Owners keeping Cavallo’s deli in step with times

By Connie Lepore

When an immigrant from Italy already long in the tooth came north from New York near the late 1960s, he was pleased enough just to get his name on the payroll of one of the mills that had given Waterbury its Brass City moniker. He disdained factory duty, though, said great-granddaughter Lena Fusco.

"After a short while, he started his own business on Orange Street, "she said while her mother, Maria Fusco, sat listening, and grandma Geraldina Cavallo, apron properly in place, silently monitored the scene, standing a few steps from the threesome gathered at a table in the spotless deli on East Main Street moments after Lena went into overtime for a couple grateful to have gotten a loaf of fresh Italian bread after closing time.

Santuccio Cavallo's new venture not only placed the family's name above his shop, it also put them on the Greater Waterbury eating map. To be exact, the family dominated it. There was a Cavallo here, a Cavallo there,one nearly everywhere. "Santuccio had five boys, and each one had his own store," said Lena. "There were seven of them in the mid-70s."

Santuccio Cavallo didn't enter the food sector on a whim, suggested Lena, who sounded like the family historian. He was in the kitchen while stationed with the Italian army in Ethiopia, but it was not in the mess hall preparing meals for the rank and file. He had a special diner to feed, a man who would not have flinched from flashing his feelings furiously if the fare had been foul. The point Maria Fusco was making is that her granddad knew his way around pots and pans, just as many Italians of his generation praised and defended the country's ruler, Benito Mussolini, for whom he cooked, because he knew how to get the trains to run on time.

For Maria and Lena, there really hasn't been a time when they haven't been in a deli. Maria's dad, Angelo, bought a Cavallo's located west of their current business from his brother, Vito, in 1968. She stayed on at the deli throughtout the years, and Maria was behind the counter when she made up her mind to purchase it. "I decided to take a chance on my own, and I did," said Maria. "Actually, Lena and I did." They are now co-owners. Both felt right at home, although Lena, an instructor by schooling,had never labored in one.

In addition to teaching, Lena, never one to stand still, also put in five years in a bakery and then the delicatessen at a Watertown store. This is the first year, in fact, that she's been exclusively at Cavallo's Imported Italian Foods, which is at 1892 East Main Street, Waterbury, for decades.

The shop, Maria and Lena note, is more than a deli featuring such staples of the sector as Italian cold cuts and cheeses served hot or cold between a variety of breads. "The basic stuff has not changed," said Maria, who was also born in Colliano in Salerno province, just south of Naples. "But we've added many things, like specialty baskets, pastry from Franklin Avenue in New York and cookies."

Few others, added Lena, a member of the Amici/Friends Board of Advisers, carry fresh grated cheese, and there's no microwave oven permitted in her eatery, which also features breakfast sandwiches and for dinner, pasta, poultry and more. "We're marketing it much differently," she continued. In these days of vast food marts and fast-food franchises, the emphasis at this "mom and daughter" shop is on the personal touch. "People come here because we know them, and they come to see Mrs. Geraldina Cavallo," she said, referring to her maternal grandma.

The family atmosphere at Cavallo's is visible on the walls bearing a menu of deli delights that have been dubbed the KarTele Creation, Ferrucci's Auto Special, Beauty Mark Tattoo, Engine 5 and the B&N Package Store, in recognition of their friends and relatives.

Speaking of family, Maria said, "For all my relatives, their big venture in business was a joy to them." It's been that way too for her and her daughter, who points out proudly that the Cavallo's delis "started out as all men, and now we're all women, " said Lena, who acknowledged that there's an occasional difference of opinion, as there is in any partnership or family. "We argue for 10 minutes and then forget what we argued about."

She has not forgotten the days when she was part of the Cavallo's furniture. "Pretty much, I was born in this store. I used to sleep under a cabinet in a makeshift bed. So I slept there all day." Now, there's no catching any winks in the store. The direction of the business, she said enthusiastically, is, "Up, up and away."

"One day I'd like to see a bigger Cavallo's, or another one. That's my goal for the fifth generation." Mamma Maria would endorse that notion in a heartbeat.

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Cavallo's Imports
1892 East Main St
Waterbury, CT 06705
Phone: 203-753-8425

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