Food, family style

Michael Sampino

Photo By Larry Dalton

Good cooking from fresh ingredients is a tradition for the Sampino clan. Michael Sampino, proprietor of Sampino’s Towne Foods in Alkali Flat, has been wholesaling fine foods to restaurants for the past nine and a half years, but a few months ago he opened a retail store at 1607 F Street. He’s got the whole family involved: his dad, Bill, handles the meat counter, while wife Gabrielle and their children often help out on evenings and weekends. And when the work is done and the shop is cleaned up, the Sampinos often gather for a multigenerational family dinner.

How did you get into the food business?

I’d been in college in Italy, at Villa Raggio outside of Rome, and I had a motorcycle accident. I broke my leg and they had to fly me home. I was in bed for a year and then in a wheelchair. I had brought my wife back from Italy—she was my fiancée then—and we needed money. My dad called and said they needed cherries at David Berkley, so I drove down the Garden Highway in a ‘79 Honda with $700, which was everything I had to my name. I bought those cherries, turned ’em around and made a little bit of a profit. That put food on the table. So after I’d taken cherries to David Berkley the next time, I called up Darrell Corti and told him I had some cherries, and he said “Bring ’em on over.” Then Bruce Mace, and pretty soon Biba, wanted some. They were all friends of my father. Pretty soon we were doing 20-some trips a day with a ‘79 Honda.

You were wholesaling produce from the trunk of your car?

It was multiple trips with multiple cars. At one time, I had a ‘79 Honda, a ‘79 Cadillac Seville and a Ford Taurus—three cars to make one big delivery at say, Tower Cafe. I had to work up to affording a van. The customers got a real kick out of it. I’d dress up real nice, park six blocks away, walk in, and I had a nice service to offer them. Then the next day when they look out to see what they’d ordered, up pulls a ‘79 Honda with produce in the trunk. But the product was good, and these restaurants were good to us.

Now we deliver seven days a week out of San Francisco, four vans and a 24-foot refrigerated truck, and this location, and a stall in San Francisco, too.

You trust the meat to your dad?

Dad’s the best. He’s even helped Biba cut the meat for her cookbooks. So I stand back and watch. We’ve got an 1893 sausage machine, hand crank. The reason the sausage is so good is because Dad makes it.

What made you decide to open a retail operation?

The business was growing and I needed to buy a little more than we needed each day to have on hand, so we needed a little storage. We used my father’s garage because, frankly, that’s what we could afford. But the neighbors weren’t too hot on that. Four o’clock in the morning and you’ve got four guys with dollies and a truck running around in the street. That’s just not what they want next door. So we leased this place to use as storage and ran out of the back. The folks we were leasing from wanted to lease the whole thing, which kind of scared me because things just started growing so fast. But rather than lose the space, we went ahead and leased the whole thing. So one day I just took a saw, cut through the wall and started cleaning it up. I sold a case of tomatoes and a case of avocados and bought some brick to fix it up. We did all the work ourselves.

How did you come up with the idea to make it look like an old-fashioned market?

This counter was from Rick’s Uptown Market. I was in there one day looking at the meat and I saw this counter in the back, so I asked about it. We made a deal that mostly involved me getting it out of there. The produce counter was from Selland’s on H Street. We’ve got some pillars that came from a house in Land Park. There’s some stuff here from Habanero on J Street. The antique meat grinder is from David Berkley’s. Literally, it’s all just pieces of Sacramento that we cleaned up and refinished and put back to work.

What’s the plan now?

I’m just slowly taking my inventory and making it available to the retail market. We’re hoping to attract the people who want the quality of food they get in the restaurants, but they want to do the cooking themselves.

Can we get the secret to the meat loaf and the minestrone?

The meat loaf is Dad’s mother’s recipe. He uses a little bit of pork. Then he uses sourdough bread crumbs, soaks ’em in milk. He doesn’t put ketchup in it. Now, the secret to the minestrone is also the meat. We use pieces of prosciutto in it, and use the rind from the prosciutto in the stock. It’s all about using good ingredients from the start.