If you live in East Dallas, you probably have a trip to Jimmy's Food Store at Bryan and Fitzhugh on your weekly to-do list. (Or at least, you ought to.) This neighborhood institution has been serving up some of the best Italian sausage and meatballs in town to locals since James DiCarlo founded the market in 1966. Until 1997, though, you could only get those specialties at Jimmy's during the holidays. Before becoming the city's best Italian deli, Jimmy's was a neighborhood grocery store for the diverse group of immigrants that populated East Dallas. People from far-off lands like Laos, Cambodia, Mexico and Cuba bought traditional kitchen staples like rice, tripe, and plantains from Jimmy's until the DiCarlo brothers decided to focus exclusively on Italian goods in 1997.
Mike DiCarlo (right) and his brother Paul grew up with Jimmy's Food Store after their father closed his South Dallas supermarket in 1966. "He bought this store when he went into semi-retirement," DiCarlo says. "I was 13 years old, in the seventh grade at St. Thomas. When I first walked in the store, I asked my dad, 'What on earth did you buy this thing for?' It looked so much smaller than the big supermarket he had before."
The Italian sausage recipe that helped transform Jimmy's into what it is today comes from DiCarlo's paternal grandfather. "If you know anything about Italian families, you know that everybody's mother makes the best sauce, and everybody's father has the best sausage recipe," he explains. "Whatever you grew up with, that's the best." Now, the sausage is served at nearly two dozen of the city's best restaurants, and the staff at Jimmy's cranks out at least 2,500 pounds of the spicy links every week.
The process of making Jimmy's regionally famous Italian sausage is actually quite simple. "One batch of sausage takes about 45 minutes, but you have to do it all day," says DiCarlo. "We start making sausage at 8 in the morning, and make it until 8 p.m. six days a week. We cut up the pork butts, mix in the ingredients, put it through the grinder, then into the casing."
DiCarlo wasn't willing to disclose any of the ingredients that make his Italian sausage so delicious, but he did dish a little about the store's meatballs. His grandmother Rosa came up with the recipe, and his mother Marie DiCarlo hand-rolled the store's meatballs for many years. A touch of parsley and garlic powder, believe it or not, is what Mike DiCarlo believes sets these meatballs apart from everybody else's.
But you shouldn't assume that DiCarlo had a childhood reminiscent of something that you'd see on The Sopranos, and you won't find his home fridge full of cured meats and mozzarella di bufala. "I'm a Texas Italian. I don't speak Italian, I don't like soccer, and I don't dress like a sissy," he says. "I didn't grow up with prosciutto, I didn't know what capicola was, and I thought salami came from Hormel. We only eat meatballs or sausage at the holidays, because you get tired of this stuff after a while. I'd rather have Chinese food or something after being in the store all day."
But, for those of us that don't spend our days surrounded by some of Italy's finest food offerings, Jimmy's serves up some stellar sandwiches made from their rows of salumi supplies and sausages. Even though it isn't traditionally Italian, the Cuban sandwich here is a customer favorite. "We use porchetta instead of Cuban pork, so there's a little Italian twist," says DiCarlo. "We also use a hot sauce from Trinidad called Calypso, and a traditional mojo marinade. It's very Miami, but also very Jimmy's."
— Amy McCarthy