Across the railroad tracks, about one mile down Grand Avenue from Yale’s campus, stands a member of an endangered species — Ferraro’s Market. For over half a century, Ferraro’s has served as this area’s most-loved and most-frequented small family market. They opened in an age when businesses like this were as common and essential as the local public library, but today they are an anomaly. With the expansion of Stop & Shops, BJ’s and Whole Foods, neighborhood markets have withered. Nevertheless, 63 years after their opening, Ferraro’s not only serves as a high-quality, low-priced local market, but also as a glimmering survivor of a bygone era.
In 1973, what was then the Mohawk Market on State Street moved over the bridge and into Fair Haven and changed its catchy name to something a little more personal, Ferraro’s. For a bustling market, it stands in about the most unappealing spot in all of Fair Haven. Across the parking lot sits a liquor store with more advertisements than wall space. Behind the barbed-wire fence and mechanical-steel gate on the left looms an old shipping warehouse. The I-91 traffic rockets by above the back end of the market, and across Grand Avenue stands a crippled public housing project, enjoying its last few breaths. The homeless wander along the sidewalk, teens with boxing tape around their fists and cut-off hoodies over their shoulders jog by, an old man pulls out of the parking lot in a car that sounds like a rat caught in a mousetrap. Iron columns, placed a foot and a half apart, line the front of the store so customers won’t steal the carts.
At a glance, Ferraro’s appears like a normal grocery store: aisles of cereal, peanut butter, apples and so on. But near the front of the store stand four rows of freezers, the setting of the grandest diamonds in the store. Littered across the shelves lies more meat sliced into more parts than one can comprehend: pork bellies, pork shoulders, pork shanks, pork hocks, porketta, ribs, rib-eyes, T-bones, knuckle-cubed steaks, sirloin tips, chicken steaks, filets, lamb chops, kebabs, seven types of fish, bags of frozen shrimp, nine live lobsters, turkeys, chickens, smoked sausage, kielbasa, Georgia hots, Italian sweet sausage, hot dogs and hamburgers, and that’s just on the aisle. A full butcher shop stands in the back. There, butchers stand on milk crates and shout out the day’s deals. If a customer shows interest, one of the butchers walks out from behind the counter and discusses the different cuts as if they were cars in a dealership. So goes the meat culture inside the market.
But unlike most supermarkets, Ferraro’s enjoys nearly half a century of tradition and popularity within the Fair Haven community. Pictures on the walls show a New Haven far different from the one outside Ferraro’s concrete walls: street cars shoot by hoards of fedora-capped men, giant billboards advertise cigarettes and perfume and neighborhood mom-and-pop shops bustle with customers. Near the photographs, paintings give a glimpse into life in this community. A verse from Matthew sits above the cheeses while the Ten Commandments stand by the exit. Above the deli lies a 30-foot-long mural of the neighborhood as one would imagine it in the ’70s. The most prominent of the paintings sits above the prized butcher shop. In it, a classroom full of students of all different races stand at their desks, place their hands to their hearts and pledge allegiance to the American flag. The art on the walls of the market depicts a long history of community and assimilation. Since it opened, Ferraro’s has served as a cornerstone, a cultural melting pot, for these communities. It helped form it, and in doing so established a long and lasting, quintessentially New Haven history.
This story and this community are evident in the daily customers in the shop. A man approaching the final years of middle age, wearing a pressed shirt and tie, peruses the meats with his skeptical wife. Two African-American women politely inquire “how the hell” the deli could run out of turkey at 4 p.m. A five-year-old girl in her school uniform tugs on the bottom of her mother’s “Yale New-Haven Hospital Staff” shirt, saying, “Please, please, please, mommy, pretty please.”
When I walked to the butcher shop in the back I saw a familiar face. This was Mike. Mike is squat, 50 pounds away from intimidating and has a face that emanates “You lookin’ at me?” He is also the butcher in the family — for the last 28 years.
When I asked him why he stuck around so long, he laughed. “Because it’s family, man. All this is family.” After he said that, a young woman with two children walked up to him and asked what he was doing on the wrong side of the counter. He laughed again and told them he had to take time off for his new job. The woman responded, “Well that’s too bad because I love it when you’re back there. I don’t even have to tell you my order. These other guys, they don’t know what I want, but with you I just step right up and you have it ready.” Mike beamed.
At moments like this, Ferraro’s trumps the competition. Mike was right; that market is family, all of it. Almost every person who walks in the store does so not because they could not get the groceries somewhere else, but because they want to shop at Ferraro’s. That ubiquitous sentiment among the customers fosters a community that not only reflects history, but comes to define a culture. It gives literal flavor and stability to a neighborhood that undergoes constant fluctuation. Because in Ferraro’s, a culture of diversity and friendliness, along with a history of assimilation and community, wanders up and down long aisles debating between strip steaks or pork shoulders, just as generations of Fair Havenites have done for years.
As I stood outside the market with my two bags waiting for my ride, my new pal Mike walked by on the way to his car. He slapped me on the ribs and said, “See you later, brotha.” Welcome to it, kid.