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The sun shines brightly in Aisle 3 of the Mars supermarket at the corner of Northern Parkway and Loch Raven Boulevard. There, punchy yellow labels of Sun of Italy brand cocktail onions and artichoke hearts share shelf space with a slightly ominous jar of the brand’s ground hot cherry peppers, a seed-speckled mass of crushed red that looks like it should come with a warning. Nearby, a 128-ounce container of sweet onions, a giant jar of day-glo yellow bearing the same label, begs the question, “Who can eat this many onions and still keep the company of other human beings?” (The giant jars are popular for family barbecues, the store manager surmises.)
The Sun of Italy label encompasses more than 100 products from spices to gnocchi, but somehow I always associate the brand with canned tomatoes whose vintage label goes right for my soft spot with its classic navy banner on a field of yellow, an old-fashioned color combination seen mostly in vintage football uniforms and old gasoline company logos. Plenty of labels for canned tomatoes have renderings of the fruit on them, but Sun of Italy’s tomatoes somehow look more muscular and meatier. They have curves like bodybuilders or bombshells and a spiky crown at their stem. They have lush leaves, possibly basil, cosseting their tender roundness.
Then there is the poetic name, Sun of Italy, written in English on one side of the label, and in Italian on the back. Sole d’Italia. It trips off the tongue suggesting a brighter, warmer, lusher place. How could you not want to buy something that mingles the climate and product of Italy all in a can? Indeed, a recent purchase of a can of tomatoes (to make sauce, natch) prompted me to seek out the story behind the label.
On a breezy Wednesday morning, I drive to East Baltimore to meet the current owners of Sun of Italy, Mary Ann and Michael Pastore Sr., at their facility in the 6100 block of East Lombard Street, just behind John Hopkins Bayview Medical Center.
I pull in the parking lot expecting to smell tomatoes and Italian spices, garlic and vinegar. Instead, I smell… nothing. The Pastores own the Sun of Italy label, Mary Ann later explains, but they don’t manufacture any of their items. Instead, the company purchases good quality foodstuffs that they sell wholesale under the Sun of Italy brand.
I have to admit I’m a little disappointed that I won’t see the conveyor belts and hear the machinery clank of a Willy Wonka factory works, but I’m still looking forward to hearing the history of Sun of Italy. Then the Pastores explain that while their family has been in the Italian food business for five generations, they have only owned the Sun of Italy label for the last 30 years, having purchased it from Joseph Vaccarino in 1982. Sun of Italy products are now distributed to specialty stores and supermarkets in Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and Virginia. How the label itself came about, however, they really don’t know.
Still, the Pastores are all hospitality, and Mary Ann takes me on a tour of the warehouse, a cleaner-than-your-grandmother’s-kitchen room of stack upon stack of yellow-labeled containers of breadcrumbs and vinegar, olives and artichoke hearts. My brain and stomach together plot all the things I could be making if given free rein in this giant pantry. At the end of the tour, the Pastores send me home with a jar of spice mix, a packet of gnocchi, a recipe pamphlet called “Mama Mary’s Cook Book,” prize-winning Italian recipes from Mary Pastore (Mike Pastore’s grandmother)— and a desire to get to the bottom of the Sun of Italy story.
I Google “Joseph Vaccarino” and find Joe Vaccarino’s “Baltimore Sounds,” a website dedicated to the history of Baltimore-based pop music. I send him an email, and shortly afterward receive a phone call from his father, Brig. Gen. Isidore John Vaccarino, Maryland National Guard, retired, whose father, Joseph Vaccarino, he tells me, introduced the Sun of Italy label to Baltimore.
The elder Vaccarino’s grandparents owned an Italian grocery store under the family name at the corner of Stiles and High streets in Little Italy, so it wasn’t a stretch when Joseph opened a wholesale Italian food distributorship in a former synagogue at Pratt and Albemarle streets in the late 1930s. The business served independent Italian grocers in Baltimore and D.C., exclusively, explains John Vaccarino. “My father refused to have anything to do with the chain stores,” he says. Somewhere along the way, the business took on the name Sun of Italy.
Although John Vaccarino never worked formally in the family business, he remembers the warehouse with its florid second-floor chandelier, left over from the building’s temple days, and the wooden floor that was so affected by rain, it was wavy.
His father would keep big heads of imported cheese that weighed between 20 or 30 pounds in the warehouse, says Vaccarino, and he remembers Joseph “wiping them down with a mixture of salt and vinegar to coax the worms out of the cheese.” Yes, worms. “[The wheels] didn’t come in the sealed containers like today,” he adds. “The cheese was bare.” Periodically, Joseph Vaccarino would insert a small apple corer into the cheese and pull out a sample to taste. When he was satisfied it was ready, says John, he would cut it up and take it for sale.
During tomato season, recalls Vaccarino, California packing houses would ship tomato samples to the company, and he and his parents and sisters would gather around the kitchen table and sample each tomato to determine which was good enough for the Sun of Italy label.
When it comes right down to it, however, the origins of the label and its name are a little murky even to the Vaccarino family. “We would like to say it originated with [my father],” says John, “but we always heard he ‘acquired’ it,” rather than invented it, and John and his sisters suspect their father purchased the rights to the name from an Italian food purveyor.
Invented or acquired, Sun of Italy, says Vaccarino, “was my family’s life,” as it is now part of three generations of the Pastore family’s lives. And while the latter family has expanded the Sun of Italy offerings beyond tomatoes, cheese and olive oil, “the label is exactly the same,” says John Vaccarino. He keeps an unopened tin of Sun of Italy olive oil as a souvenir of his father’s tenure in the business, a family memory bound in a blue and yellow label.