By Joy Bergmann
When strangers ask Joe Aguilera what he does for a living, his answer never wavers. “I’m in the people business,” he says. “I just happen to sell food.”
Business is good indeed at Giacomo Fine Food, his convivial, don’t-walk-past-too-fast-or-you’ll-miss-it takeout spot at 269 W. 72nd Street near West End Avenue.
April 10th marks the deli’s 25th anniversary. To celebrate, Giacomo is rolling back prices on Wednesday to 1994 levels. Their top seller – coffee – will be 75 cents instead of $1.75 and signature sandwiches like the Italian Combo – mortadella, salami, provolone, roasted peppers, vinaigrette – usually $7.95 will be $4.95, while supplies last.
The shop prides itself on freshness, so running out of popular items is a point of differentiation. All of Giacomo’s prepared foods – turkey meatloaf, kale salad, lasagna, frittatas and more – are made on the premises in a tiny prep kitchen. Breads and baked goods – including black & whites – arrive daily from a top-secret bakery in the Bronx.
“Everything’s delicious and I love the homey feeling,” says Jodie, a regular for over 20 years. “Places like this make a neighborhood.”
The Upper West Side is dear to Aguilera’s heart and the only place he’s ever lived.
Aguilera, 57, spent his early childhood in the old Sherman Square Hotel at 71st and Broadway where the Church of the Blessed Sacrament helped his Cuban parents settle after immigrating in 1961. He started in food service as a teenager working at Joe’s Candy Store, the last soda shop on the UWS – “Egg creams, the whole thing” – eventually becoming a buyer at the original Balducci’s on 9th Street. He and his family now live in his parents’ former apartment at 75th and Columbus, making his daily 5:30 a.m. arrival at the shop a little easier. “I’m here seven days a week, but I leave at 9:00 a.m. on the weekends.”
Giacomo’s current incarnation as a no-frills go-to for quality eats at good prices – and writer Jeffrey Toobin’s favorite local joint – is quite different from the fancy food shop Aguillera opened in 1994.
Eleven years with Balducci’s had inspired him to start his own version of a neighborhood gourmet market. “We had smoked fish, caviar, pate. Chandelier on the ceiling, classical music on,” he recalls. “But the average person was afraid to come in here.”
The very first day he sensed a product pivot would be needed. “The first customers who came in asked for coffee. The machine was still in the back. I didn’t plan on selling coffee and had no idea how to make it. But people want coffee!” So brew he did, slowly changing the entire operation over time. Everything except his core team.
“I love the people on the Upper West Side,” says Omar Bravo, who’s been with Giacomo since 1997. “I’ve worked all over, Upper East Side, Village, Chelsea. People around here are just more real. I like that. Eccentric ones. Even the tough ones. Kill them with kindness and they’re sweethearts.”
Sylvia Tobon commutes to Giacomo from Staten Island, whipping up batches of soup – and everything else – as she has since 1996. Her favorite soup? Tomato basil with roasted eggplant. What’s the secret ingredient? “Love!” she says.
“Love’s the main ingredient in everything here,” laughs Aguilera.
Asked what the other keys to his success have been, customer Lawrence pipes up to answer instead. “He’s generous. Smiles all the time. Good with the customers. He’s the best! I’ve been coming here forever.”
Adds Jenn, a regular for 17 years, “Joe and the staff always have a smile on their face, always ready to crack a joke.”
“Everybody’s like family. We know if people are sick or are getting married. It’s a community store. You don’t see that a lot,” says staffer Bravo. “We’re like bartenders. We hear about what’s going on with everybody and it’s great.”
Aguilera is currently negotiating a new lease for the 490-square-foot space. His original rent in 1994? $2,000 a month. Today it’s $5,875. He says he wants to continue operating for another 10 years before retiring. “I’m 95 percent hopeful that it will go my way.”
He remains optimistic about his enterprise’s prospects in a changing UWS. “You get a little anxious when you hear there’s going to be a Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts coming in,” says Aguilera. “But what we offer that all these other places don’t is personality.”
Final question: What’s with the name?
“In business, I always loved the three-syllable Italian name. But Joe in Italian, Giuseppe, just didn’t fly. No offense to Giuseppes! Giacomo came to me and we went with it.”