Some come by it by chance, but the overwhelming majority of customers who crowd (and we do mean crowd) the aisles of Cioffi’s Meat Market & Deli any day of the week come there forearmed with a shopping list, and with room to be inspired by the plethora of culinary delights on display. To shop at Cioffi’s is to be inspired, really. Inspired to cook, to explore, and most of all, to eat. And even though a second door has opened, just a few steps away, be prepared to nudge your way through, methodically, slowly.
Rino Cioffi presides over it all, his working day a blizzard of calls, texts, and e-mails from customers ranging from a nonna down the street to the University of British Columbia, with plenty of restaurants and large groups thrown in. It is all about taking and filling orders, some with more advance notice than others, with emergency requirements coming daily. Sergio, Rino’s brother, is a fixture also, making the entire operation, including Rino’s wife, Kristy, a steadfastly family affair. There is now a warehouse, complete with a fleet of 10 delivery vans, huge walk-in freezer, and meat locker, along with vast volumes of such things as San Marzano canned tomatoes; arborio rice; Italian bottled waters; pastas of all sizes, shapes, and colours; and the most amazing array of meats to be found anywhere.
There are several white-coated butchers working here, each with a world of knowledge and each with a loyal following. And there is, with a nod to Bruce Springsteen, a chicken man, too. But Cioffi’s is also accommodating to special orders. As Rino says, “Almost everyone has their own recipe for stuffing a veal roast, for example. Some want pine nut, raisins. Others think it is sacrilege to put anything but herbs and cheese in there.” It is all part of what makes this place so vibrant, bustling. Everyone can feel like somewhat of an expert and yet be guided by the sure hands of the staff—Rino himself one moment in the coffee aisle (“I like to change my coffees at home. I don’t stick to only one brand.”), the next behind the deli counter discussing cheese, and then back discussing chickens being trussed. “It was 24 years ago my father, Antonio, and I opened this place. February 28, 1989. We worked all day serving customers, then all evening stocking the shelves and preparing things for the next day,” recalls Rino. “It was hard work for sure. And I used to get jealous, because I thought I was a pretty good butcher, but everyone insisted on seeing my dad.”
“For me, it is really simple: from cheese to bread, pasta to sausage, I want to give the best.”
Customers defy categorization. There are the older-generation Italians, certainly, many of whom immigrated in the late 1940s and early 1950s. There are the gourmet hounds, in search of the latest specialty sun-dried tomato or real Italian burrata, flown in fresh twice a week. And there is a whole younger crowd, who, as Rino says, “love their gluten-free products and insist on local, organic, free-range meats. Over the past few years, we have really worked hard, finding the best local suppliers for such things as duck and pork. Things have come a long way in terms of local quality.”
Some of those suppliers include Fraser Valley Duck and Goose, Heritage Angus, White Veal from Quebec, and Hallmark Poultry. The Angus is “grass fed, free range. It is a great product,” says Rino. And yes, there is 48-day aged (or any age you request) steak available. It is remarkable, so you owe it to yourself to try it, at least once, on a special occasion, like when you are home alone for once and can have the whole thing to yourself.
There is enough of the exotic to keep everyone happy. Lamb neck, beef tongue, heart, liver of course, Berkshire pork, wild boar, quail, elk, rabbit. “For me, it is really simple: from cheese to bread, pasta to sausage, I want to give the best.” Rino says this with a certain emphasis, since his intimate knowledge of the grocery and produce supply chain means he knows how relatively easy it might be to cut a corner here or there. “In the long run, your customers know if they are being treated right. We grate Parmesan fresh, not the day before—that’s one good example.”
The wholesale, the in-store kitchen making take-away meals, and the catering sides of this business keep Rino buzzing with activity all day long, but the soul of the retail shops is what makes this a place for the ages. The handmade sausages; the kaleidoscope of olives; fresh bread; pasta for any sauce, and the sauces too; and the crowds. All sufficient reason to come to Cioffi’s. But be warned: one canvas shopping bag will not be enough.