When Imma and Mario Caporaso opened their first continental deli in 1972 – a pokey tenancy on St Bernard’s Road – Adelaide was a radically different place to what it is today. “I mean, when we came over from Italy in the 1960s there were no eggplants here,” Imma tells Broadsheet.
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In 1972, Imma and Mario’s Continental Deli introduced olive oil, pasta, European cheeses and coffee to some Adelaide residents for the first time, while providing many others with a rare taste of home. Over the decades, that humble deli grew into Mercato, a microcosm of Italian culture like little else in Adelaide. As the business counts down to its 50th birthday, we speak to 71-year-old founder Imma Caporaso, who still works the floor, and others about the store’s endurance. Plus, what’s next for the brand.
Our food scene has matured and diversified significantly since then, but one thing has remained constant: today, 71-year-old Imma still oversees the aisles of pasta sauce, olive oil, biscotti and more in her store (now named Mercato), which this year celebrates its 50th anniversary,
“My job now is mainly the displays,” she says, while on a break from stacking rows of one of Mercato’s most popular treats, taralli (a southern-Italian snack sitting somewhere between a breadstick, a cracker and a pretzel). “If I see a gap I have to fill it.” She’ll move on to unpacking the pasta sauces and olive oil next. The latter, now a ubiquitous product, was once a shockingly rare sight in 1960s Adelaide. “We sold three types of oils including Moro and Dante when we opened. Now, there’s so many oils,” she says.
The couple’s first shop, Imma and Mario’s Continental Deli, looked like the quintessential 1970s deli. PVC strip curtains hung over the front door, two lolly dispensers were stationed on the footpath and posters for The Advertiser and the Women’s Weekly lined the front window.
Inside, the Italian grocer stocked staples such as milk, bread, and fruit and vegetables as well as offerings from the Caporasos’ homeland such as olive oil, prosciutto and pasta. Vintage soft drinks Fanta and Tarino (another fizzy orange drink) lined the fridges. Supermarkets didn’t sell much cheese in those days and the Caporasos stocked a few European varieties, including Jarlsberg. During Easter, the store would be filled with the traditional Italian Easter bread known as colomba pasquale – a hot item among the Italian community, who made up the majority of the clientele.
At first, customers would come from around the north-eastern suburbs, mostly, but word travelled far, and we’re told some customers made the trek from the southern suburbs to shop there.
“It wasn’t easy,” the couple’s son John Caporaso told Broadsheet in 2018. “Mum did most of her school here, so her English was pretty good. Dad, on the other hand was ... not so good. He was a brickie with his brothers when he arrived, so English was hardly ever needed.” Luckily, most of their customers, suppliers, accountants and even their landlord spoke Italian.
This was the first of six deli iterations the couple would own over the next 37 years throughout Adelaide’s north-east, eventually culminating in Mercato, an emporium of Italian coffee, cured meats, cheese, kitchenware, wine and pantry staples hard to find anywhere else in Adelaide. But when you ask Imma how it all began, you end up at an interesting starting point: knitwear.
After emigrating to Australia as a teenager from the Campania region in south-western Italy, Imma left school at the end of year 7 and began making knitwear, which sold on the racks of John Martin’s in the CBD. She learned the trade on school holidays and on weekends. When she married Mario at the age of 17, Imma’s mother gave her a knitting machine.
“I was married and making jumpers at home, [for Adelaide label] Spinelli jumpers, and there was wool everywhere and the kids were wearing theirs – I just got sick of them,” Imma says.
“My husband went to work in the country, in Keith, to do a job because he was a bricklayer, so I thought I’d get a job that I could go out and do.”
Imma worked for one week at a deli on Glen Osmond Road, but gave it up because of the early starts. She then found a job at a small deli in Rostrevor, on St Bernard’s Road. The owners trained Imma up, and when they sold the business, she and Mario – who also emigrated from Campania as a teenager – bought it. The couple worked 15-hour days for three years.
“In those days, there were a lot of corner delis and we were specialising in Italian oil, cheese, pasta,” Imma says. “There wasn’t much oil around and there were only three brands of pasta and they used to come in five-kilogram boxes.”
Prosciutto was a big seller. Mario would come home from his day job bricklaying and carve the meat from the bone then slice it through the meat slicer. The couple also lived through a milk strike and a bread strike that lasted three months in the mid-1970s.
The Caporasos sold that first deli in 1975. They travelled to Italy and returned to Adelaide to buy another deli on Montacute Road in 1979. “If you get bored or tired, you snap at the customers. We used to get out, have a little break and then go back into it again,” says Imma.
In the early 1990s, the couple moved the business to a location on Lower North East Road, which their son John Caporaso and his wife Rose Caporaso bought in 1998. He tells Broadsheet the shop life was “just part of our fabric make-up”.
“I was two years old when they had their first shop, so I was raised in the environment,” the now-52-year-old says. “It was great, I had complete access to chocolates and candy and pinball and Space Invaders next door. I used to grab 20 cent pieces from the till and run next door – to the disgust of Dad.
“As I got older, I finished school and I got to the stage where I started to resent it a little bit because I wanted to get away from working with the folks or spending time at the shop.”
John worked with Bianco Construction before he had a change of heart and returned to the family business, something he saw as a long-term investment. He bought up neighbouring property along Lower North East Road and expanded the business, renaming it Imma and Mario’s Mercato in 2005 before shortening it to the snappier Mercato in 2009. The original site was 200 square metres, but the current store stands at five times that size.
In it, you won’t just find one shelf of biscotti, you’ll find half an aisle with about six different brands. Sacks upon sacks of flour sit on the shop floor, with your choice of Caputo, Granoro and more. Along the deli counter, sticks of salami hang over a glass cabinet full of more than 180 types of cheese. The shop now sells local and imported wine and beer. And there’s an on-site cafe and bar serving coffee, Italian pastries, pasta, polpette with red sauce, pizza al’taglio and more.
Imma and an army of local nonnas make fresh pasta on the long kitchen counters. And the family’s passata recipe is now famous around Adelaide’s north-east. (Last year alone they produced more than 13,000 bottles of the red sauce.)
“We make homemade wine and smallgoods – they were doing all of this in Italy before they left to come to Australia,” says John. “In many cases Italy has moved on, but our parents have kept that going.”
Part of the plan behind the expansion was to give the customer “more variety”, says John, and he reckons that’s where the business’s success lies.
“The old shop was great, and it was really pretty and had real character but it was a pain in the arse when you’ve got two kids and you have to go shopping in there,” he laughs. “It was just too tight and too awkward. It’s about that convenience and range and we are really brokers of products that people have yet to discover.”
Vicki Tronnolone started working for the family soon after John took over the business, and she’s still there more than 30 years later. She’d been working at the deli counter of the nearby Foodland when she stumbled into the Caporasos’ deli looking for Colavita oil. “I went in there to get that oil because I couldn’t find it anywhere else in the area,” Vicki tells Broadsheet.
Foodland was cutting back hours, and John offered her work. These days she just helms the slicer on weekends. But, “I used to work the whole seven days when we first opened up there,” she says. “I do love the atmosphere and the customers – that’s why I’m still there. I’m going to miss them when I do eventually retire. Even when we started there as a small group, we really became united like a family.”
From its early days attracting new migrants, the shop now lures people from all backgrounds and all corners of Adelaide. It’s a meeting place, and a community hub, with regulars beelining to the deli section on Saturday mornings (and securing freshly piped cannoli while they’re there).
Edward Gorkic is one of those customers. The 77-year-old, who lives in Wattle Park, can be founded perched at a table every morning with the same order – an espresso coffee and a pastry.
“In all my working years, I dreamed of my retirement years when I was able to indulge the Italian lifestyle,” Edward says. “That is, you get up in the morning and go to your local coffee place and have an espresso coffee and a pastry and then get on with the rest of the day … For me, the coffee and the pastry is just the winning combination.”
It’s that sense of familiarity and community that keeps customers coming back, some of whom have turned into life-long friends of the couple. “We made so many friends throughout the years and we went to all of their kids’ weddings and we used to go to dances together,” Imma recalls.
It’s indicative of the blurred line between customer and family. “I’ve always said if there’s things that I don’t want to eat or that I don’t want my family to eat, I don’t give it to the customer,” says Imma, who’s passed that resolute and unwavering thinking on to her son.
“Growing up we were taught never to compromise on the quality of food, no matter how tough things got. We always ate well.”
The legacy continues this year with a series of events to celebrate Mercato’s 50th birthday, including an anniversary dinner at Plant 4 in August, plus birthday edition drinks made with Italian producers Liquore Strega in Benevento and Bera Wines in Piedmont, and commemorative bottles of olive oil made with Myponga producer Elisi Grove. The business will evolve again later this year with a new-look in-store bar with additional seating and a new focus on aperitivo.
Photography supplied by Mercato.