Passing through the door of DioGuardi’s Italian Market and Deli, a visitor is confronted with a wondrous maze of old-world authenticity and seemingly endless goods and treats.
Where to start is the question. But when the owner Jeff Labowitz is the tour guide, it’s great fun.
Food is everywhere you turn. Handmade Italian sub sandwiches. A deli counter offering premium spiced Italian ham, eight varieties of salami and cheese galore. Throughout the store, employees are ready to serve ready meals: giant meatballs, stuffed peppers, chicken parmesan, bourbon-glazed salmon, chicken piccata, balsamic asparagus, roast potatoes, chicken Marsala, panko-crusted cod . Turn around and discover a refrigerated display case with lasagna, chicken Alfredo fettuccini, wedding soup and other specialties made on site.
Labowitz showed large rice balls behind the glass called arancini.
Stuffed with mozzarella and seasonings, coated in breadcrumbs and fried, he said the Italian original is “like a warm hug in a bowl.”
A few steps away is the premium limoncello. Lots of wine too. Keep moving and the shelves are filled with homemade pizzelle from a New Philadelphia bakery and other sweet treats, including lemon ricotta cookies. The pastes are plentiful, including the bronze carved style. Candy from Corbo’s Bakery in Cleveland is another temptation. The spices come from Pittsburgh.
All the while, Labowitz was full of energy, detailing the origins of the products and greeting customers by name. He is also happy to share the story of DioGuardi, which traces the Italian immigrants of the same name and their original spaghetti sauce and Italian sausage recipes.
DioGuardi’s has been located at 3116 Market Avenue N in Canton since 1948. The store was founded in the early 1900s.
Labowitz pointed to the spot where Angelina “Mama” DioGuardi used to stir a vat of red sauce, a sight still fondly remembered by longtime patrons. She worked in the market until she was 101 years old.
Although the owner cherishes these ties to the township of yesteryear, he has also changed things up by adding a commercial kitchen, which allows for more cooking and preparation on site. Fresh bread is a more recent addition, and Labowitz is always tweaking the inventory with new sandwiches and other creations.
“We’ve grown a lot,” said Labowitz, 56, whose culinary background includes working as an executive chef at a Giant Eagle store. “We make our own fresh pasta.”
A 1983 graduate of McKinley High School, he acquired the Italian deli and market in 2015.
Bestsellers now include pizza, Stromboli and prepared meals. Sandwiches are also popular, including muffulettas and the new ham and swiss with hot pepper salad on a fresh Italian bun.
DioGuardi’s employs nearly 20 people. Dawn Cook manages the front of the house. Leasa Craig is Director of Business Operations.
During a pre-tour sit-down chat, Labowitz happily covered it all. Here are the highlights.
DioGuardi’s culinary philosophy is to keep everything fresh
“He has to look clean, he has to look clean – everything,” Labowitz said of DioGuardi. “And it has to be fresh, so we’re very strict about dates and fresh foods, and it has to be delicious.”
The focus is on premium Italian meats, he said, noting bologna and chipped ground ham
are not sold at DioGuardi.
“Food is the universal language. You start with the right ingredients. You prepare it really well and simply and then end up with really good food. We try not to complicate things.
“I buy from a lot of sellers because I’m particular. I just don’t buy anything, that means the best quality and the best flavor for what you get.
Mama Angelina’s spaghetti sauce and meatballs are a hit
“The bottom line is that they’re good and they sell, and that’s what people know,” Labowitz said. “Every day people come in and say, ‘I remember Mama DioGuardi was over there stirring the sauce.’
“It’s amazing,” he said of the story. “It’s just fun to be here.”
Spaghetti and marinara sauces used to be stored in the refrigerator, but after testing by the Ohio Department of Agriculture, the sauces were found to be “shelf stable,” Labowitz explained.
They are still made in-house.
“You lose something in translation (along with quality control) when someone else makes your sauce for you and you take it to a manufacturer,” he said.
Meatballs are another old world recipe.
“We roll them by hand,” Labowitz said. “We do a thousand a week.”
Counting the ingredients on his fingers, he said, “Beef, pork, eggs, breadcrumbs and seasonings, and that’s it. So there’s no fillers and binders or chemicals or weird stuff in it – it’s like what you did at home.
Sausage is another DioGuardi original. Lean pork and anise set it apart, but no fennel, while adding salt and pepper, Labowitz said.
DioGuardi’s offers homemade bread and customer service
DioGuardi’s homemade breads include traditional Italian breads, focaccia and bread rolls.
Focaccia is also available topped with red sauce and cheese or Mediterranean style.
DioGuardi’s core demographic is made up of baby boomers and older customers. “They value quality,” Labowitz said.
There are more foodies than ever, he said, as evidenced by the popularity of celebrity chefs, cooking shows and food-related apps, delivery services and social media sites.
“We try to embrace that.”
“The worst question in the history of questions is: ‘What are we eating?’ You cook at home, go out to dinner, or use Uber. We all get caught up in our little tunnel vision of eating the same thing over and over again. We give options. You can cook yourself (by selecting the ingredients) or we have prepared meals.
“We engage our customers and talk to them about the food. We can offer suggestions and recommendations. We can guide them and help people understand.
Future plans for the Italian market and DioGuardi’s Deli
Labowitz said he has no plans to relocate or open any other DioGuardi locations.
“There’s a feeling here,” he said of the store, deli and cuisine. “And to move to another place, bigger is not better.”
But he is always on the lookout for new products. “We are going to diversify a bit more towards Mediterranean and Greek products,” he said. “We are always on the lookout for cool and unique things.”
More gluten-free foods and healthier options are also planned.
The owner of DioGuardi is passionate about food
“I could talk about food all day,” admitted Labowitz.
“It’s the passion for food and quality. Some people are passionate about sports. Some people are passionate about other things. We are passionate about food, that’s what we do.