By Claudie Benjamin
“I was born in the building at the southwest corner of 75th Street and Columbus,” says Joe Aguilera owner of Giacomo Deli at 269 West 72nd Street, located just a few blocks from his home. His parents came from Cuba, to the US to make a better life. They settled on the Upper West Side. “Now 60 years later, I still live in the same apartment where I grew up and where my wife Yesenia and I raised our three sons,” says Joe.
Joe began parochial school on West 70th Street and later went downtown to Greenwich Village for high school. His first job, one that lasted through high school, was for Joe Lebowitz, the owner of Joe’s Candy Store on 75th Street and Columbus, known as the last candy store in the neighborhood. Later, he worked at the Green Noodle (313 Columbus Avenue) “that’s where I learned to make pasta.” Leaving the neighborhood, he went on to Balducci’s market, among the first well-known gourmet markets in Manhattan. As described in an April 26, 2009, NY Times article, “the World War II-era gourmet market that was once the foremost pit stop for New York foodies.” The flagship store was on 6th Avenue in Greenwich Village. Joe worked up to the corporate ladder over 14 years.
The most exciting and rewarding of these years, he described, “among the best of my life,” involved extensive travel for Balducci’s to purchase cheeses and salami for the store.
While he loved the gourmet food market world, Joe felt his true ambition was to have his own Mom and Pop business, he wanted the gourmet aspect but on a smaller scale where he could have daily interactions with regular customers. “I’m in the people business, I just happen to sell food,” Joe says.
He was going for dinner at The Copper Hatch, a bistro once located at 247 West 72nd Street, when he noticed a for rent sign in a storefront window of the building his shop now occupies. He looked no further. The business has meant hard work and coming into the deli seven days a week, but Joe realized his dream.
Regulars who have been coming for years, don’t have to be asked what they want, the orders are prepared the moment they enter the small cozy shop. Classical music fills the air. Old timers may just come in for a coffee and danish, “what they buy won’t pay the rent.” But, others “the millennials” come in day after day for their favorite sandwiches. Which does Joe recommend? “The Cubano and the Italiano.”
Was the store named for a particular relative? No, Joe laughs, he just wanted an easy to remember Italian name that evoked the mouth-watering prospect of the Italian Combo: Salami, provolone mortadella, roasted peppers and balsamic vinegar on crusty bread. Or, another big favorite is the Cubano: a sandwich made up of roast pork, country ham, pickles and Dijon mustard. Whether it’s these options or others, Giacomo’s has been providing its very tempting sandwiches to regulars and newcomers since 1994.