Jimmy’s Food Store, Dallas’ beloved ma and pa grocer turned Italian specialty shop, is now 50 years old. Their sausage and meatballs are the best in town — having them on the menu is a good get for virtually any restaurant. These folks have a complicated understanding of what Italians want. They have deep roots in Dallas, and they have been working at Jimmy’s most of their lives.
Brothers Paul and Mike DiCarlo have been working at Jimmy’s since their early teens. Mike seems sure he started at 12, right after the store opened. The two guess that Paul, who is five years younger, started at 11. It was a business their grandfather and father — both named James — started in 1966. Prior to Jimmy’s, another independent grocery store ran in the family in South Dallas for more than 20 years.
“It’s just what you did,” Paul says about starting work at such a young age. The brothers are sitting in one of the best backrooms in the city, a great place to drink wine, eat one of those incredible sandwiches or both. “It’s cheap labor,” he continues, and they both laugh. When Jimmy’s first opened, there were only three employees who weren’t part of the family. “Lester, Sam and Jesse,” Paul says with a smile. “I remember them.”
They are proud to have employees who have stayed for decades. At Jimmy’s, the staff knows many of their customers on a first name basis; many have been patrons for years. But what’s striking is how important the staff makes customers feel. There is great pride in this work and customer feedback helps them cater to every region of Italy, particularly with the wine collection.
And that’s not to mention Native Italians, American-Italians, Italians from New York and countless other cities. After 30 years as a general grocery store with a variety of exports from Africa, Cuba and Mexico, the brothers decided to specialize in Italian goods in order to survive competition with supermarkets.
The move paid off, but catering to the wants and needs of many different types of Italians did not simplify things. “St. Louis Italians, Philadelphia Italians,” Paul says. “Kansas City,” Mike adds. “Everyone has their own take on how they grew up,” Paul says. “We try to satisfy them all.”
Rising to the expectations of customers accustomed to Italian food from New York and Chicago was a notable achievement. “It’s such a good quality of food,” Mike says. “Everything tasted better. We had to up our level.” “You learn from the customers,” Paul says. They are so close with some of their customers that they're often spotted helping other customers find what they're looking for.
What makes Jimmy's sausage, meatballs and lasagna so damn good? Recipes from their mother and grandmother and a focus on fresh ingredients. “Our sausage is something we take a lot of pride in,” Paul says. “That was from our grandfather’s recipe.” They are also proud to work with regional farmers and businesses, using fresh ingredients and stocking their shelves with many local products.
The Italian sausage and meatballs also have a strong following. If you see either as an option at a pizza place, treat it as a seal of authenticity. Buy the sausage and meatballs straight from Jimmy’s deli. Take it home, cook it and you have catnip for anyone who eats meat. The lasagna is badass, the cannolis are to die for and who knew an olive oil game could be so strong?
In 2004, a fire struck Jimmy's, requiring massive restoration. Indomitably, Jimmy’s functioned in a makeshift state out of a liquor store for a year. Then they opened the restored space, enlarged to allow them to continue with this shift in focus by expanding the wine collection. Their wine events are so popular that winemakers sometimes attend. Not only that, but attendees are sometimes interested enough to go visit the winemaker and tour the region of Italy they come from.
Mike and Paul’s sister, Mary DiCarlo Francis, brought wicked Italian desserts to the mix in 2005. Bakeries in New Orleans had provided many of these sweets for years, but Hurricane Katrina changed that. Her recipes represent four generations of her family. She makes fig cookies with a recipe from her great grandmother. They're not only labor-intensive, but take three days to make. Francis also makes some of the most tempting Italian cakes you will ever encounter.
It’s been mostly smooth sailing since then, with Jimmy’s being the to go-to grocer for anything Italian for many loyal customers. The business of being an independent grocer in this day and age is tough. But planting roots and paying attention to customers pays off. Now that they own the building, a level of overhead is removed that allows them to make their prices competitive.
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But there also was the time someone drove through the front window a few years back. “Poor lady,” Paul says. She hit the gas instead of the brake and went right through the store. Luckily, no one was sitting at any of the tables she knocked over and no one was hurt. “It was an inch on each side,” Mike says. “The car went perfectly through that window.”
This likely saved the building from more extensive damage and helped the driver avoid injury. But in true style, Jimmy’s stayed open. “After the fire that seemed minor,” Paul shrugs. And without missing a beat, people still wanted their sandwiches. They walked on glass and made their way back to the deli.
To celebrate the 50th anniversary, Jimmy’s will have flash sales and events, with alerts showing up on their Facebook page or sent to e-mail subscribers — 200 cases of San Marzano tomatoes were sold in two days after going on sale last month. The brothers aren’t offering any hints of what’s to come, but expect some of these deals to only be available for a couple hours.
Jimmy's Food Store, 4901 Bryan St., 214-823-6180