Ottawa is a long way from Connecticut, more than seven hours’ driving on a good day. To travel that distance just to see a 1,000-pound provolone is “ridiculous,” said Anthony LoFrisco, but that’s exactly what the Wilton resident did.
He didn’t think he’d be greeted by teams of Canadian journalists, either. While the cheese was much more than simply an oversized dairy product to LoFrisco, to imagine that a quest so “ridiculous” would pique the interests of reporters was beyond him.
Nevertheless, it happened. When LoFrisco arrived at Nicastro’s Italian Food Emporium on Dec. 1, after making the 460-mile journey the day before and spending the previous night in a hotel room, photographers with CTV Ottawa and writers with the Ottawa Citizen were there waiting for him.
They were probably wondering what mad reason the man could conjure and recite for going so far out of his way, in search of such an unassuming Holy Grail.
During World War II, the Italian LoFrisco lived in Brooklyn. Italian products barred from import back then under Allied sanctions, and the 12-year-old had not tasted good provolone in some time.
“One day right after the war ended,” LoFrisco said, “we were playing stickball in the street when a kid came running up the block, screaming, ‘Hey! DePalo just got the biggest cheese in the world.’” They dropped the game and ran straight to the grocery, as quickly as they could. “Then we saw it,” LoFrisco said. “It was in a crate — 12 feet long, three feet square; they took it out and put it on a table — a 1,000-pound provolone.”
“It made an incredible impression on me,” he said, “after going so long without, to see this huge cheese, the likes of which I’d never seen before, and would never see again, until now.”
Back in mid-November, LoFrisco was surfing the Internet when he stumbled across a story on a large provolone that had been purchased by a New Jersey grocer.
That’s when he involuntarily remembered DePalo’s thousand- pounder. Overcome with emotion, LoFrisco called the owner to see if he could join the New Jerseyan for the cutting.
To his disappointment, however, that provolone came in at only 750 pounds and wasn’t even Italian; it had been made in Wisconsin. “My father would roll over in his grave if I drove 150 miles to see a provolone that wasn’t from Italy,” LoFrisco joked.
New Jersey was a bust and LoFrisco felt robbed. “Going for a hole-in-one,” he Googled “1,000-lb provolone” and hit on Nicastro’s Italian Food Emporium in Ottawa.
Starting in the 1980s, once yearly around the holidays Joe Nicastro imports by boat a 1,000-pound provolone from northern Italy to cut and sell at his grocery during the season.
LoFrisco called him up and told his story. “Joe was more excited than I was,” LoFrisco said. “He told me absolutely to come, that I could make the first cut; he was very enthusiastic. I told my son, Anthony, who lives in Westport — he loves to cook as well — and all he said was, ‘I’m going.’” And so on Nov. 30, the two took LoFrisco’s Lexus SUV seven hours north up Interstate 81 and over the border, the father as a passenger, his boy behind the wheel. “My son and I are kindred spirits,” LoFrisco said. “We talked the whole way.”
They spent the night in a hotel and set out for Nicastro’s first thing the following morning. “I didn’t think it was much of a story,” LoFrisco admitted. “I couldn’t believe it — there were broadcast crews and newspaper reporters, and they were all excited. I got interviewed on TV; it was crazy.”
When the hype died down, Nicastro let LoFrisco attempt the first cut of a cheese that it took six men to unload from the delivery truck. “It wasn’t easy,” LoFrisco said with a laugh. “The cheese was very hard.” But once the cut was made, he got to taste the first piece.
“It was great,” LoFrisco said. “I even got to bring some back.”
According to LoFrisco, the true reward harvested from his adventure was not anything he gained through glimpsing the provolone of his past, but was instead a friend.
“The real reward was meeting this guy Joe Nicastro and his family,” LoFrisco said.
“They were some of the warmest people I’ve ever met. We bonded immediately. He introduced us to all his relatives, his nieces and nephews, his son. He was an outgoing, ebullient and welcoming person.”
But that’s to say nothing of Nicastro’s namesake grocery, which, for lack of a better phrase, blew LoFrisco’s mind.
“I’d never seen anything like it,” he said. “Joe had varieties of Italian foods I’d not even heard of. He goes to Italy three times each year for food shows. He’s got 40 different kinds of vinegar, 1,000 panettones from 30 different Italian bakers, 20 to 30 pigs’ legs on display, oils, canned tomatoes — all imported.”
When he returned to the States, LoFrisco, an avid cook, decided to include the story as an anecdote in his book of family recipes, a work-in-progress that will be titled “The LoFrisco Family Cookbook” when complete.
“I told the publisher, ‘Stop the presses; I gotta put this story in,’” LoFrisco said. “When I got home, I added three paragraphs about my and Anthony’s trip to Ottawa. It delayed the process by three weeks, but it was worth it, and now the book is on its way.”
Earlier, LoFrisco called it all “ridiculous,” but it’s not the trip he finds so silly; rather, it is ridiculous to him what a trivial mask happens to disguise his very personal journey.
“The cheese was great, but I didn’t wait 70 years and drive seven hours to get a piece of cheese,” LoFrisco said. “I did it to relive a memory.”