Import grocery Fastidious foodies 

At Paletta's the customer is king - just don't run out of spumoni or it's off with your head!

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The shelves of Paletta's are well stocked with culinary goodies, such as rum-filled baba cakes, walnut-stuffed eggplant, and Greek caviar dip made from carp roe, lemon, and soy oil.

Paletta's patrons are a persnickety bunch. Regulars at the deli and import grocery store are accustomed to finding their favorite foreign specialties, right down to the brand, and you better stand back if they don't.

"Believe me, these customers tell you what they want," says owner Sandy Karam, who purchased the 90-year-old store from the Paletta family in 2000. She is speaking amid items an everyday American consumer might consider unusual, if not downright alien: rum-filled baba cakes from Italy, oil-drenched eggplants stuffed with walnuts from Lebanon, fully ripe fish eggs mixed with potatoes from Greece, and dried salted cod from Canada. Karam does her best to satisfy her customers' exotic tastes, obtaining most of her imports from suppliers in New York and California each week. Sometimes, though, a baba cake falls through the cracks.

"Where's my spumoni?!" screams Stacy Jo Sandoval, impersonating a ravenous customer. Sandoval, Karam's daughter, assists her mom in tracking down the right stuff for Paletta's discriminating patrons, who are typically of Greek and Italian ancestry. Sandoval recalls their erstwhile decision to stop carrying spumoni - a strawberry, vanilla, and chocolate-flavored Italian ice cream - due to the astronomical cost of transporting it in dry ice from New Orleans. This decision proved unwise; today spumoni is a best seller at Paletta's despite its price tag of $12.45 a quart.

Requests notwithstanding, Karam and Sandoval speak affectionately of their customers, many of whom eschew the midday caffeine boost. "We don't have too many coffee drinkers," says Sandoval. "We tried doing that. They drink wine. They come in for lunch and say, 'How about a glass of Chianti?'"

Along with imported wine, Paletta's offers hot and cold sandwiches, from muffalettas to meatball subs, all of which are served with flavorful house olives. "It's a special secret," says Sandoval of the herbs that lace the olives. "Everybody tries to come and taste them to figure out what spices are in there. Then they try and go do 'em themselves. But they can't."

Satisfied customers aren't the only ones interested in the mysteries of Paletta's. Karam recalls a recent incident wherein a certain competitor paid her a probing visit. "It's hard to compete when H-E-B comes in here and they bring three guys and they go in three different direction to see what we have and write it down." She says Charles Butt's minions recorded Paletta's inventory into tape recorders before filing out the door.

To stay in business, Karam focuses on keeping her shelves stocked with what her customers want. Sometimes, though, a finicky customer can be disappointed. Today, a gentleman is chagrined to discover his favorite brand of biscotti has gone missing.

"They're gone, eh?" he asks Karam rhetorically.

"They're gone," she says. "They were here for a long time."

"Oh, I see," he says. "So this is the new one?" He indicates an entire rack of varied biscotti brands.

"That's a new one," says Karam.

In the nick of time, Sandoval strategically defuses the biscotti bomb,"Do you want a reuben sandwich?" she asks, luring the gentleman to the sandwich counter.

By Brian Chasnoff



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