From the outside, Little Italy Ltd – a large warehouse which stretches down one side of North King Street – doesn’t look like a place where you’d be free to browse.
But down an unmarked lane, through some old dark-wood doors that a staff member will buzz open for you, there’s a world of Italian produce for sale, most of it imported.
The business was set up by the Rabbitte family in 1988. With Italia ’90, more and more Dubliners started to seek out authentic Italian products, says Little Italy General Manager Bettina Rabbitte.
Many of the customers who discovered Little Italy in the early days still come back, she says.
Wholesale trade, handled from an out-of-sight warehouse nearby, accounts for much of the company’s business.
Rabbitte’s mother had the idea of opening the warehouse.
“My parents started it. My mother’s Italian so that’s where the connection comes from,” she tells me. “She basically spotted a gap in the market as there was nowhere to find Italian products in those days.”
Above the cashier’s desk sits a framed photo of Monte Cassino, her mother’s hometown in central Italy, the site of a famous battle during the Second World War.
Below, on the counter top, is a small Lavazza coffee machine. A staff member offers an espresso to a paying customer who is on the way out and another to one just arrived.
It’s seen a bit of wear and tear, that machine, says Rabbitte.
Ninety-five percent of the items for sale come from Italy. “We’re always trying to import directly from the producer to cut out the middleman,” she says.
You’re unlikely to find Roma or Dolmio products on the shelves. More likely, you’ll find lesser-known brands, popular with Italians.
Of course, there’s San Pellegrino water, Lavazza coffee and Amaretti biscotti, but there’s also Misura biscuits, Ponti pasta sauce, Redoro olive oils, Plasmon baby food and crisp cannoli.
Each year, Rabbitte travels to food shows in Italy to see what’s on offer. “It’s a challenge. In terms of products, we’ve tried in the last number of years to diversify,” she says.
“The likes of Barilla [pasta], we were the first to introduce it to the country and now you can get it in all your supermarkets. We can’t compete with Tesco and Dunnes and the likes.”
The business grew throughout the 1990s, partly sustained by the Irish-Italian community, and partly through word of mouth throughout Dublin.
“We’re still here, which is a testament,” says Rabbitte. “We really had to look at our suppliers and look at the pricing [during the recession].”
Smithfield wasn’t always the most desirable location, and people sometimes aren’t aware, Rabbitte says, that they’re welcome to nip in for an espresso and browse Little Italy’s shelves.
Panettone and Provolone
On Friday morning, Sara Cernusco gestures towards the fresh meat and cheese counter, where Fabio Giacomello slices prosciutto for a customer.
Cured hunks of speck, mortadella and salami sit in the small, glass refrigerator, and to the right, the cheeses: provolone, taleggio and pecorino.
From Turin, Cernusco has worked at Little Italy for three years, and it’s her job to contact Italian suppliers and taste the foods that get sent over.
“My favourite are the cheeses,” she says. “Many people will come in for them. But sometimes they won’t even ask for food, but for things like Italian cleaning products.” (They don’t stock those yet.)
“If we talk about Italians, they will come because they maybe miss Italy and their food, so that’s normal,” she says. “Talking about Irish, they travel more than before, so once they go to Italy and then come back they like to find the same taste.”
Over in the pasta section, Damiano Carlisi takes stock of the many sauces. He knows which he would recommend.
“This one is my favourite,” he says, picking up a small jar of tomato sauce from a low shelf. “‘Mutti’ it’s called. Not many people know it but it’s the best.”
The Rabbittes originally set up across the street. In 1993, they moved into the current premises, which has changed little since then. Wooden beams, wooden shelves and pink linoleum floors. It’s a small, old-fashioned type of mini-mart.
Perhaps they might renovate in the future, says Rabbitte. “We’d love to have it as more of a food destination, a little coffee bar with paninis and sandwiches.”