With restaurants closed as part of the national and state quarantine and Trenton residents looking for takeout food, it’s a good time to think of what is to many a shrine to Trenton’s Italian heritage and cuisine.
Porfirio’s Italian Foods, 320 Anderson Street, is still a Trenton Makes World Takes product and a staple found on family tables and in restaurants from Trenton to Atlantic City.
The name is connected to John Porfirio, a post-World War immigrant from Calabrio, at the toe of Italy’s boot.
He arrived in New Jersey around 1950 and worked for restaurants in Trenton and Atlantic City.
In 1964 he found the opportunity to open his own Italian product business, originally at Clinton Avenue and Pearl Street in ‘the “Burg.” Rodriguez’ Deli now occupies the spot.
Although opening a shop to sell what many Italians made at home was unusual — and risky — it paid off, and Porfirio’s fare was soon on family tables and local menus.
After Porfirio’s death in 1968, the business moved to Anderson Street, where a way of life continues.
Back then son-in-law Anthony Calabro, now, at 84, a silver-haired gentleman with a mellifluous voice, became the new face of the business and has been there ever since.
Now mainly seen at Porfirio’s in Hamilton, Anthony easily talks history and recalls working nights at the now defunct GM plant in Ewing before working at his father-in-law’s store.
He also talks about the shop’s products and continuity. “All the recipes come from him,” Anthony says of his father-in-law. He then gestures to his son, Robert Calabro. “Now it belongs to him.”
Perhaps it should be “them.”
While Robert, 52, runs things now, his son, Robert Jr., 22, is usually in the store with him.
Robert Sr. speaks with pride about the legacy of Porfirio’s. “I never worked for anyone else. I just showed up one day and my father put me to work.”
Robert also has roots in Trenton and Hamilton. He lived in Chambersburg and attended Saint Joachim’s School. He also attended The College of New Jersey and received a degree in business administration in 1991. His interest in politics led to him to an unsuccessful state assembly bid. His interest in the community has him serving on the Hamilton Township Planning Board.
Married for 25 years to Gina, a court stenographer, the couple has three children, Robert and two daughters.
Talking about how the Trenton business operates, Robert says six full-time employees and several part-timers make meatballs on Thursday, gnocchi on Friday, lasagna, stuffed shells and manicotti on Saturday, and ravioli on Sunday.
The long standing schedule was so predictable that when Robert was at TCNJ the professor — a friend and regular costumer — would offer extra credit if students knew what day meatballs were on the menu.
While the area restaurant scene — when open — is different than it had been years ago, many still have Porfirio’s pasta on their menus. Yet, says, Robert, the landscape continually changes, and large suppliers have cut into Porfirio’s wholesale business, he says.
John Porforio, the original’s grandson and Robert’s cousin, can be found behind the counter at the Anderson Street location, a store as redolent of cheese and pasta as it is quiet for long stretches during the week.
Legend has it that Uncle Anthony asked young John to come in to weigh cheese.
After he got paid $20, he decided to keep weighing and now handles the Trenton shop.
When asked about sales during the quarantine, John shrugs and says he hopes for the best and worries about family and business.
Robert says the Anderson Street store — and longtime culinary fixture — will stay open so long as the economics dictate and that he plans to hang in there at Porfirio’s until he makes his last mortgage payment. Robert Jr. has said he wants to take over when that happens.
But if there is less activity in the Anderson Street store, there are still prepared dishes and ingredients for dinner.
Then there is the nearby refrigerated cases stocked with fresh pasta, grated cheese, fresh ricotta, and meat sauce, marinara, and vodka sauce.
And for those able to withstand the rigors of making everything from scratch, there are aisles of dried pasta and canned tomatoes. Italian cookies and the fixings for making your own cannoli also wait.
When asked what Porfirio’s is famous for, Robert says, “Ravioli” without hesitation. It is a commitment he does not take lightly. He has even incorporated the word “ravioli” into his e-mail address.
The website has a full menu of prepared and wholesale food. Customers can even text their orders.
Porfirio’s Italian Foods, 320 Anderson Street. Wednesdays through Sundays, call for changing hours, 609-393-4116. www.porfiriositalianmarket.com