gelazzi and its many rotating, unexpected flavors — White Russian, Lavender honey, Greek coffe, Cheddar cheese — to honor tradition. Italian American Grocery Co. takes that mission one step further.

“I’m not a restaurateur, per se. I’m doing it for the culture,” Comella says. The boutique grocery store is his second endeavor celebrating tradition and honoring heritage.

A Mom-and-Pop Throwback Grocer

The world has moved away from mom-and-pop shops, he says. Today, there are fewer places where you can go and get unique candy, pastries, sandwiches, Comella adds. There are fewer stores where you know the people behind the counter.

He’s turning a corner when it comes to corner stores. They’ve always been more prevalent in his native Chicago and his cousins’ New York and New Jersey. “They’re still in Chicago, still in New York, but they’re dying,” Comella says. “There’s not much like that here, not anymore.”

Comella knew he had to bring that concept back. Like with Gelazzi, “I want to carry on the tradition of my family. The world’s changed, and I don’t want it to change without the things that I experienced.”

Those experiences come across in an array of handmade, handcrafted prepared meals — ravioli, pizza, and lasagna “like my grandma used to make.”

The new grocery store will showcase favorites from Chicago and the Northeast. Comella is repping his native Chi-town with Vienna Beef sausage. If you search for this particular sausage online, you’ll find it served here and there in Texas. “But look for retail in the entire state of Texas — you won’t see it,” Comella says. Until now.

Italian American Grocery--sausages
The grocer will sell a mixture of Italian and Italian-American meats, with an emphasis on Chicago.

Fresh pastries will have a huge presence, sent in from quintessential Italian bakeries like La Rosa Pastry Shop in New Jersey. Italian American Grocery Co. will sell its own homemade cookies, such as Cantucci, the classic Italian hard cookie.

“I don’t want to say nobody else is going to make them,” Comella says, “but you won’t find them at Kroger.”

In his words, Italian American Grocery Co. is operating in a small niche, not competing with “the big guys” like Kroger and H-E-B.

“I came here in 2000 and came directly to The Heights,” Comella says. “I looked at the neighborhood and it reminded me of mine in Chicago, with the bungalow houses, reminiscent of sitting on the porch.”

After living in the neighborhood for nearly 20 years, he’s seen it evolve. “I don’t have everything it needs, but I’m bringing some of the things it was missing,” Comella says.

One not-so-small change he’s seen: The legal restrictions against the retail sale of beer and wine in the previously dry part of The Heights were removed. Comella applied for a beer and wine license in January 2017, and he received it in March. He’s sat on it since then, “putting it all together.”

If you’re looking for Miller Lite, you’re barking up the wrong tree. “We’re not selling forties. We’re not selling wine that you can get at a convenience store,” he says. A full 80 percent of the wine will be Italian, and all will be affordable in the $10 to $20 range. He’ll do a mix of both national and local craft beer.

It makes for one-stop shopping, Comella says. And you never have to leave your house. In the coming weeks, delivery will be set up for both groceries and takeaway meals, for a small fee.

You can order, say, an imported Italian frozen pizza — or one made fresh from Gelazzi — and two bottles of Chianti without leaving the couch. You can call in your orders for now, but soon Comella will have on an online ordering system. Gelazzi is currently updating its build-your-own-sandwich menu, featuring added ingredients such as Polish sausages and meatballs.

“It’s unique, made-to-order sandwiches with meat from everywhere,” Comella says.

With the opening tomorrow, it may seem sudden. But Comella has taken his time “to make a place,” he says.

“It’s a small place. I’m not going to have 10 of them. I’m not even going to have another one. But I have one to give people a piece of Italian-American culture.”

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