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Valente’s Italian Specialties to open soon in Haddonfield |

Valente’s Italian Specialties to open soon in Haddonfield

Margaret Atwood famously said, “Potential has a shelf life.’’


Marcello De Feo has internalized that notion perhaps a bit more acutely than many of us.

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A senior web developer, husband, dad, classical guitarist and music writer, the Haddonfield resident has no shortage of dreams, but has known for years he may not have decades to accomplish them.

De Feo, 39, has Peutz–Jeghers syndrome, a genetic disorder that affects the gastrointestinal tract and carries a strong risk of causing cancer in other organs.

The Haddonfield resident lost his mom, Santa Bianca Valente, to the disease in her 50s.

De Feo grew up surrounded by the tastes, textures and aromas of Italian cooking by both his mother and his grandmother, Paola, who had moved to America from the Abruzzo region of Italy with her husband when their son and daughter were young.  

When he opens the door to Valente’s Italian Specialties, a market in Kings Court, Haddonfield, in late June or early July, it will be as if his beloved mom and nonna are standing behind him, sleeves rolled up and hands dusted in flour, rolling pins at the ready.

“I was lucky enough to have both of them around me every day and along with them came amazing food,’’ De Feo writes on his website. “The stove was constantly on and we were spoiled from day one with amazing food, whether it was a chicken cutlet sandwich for your school lunch, maccheroni alla chitarra for dinner, or ‘square soup’ (Quadretti in brodo) on a sick day. My dad’s clients were fed an endless stream of chicken cutlets and our friends were always in a food coma from eating so much gnocchi.’’

 

De Feo was raised not just with a passion for eating these foods prepared from recipes lovingly transported from Southern Italy to the family’s new home in South Philly, but also an innate desire of his ancestors to share those foods with others.

“I was not born with a silver spoon in my mouth but it sure did feel like I was born twirling bucatini around a fork,’’ he writes. “Since I lost the matriarchs of our family, I have not stopped trying to get that feeling back.’’

While De Feo did not cook in the family kitchen, he did gain practical experience at a variety of restaurant jobs.

He began his kitchen stints at 11 or 12, working at two shore restaurants near his family’s summer home in Wildwood Crest. The nautically themed Captain’s Table “was very campy’’ and “it was the worst!’’

“I had to wear these really short shorts and a red and white sailor’s shirt and it was awful,’’ he recalls.

A few blocks away, it was also trial by fire, as he was hired by a diner to basically help keep the place clean, but wound up doing the bulk of the cooking and customer service, he says, as a college-age co-worker would cut out to hang out with his fruit truck-driving girlfriend on the beach.

“He would leave an hour after we opened,’’ De Feo recalls with a grin, adding that at age 12 he was somehow practically running the place by himself.

Something about flipping all those burgers and pancakes stuck, however. He’d go on to work at Monzo’s, an upscale Wildwood Crest Italian restaurant where he would stay for a dozen summers, doing everything from washing dishes to food prep to eventually making much of the fresh pasta. Ninety-hour weeks, he recalls, did not faze him.

“Over the years, I worked at different places, bakeries, restaurants, Italian delis and specialty food markets,’’ he says. While most of those experiences helped him learn and fed a desire to own his own restaurant one day, it was not without its humiliations.

He recalls with a shudder being asked to filet a fish tableside for Philadelphia 76ers president Pat Croce and his family at an upscale Philadelphia restaurant. Without proper training, he risked butchering the fish.

“That was the worst restaurant experience that I had, but (Croce) was so nice and his mother-in-law was so nice. … I freaked out and panicked and they talked me through the whole thing.’’

He had dreams of attending Johnson Wales in Rhode Island, but his mom held fast to the dream of her eldest becoming the first in the family to go to college, he says.

“When I was 13 or 14 years old, I had set out plans for my own restaurant. I had a logo, I had a menu, I had a layout of where all the tables were going to be, everything. It’s always been my goal to go back to that.’’

De Feo is a graduate of St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, where he got dual bachelor’s degrees in English and fine arts. “I was just two credits short of a philosophy degree, which would be the trifeca of unemployment,’’ he laughs.

His career would take him from Philadelphia to Colorado and back again, with stints as a freelance music writer for the Daily News in Philadelphia and another newspaper in Colorado, and as a bartender, a computer teacher, a volunteer with AmeriCorps. He also founded an eCommerce apparel business; serves as an adviser to Untied, a pop culture magazine, and Pattison Ave., a Philadelphia sports website; and contributes tech stories to Geekadelphia.

The plan was to go to culinary school but it remained a dream deferred as something always disrupted that plan.

At one point, De Feo and his wife planned to sell their home and move to Providence, Rhode Island, so he could study at Johnson Wales, but the recession hit, and they were stuck.

And then there was the devastating loss of his mom, far too young.

 The screenings and surgeries De Feo must undergo for his hereditary condition are reminders that none of us have forever to accomplish the dreams we hold closest to our hearts.

When his nonna, who moved back to Italy after her daughter died, also passed away, the loss jolted De Feo into moving forward and not looking back.

With the support of his family –- including his wife Carrie De Feo ; daughter Liliana, 10, and Nino 8, as well as his father, a retired accountant who now lives in Cherry Hill, and siblings —  De Feo launched Valente’s Italian Specialties a year and a half ago at area farmers markets.

His creations – fresh pasta, rustic breads, chicken cutlets, Sunday gravy – have been well received by regulars of Haddon Heights, Haddonfield and Palmyra and other markets, and at catered events. It got him rethinking his restaurant dream.

“I started improvising on my idea,’’ he says, looking around his small market space awaiting the arrival of contractors. “The idea is to offer amazing Italian goods but restaurant-quality meals without the high risk of owning a restaurant.’’

His grandma passed in November 2016, and “we registered the business (in January), and started reaching out to farmers markets. We did seven different markets a week to get our name out there and really work on our products. The whole time we were looking for a space.’’

By now, Haddonfield was home, and De Feo wanted to set up shop there.

 “I wanted to be close to my kids, so after school they can walk here and roll the meatballs,’’ he says with a smile.

Valente’s Italian Specialties is a tiny space that faces out onto the brick walkway and gazebo of Kings Court. It will serve as both specialty market and commissary for the growing business.

When the doors open, De Feo will offer both fresh and imported cheeses, various sauces including marinara and Bolognese, and four types of meatballs, including the traditional veal and pork variety, bison, as well as lightly breaded chicken meatballs made with fresh ricotta and pan fried.

Desserts will include rich dishes such as lacy pizzelle, rich budino or a panna cotta, prepared with local honey and fresh fruit procured from vendors De Feo has befriended at farmers markets. If you arrive at the right time, you might find fresh figs stuffed with mascarpone and drizzled with orange honey. When those go to the market, they sell out before people get out of their cars.

Shelves will offer imported Italian products —  San Marzano tomatoes,  tinned anchovies, bags of biscotti and bottles of finishing oils. A large refrigerator will house fresh cheeses, while the freezer will hold house-made pasta.

The core of the business will be the grab-and-go freshly prepared meals meant to feed busy families in the area.

“In a way, we are our own clientele,’’ says De Feo, whose wife is a nurse who works overnight on the oncology and hematology floor of the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. “We are a busy family with young kids here in town, dropping them off at karate and soccer. So we will have different prepared meals ready, as well as staple items like Chicken Parmesan, or spaghetti and meatballs … We will try to do as much seasonal, locally sourced stuff as possible, and rotate on a weekly basis, depending on what’s around.’’

A cheese expert is teaching De Feo to expand his repertoire, experimenting with fresh cheeses such as burrata, and also will also curate monthly cheeses so the community can be introduced to something new. If all goes according to plan, De Feo would like to expand at a second location where he could begin curing meats such as prosciutto and aging cheeses locally.

Customers will be able to find items not always available elsewhere, such as nduja, a spreadable salami, or mostarda, a condiment of candied fruit and mustard syrup. Another goal is to offer to customers some kitchen accessories such as traditional ravioli stamps.

For now, De Feo plans to keep his day job as a senior developer at a pharmaceutical company that builds co-pay programs and allows him to work remotely.

Whether he is overseeing the work of a kitchen contractor, rolling all those meatballs, waiting for dough to rise for another loaf of ciabatta or learning to make stracchino, a briny soft cheese, De Feo knows his mom and his nonna are close at hand.

“The whole driving force behind this is really my family, and honoring the legacy of my mom and my grandmother, and all of Abruzzi cuisine,’’ he says. “I grew up eating this wonderful food, and was fortunate enough to spend a lot of time in Italy and eat it there, and I want to bring a little bit of it over here.

“I want to start making the recipes my family made for us when we were kids and really bring that out,’’ he continues. “As much as I have wanted to be in a food business and have my own place, this is really about my family and about my kids, building something they can take over some day.”

If potential has a shelf life, De Feo’s shelves are piled high with things he loves best, things he is so passionate to share.

“I’ve had to live with a sense of my own mortality for so long, knowing that my mom couldn’t be here to be the nonna for my children. The question is, ‘Am I going to be here in 20 years?’ I want to build something that will last.’’  

If you go 

Valente’s Italian Specialties, 7 Kings Court, Haddonfield. Visit www.valentes.us/ or facebook.com/ValentesNJ/ or call (844) 41-NONNA

 

 

 

 

 

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