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The Merante Sisters: Connecting a Community Through Food

The name Merante is synonymous with Italian grocery stores in Pittsburgh. In 1949, Italo Merante arrived in Pittsburgh from a small village in Southern Italy. While owning several stores with his brothers in Italian enclaves within the city, he raised seven children with his wife Philomena in Mt. Lebanon. In Bloomfield, daughters Maria Merante Palmieri and Gina Merante, share their love of food and all things Italian in their respective businesses, Merante Gifts and Linea Verde Green Market.

Maria has been in her Liberty Avenue storefront since 1983 and her business has been a regular stop on our Bloomfield Food Tour since its’s inception. Warm aromas of anise and vanilla welcome patrons into the space. Wandering through the displays of colorful Italian pottery and linens, cooking tools and inspirational gifts, patrons find their way back to the bustling kitchen space. Maria and her apron clad staff can be found taking biscotti and bread from the ovens, pulling steamy pizzelles from a hot iron or stirring soups.

Operating a business around Italian food was not in Maria’s long range plans when she studied Spanish and history, specifically concentrating in immigration, at Duquesne University. Upon graduation she was offered a position with the FBI, but strong family roots kept her in the city and she pursued a career in the travel industry. One of her first excursions took her to New York City and, of course, Little Italy. There she met Ernie Rosso who operated an Italian gift store and loved with his business concept, the rest is history. Customers in the know not only shop in her downstairs store front, they also sign up for cooking classes or private dinners upstairs. This special culinary classroom is an apartment kitchen that once served shopkeepers who lived above their business. Delicious learning opportunities cover subjects from pasta making and Tuscan favorites to cooking with lemons.

If all this is not enough, Maria also offers travel excursions ranging from day trips to Ohio wine country and weekends to New York to ten day excursions to Italy. Entering her store is like visiting a favorite aunt. Step in, you’ll be greet warmly, fed and go away feeling like you are part Italian!

As the cooking school and small bakery grew, Maria needed help obtaining fresh ingredients needed to fuel the production and her classes and dinners. She turned to her sister Gina, the youngest of the seven Merante children with over 40 years of experience sourcing produce in the Pittsburgh area. Starting with her dad in 1975, she eventually went on to open the produce department for Pennsylvania Macaroni Company’s Strip District store and held other food related jobs in the following years. A space was available down the block from Merante Gifts that became Linnea Verde Green Market.

Initially, the store was to stock the items Maria needed and could not purchase in Bloomfield; she attempts to buy as much as possible locally. Since the opening in June of 2015 with a greatly expanded inventory even beyond Maria’s needs, the store has become a community hub largely due to Gina’s vivacious presence. “I ‘m happy every day when I wake up,” she reflects, “I like looking in the produce boxes. I’m happy to be here, I like what I do.” Leaving her house daily at 5:00 am, she travels to the Strip to pick up fresh produce, then it’s off to the business to stock the shelves before opening at 8:00 am, not closing until 8:00 pm. There is a steady flow of customers all day long, with the highest traffic coming late afternoon through closing. Most days, Gina counts between 150-200 customers coming through the doors. A few neighborhood restaurants source produce from her as well.

Overflowing with artful displays of fruit and vegetables, the space is tiny; Gina jokingly refers to the passages as “Aisle 1 and Aisle 2”. Above the produce shelves and scattered throughout the store customers find displays of spices, local honey, jams and even craft items. Chicken and duck eggs brought in from a local farm sell out in two days. Delicate fruit in a refrigerator is alongside local hummus and cheese. A few of her patrons are also artists and she carries their wares, from macramé and pottery to hand crafted enameled pins. Gina takes no profit from their sales, she is happy to offer a brick and mortar venue where customers can view the artwork as most of the creators just have Etsy shops. Her generosity extends to the bars along Liberty Avenue; she supplies them with fresh mint from her home garden at no charge! The outside storefront changes continually! Currently there are beautiful hanging floral baskets in a rainbow of colors. In the spring, she stocked annual flowers vegetable plants, the fall, pumpkins.

The Merante sisters bring much more to the Liberty Avenue corridor than commerce. Through their congeniality and food that they offer, they allow patrons to connect with Italian culture and are a uniting presence within the Bloomfield.

#Italian #Merante

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