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Traverso's was go-to market for Santa Rosa foodies

  • Traverso's Gourmet Foods & Liquors co-owner, George Traverso, stands in the family's new Fountaingrove location, which they have occupied for 18 months. Shot on Thursday October 28, 2010 for Santa Rosa magazine. ( Photo by Charlie Gesell )

On a sunny afternoon in October, Michael Traverso, great-grandson of Traverso's founder Charlie Traverso, tears a yellow carbon copy from a receipt book, hands it to a customer, tucks the original under the cash drawer and closes the register. At the end of the month, Traverso's will mail a statement and the customer will send a check. The store still has about 20 customers with charge accounts, down from a peak of 80.

<NO1><NO><NO1><NO>There's no scanner at Traverso's, rendering black-and-white-striped bar codes irrelevant. Until the 1990s, purchases were rung up on a hand-cranked adding machine. With few exceptions, business is conducted as it always has been, with old-fashioned customer service, including charge accounts, and properly sliced prosciutto trumping "efficiency."

Slicing cured meats like pancetta, sopressata and mortadella takes skill and knowledge, as does breaking cheeses like Parmigiano-Reggiano into retail portions. Improper handling and incorrect techniques destroy the subtleties of taste and texture that aficionados treasure. Since 1987, Claudio Valentina has been Traverso's specialist, his skills one of myriad reasons the store has such a dedicated following.

Yet customer loyalty and wisdom accumulated over decades haven't been enough to overcome tough economic times and growing competition. Later this month, the store will change hands.

"Today, even Costco has salami," says George Traverso, Charlie's grandson and Michael's father, adding that although Costco may sell it, they don't know how to slice it correctly.

Traverso's Market opened in 1933 and for 87 of its 89 years operated in downtown Santa Rosa, moving three times. For decades, if you needed, say, polenta, you went to Traverso's, one of very few sources county-wide for the Italian products that today are everywhere. Oliver's and Pacific markets have specialty cheese departments and sell imported pasta, rice, olive oil, pancetta and more. Even Safeway has salt cod.

In 1973, Traverso's moved to its final downtown location at Third and B streets, where it both witnessed and facilitated the transformation of the American palate. An increasing number of Americans were traveling to Europe and both California and Wine Country cuisines were in their nascence. Demand for new ingredients grew and Traverso's responded, as it always had, by searching for anything a customer requested, no matter how obscure.

Soon, Traverso's became <CF102>the</CF> source for such products as golden caviar; foie gras; duck confit; suave Dijon mustard from a small producer in Provence; Vialone Nano, arguably the best rice for risotto; traditional balsamic vinegar; late-harvest olive oil from Liguria; <CF102>jamon serrano</CF>, the highly prized Spanish cured ham and, in late 2007, the exotic liqueur absinthe. Just days after a century-long ban was lifted, Traverso's had it.

"There was a mushroom-flavored bouillon cube that we couldn't get," George recalls, "because it couldn't be imported."

Otherwise, if it was available and a customer asked for it, Traverso's found it.

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