Having emigrated to Australia in the 1960s in search of a better life, Imma and Mario Caporaso’s family helped season a cultural revolution in northeast Adelaide.
Dried lings from Norway hang above a small charcuterie display case filled with gourmet Italian prosciutto and salumi, marinated calamari and a dozen types of olives.
The other side of the counter offers a wide range of cheeses ranging from giant wheels of Swiss Gruyère, to sweet Piave Mezzano from Veneto, to spindly provolone from Lombardy and gorgonzola from everywhere.
A plethora of traditional sweets, from biscotti to cioccolato, are scattered among displays of canned antipasti, olives and pesto, all surrounded by stacked walls of pasta, flour and canned tomatoes.
This assortment of Italian gourmet dishes would have been the dream of Mario and Imma Caporaso when they emigrated to Australia in the 1960s.
Back then you would have been hard pressed to find a single cup of espresso, a slice of prosciutto, a bottle of olive oil or a piece of fine Italian cheese.
“Both of our families worked the land in southern Italy and we came here looking for a better future,” says Imma.
“We came here without speaking English. I was nine at the time and I thought, ‘I’m going to Australia; it will be an easy life and I won’t have to work anymore”.
Her innocent dream couldn’t be further from reality, yet Imma came from a difficult background – her father fought in World War II and was held as a prisoner of war in India for eight years.
Imma remembers as a child knocking on doors with her mother, who was looking for work, asking people if they needed a cleaner.
We used to give people coffees when they arrived, that’s not possible anymore, but we had a very good reputation and our customers followed us everywhere we went.
Imma dropped out of school after seventh grade and started knitting. She meets Mario, a mason from Campagna, also from an agricultural background.
“I was knitting sweaters at home, there was wool everywhere and we were fed up. So, I got myself a job in a delicatessen and I liked it so much that in 1972, we opened our first shop,” explains Imma.
At their first humble grocery store in Rostrevor, Imma and Mario introduced Italian groceries that were not stocked by supermarkets at the time.
“We introduced things like prosciutto and olive oil to Australians. In the 70s, it was impossible to get boneless prosciutto, so Mario had to be the butcher,” says Imma.
“When we started in 1972, we had customers from Noarlunga coming to our grocery store in Rostrevor.
“We used to give people coffees when they came in – you can’t do that now, but we had a really good reputation and our customers followed us wherever we went.”
The couple have changed their store location several times over the years.
“Before, there were a lot of convenience stores and Italian delis, but few had the variety that we had,” Imma says.
“We worked seven days a week. Our store was open from 7 am to 10 pm in the evening and I had two children; I don’t know how I did. It was just the two of us and my parents didn’t speak English so we were there every day including Easter and Christmas.
Their son John took over the business in 1999 and, with an appetite for expansion, opened a new, much larger store in Campelltown in 2005.
Launched as “Imma and Mario’s Mercato”, the company name was later shortened to simply Mercato.
Now run by John, Mercato is a gourmet department store and a modern, oversized take on the family’s first delicatessen.
Imma and Mario spend about four days a week in the store working alongside their son John and their grandchildren Jianna and Massimo.
Mario is “the cheese man”.
“I cut up the big wheels of cheese, grate the cheese and vacuum seal the cheese and small products. Then I sharpen the knives, clean the outside, water the pots and take care of the plants,” Mario explains.
Jianna and Massimo’s younger sister, Valentina, also aspires to work at Mercato – but there’s no family favoritism; everyone starts from scratch.
“My brother Massimo and I started doing the dishes when we were still in school and worked our way up,” says Jianna.
“Our father John sources high-end gourmet products. We strive to have 80% exclusive products coming directly from Italy, especially from family producers, that’s game over.”
In addition to imported gourmet products, Mercato offers fresh handmade pasta by Imma and a group of nonnas who can be seen preparing a big batch every week using the kitchen bench in the middle of the store.
Then there’s the Caporaso family passata, which started as a small-scale family tradition and expanded into mass production.
Last year, Mercato produced 13,500 bottles of passata, made in the Mercato warehouse.
Every day that Imma and Mario are present at the Mercato, it is clear that they are held in esteem.
“It’s so nice to work alongside my grandparents – we’re very lucky,” says Jianna.
“Few people have the opportunity to work in a family environment like us.”
To commemorate the Caporaso family’s 50 years in business, Mercato will host a series of events throughout the year, including a 50th Anniversary Gala Dinner at Plant 4 Bowden on August 13.