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In an industrial area just south of downtown Seattle, under the shadow of CenturyLink Field and down the street from several auto repair shops, sits a small nondescript brick building whose no-frills exterior belies its interior hidden treasures.
Known as Big John’s PFI, which stands for Pacific Food Importers, the store is a food lover’s paradise, a place where old-world charm meets down-home style. The floor is concrete, the lighting is fluorescent, and handmade signs are everywhere —hanging from the ceiling, displayed on the walls and posted on columns. The primary décor is provided by hundreds of colorful cans, bottles, jars and packages of specialty imported food items arrayed on old-fashioned shelving.
Find a shopping cart, or even better, grab one of the recycled 5-gallon plastic buckets previously used to hold olives in brine. You’re now ready to explore Big John’s PFI shelf by shelf. Capers to cannellini beans, polenta to almond paste, torrone to flatbread, it’s all at your fingertips.
Shipments come and go, so the inventory changes frequently. What stays constant are the low prices, modest surroundings, knowledgeable staff and unparalleled excitement of finding delectable treasures tucked into every nook and cranny.
A huge cheese counter, about 25 feet long, holds racks of cheese from Italy and Spain, France and Bulgaria. There are pecorinos and bleus, goudas and bries. Small signs proclaim the country of origin and delineate the special features of select cheeses.
“The enormous cheese counter is what they are most famous for,” said former caterer Eric DuBois, who has shopped at Big John’s for the past 20 years. “The people who work at the cheese counter are real experts. If you were casting about for a special cheese, something with a certain saltiness to it, for example, they would lead you right to the perfect product.”
Green and black olives are available in bulk, as are loose spices and herbs. There are hard salamis, olive oils and vinegars, mustards, jams and honey. Looking for pesto? At Big John’s, you’ll find green pesto and red, truffle pesto, lemon pesto and pesto made with pistachios.
Big John’s takes its name from its founder and owner, John Croce, who died last year at the age of 91. A pillar of the Seattle Italian-American community, Croce’s nickname came not only from his formidable size but also from his bigger-than-life personality.
Croce started Pacific Food Importers in 1971 as an olive oil import company. As the product line expanded to cured meats, specialty cheeses and a wide range of Mediterranean products, so too did its customer base. Soon, PFI was supplying food products wholesale to restaurants, grocers, manufacturers and caterers throughout the Pacific Northwest and Alaska.
“The wholesale operation was a working chef’s kind of place,” said DuBois. “It was not well-lit, nothing was gift-wrapped. But you knew you could get products there you could not get anywhere else at the time.”
Ten years later, Croce opened a retail-only business as a way for people to “shop the warehouse” without the usual hefty markups associated with imported specialty foods. Called Big John’s PFI, to differentiate itself from the wholesale operation, the small retail store moved to its current location in 1990.
Word spread quickly that Croce had the best Mediterranean delicacies in town, and soon people from Italian, Greek and other communities began going to him for their family groceries at a time when imported foods were much harder to come by. The business, which was turned over to his children in 2012, is now a multimillion-dollar operation.
Croce grew up with food-sales in his blood. His parents came to Seattle in 1906 from San Benedetto Del Tronto, a town on Italy’s Adriatic coast, and lived in Seattle’s Rainier Valley, once known as “garlic gulch” for the proliferation of early Italian immigrants who settled there. In 1946, the Croce family bought the Atlantic Street Grocery which they owned until 1954, when a highway project put them out of business.
Croce was an organic gardener long before the term was common and he could often be seen at Big John’s, handing out gardening advice to friends and customers. He enjoyed making his own wine and won several local awards for his homemade Zinfandel. He was also knighted by the Italian Consulate as a “cavaliere” for his service to the Italian Republic.
About 500 people attended Croce’s funeral service last August. At the reception that followed, cheese from PFI was served, along with pasta and meatballs, Italian sausage and peppers, and 12 gallons of his homemade wine. An accordion player provided the entertainment. For a man who loved family gatherings, good food and lively music, it was an event he surely would have approved of.