June 19, 2008

Gourmets Devour Milan’s 19th Century Grocery

MILAN _ Some people journey to this northern Italian city to gaze at "The Last Supper," Leonardo da Vinci's 15th Century masterpiece. Then there are men like Philip Creighton who come with more earthly suppers in mind and head straight to Peck, a jaw-dropping Italian larder.

"We fly in private planes from Spain just to get the tomatoes or olive oil," said Creighton, a private chef who landed one recent day at the Italian food emporium with a shopping list for a villa near Lake Como. "If you're a billionaire, you just come and get what you need. It's a reliable source."

Peck is an institution on Via Spadari, where all the bounty of Italy is on display. London has Harrods Food Hall. New York has Dean & DeLuca. But Peck, which opened in 1883 as a namesake for a Prague grocer who decided to sell "German-style smoked salami and meats" to Italians, has evolved as a worldly grocery with a distinct Milanese flavor.

It is an establishment with a certain quiet reserve, but, to anyone who appreciates Italian meats, cheese and wines, Peck offers a wealth of culinary charm.

Every grape-producing region of Italy is represented in its wine cellar. Ripe vegetables and fresh meats abound on the main floor. Hams, pungent and layered with glistening lard, hang from the walls. Platters of cheese-laced flan and fish-laden risotto are artfully displayed with ravioli, lasagna and spaghetti in glass cases.

In a cavernous kitchen _ open but kept exclusive to aproned workers _ fresh free-range chickens, bright-red combs still attached, are prepared for sale by butchers wielding flames to sear off the last few feathers. Buyers take home all fare in beribboned packages of cream-and-gold Peck paper.

"Here, it's a family business," Creighton said. "They still do things the way they have for years."

That means by 10 a.m. several members of the Stoppani family _ children of the three brothers who bought the store in 1970 _ are working at full steam.

Francesca is on the phone taking orders for a delivery of canapes. Mauro peruses prepared foods while waiting for some suited distributors to make a pitch. Stefano, in charge of all pastries, sweets, coffees and teas, climbs the stairs to the cafe bar and in-house restaurant and greets a few regulars.

"I was born here," Mauro said. "I was born in 1971 and I started coming here when I was four or five. ... Now, me, my cousins and my father walk around the shop daily. We taste the wine, we taste the oil, we taste everything."

The first generation of Stoppani owners, who had worked years in meat and shops before acquiring Peck, benefited from an Italy on the rise. Milan, in particular, leapfrogged in consumption in the 1960s and into the 1970s. Residents of this industrial and economic engine enjoyed incomes more than double those of other Italians.

The Stoppani family capitalized on those boom years, maintaining Peck as the place in Milan to find the best cheeses and meats, from sausage to poultry to pig's cheek, to complement a more traditional table.

Prices are not for the faint-hearted. A take-home lunch for two can be had for about $50. But even as inflation in Italy has hit a 12-year high and gas prices are up 11 percent in the past year, the upscale market maintains its share of choosy buyers.

"We have some people come every day, some people only come for Christmas," Mauro said. "But we know people come for quality."

In the 1990s, a new generation of sons who studied at university and spent time in Paris and London began calculating what customers beyond Milan might be willing to try. The Mediterranean diet was the rage. The Stoppanis quickly began catering to discerning foodies wherever they hungered or thirsted.

They expanded coffee and tea selections, they pumped up the variety of olive oil and began responding to requests from foreign markets. Today, there are 18 stores in Japan, South Korea and Singapore that sell Peck's exports, and Internet orders are a good business.

The Peck wine selection, limited in the 1970s to a few reds from Tuscany and white from Friuli region, became a source of renown. In the sleek cellar where individual wine tastings can be had, there are 14,000 bottles of wine on display and 60,000 in stock, 75 percent of which are Italian vintages.

"It's not easy to get this kind of wine and not in this quantity and not in this quality," said Stefano Stoppani, a trained sommelier. "We don't have ordinary wine. ...

"But this part of our business is the same as other. It reflects our philosophy. We started from zero but we learn."


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