I think by now everyone knows I am a real fan of the various markets happening on a regular basis around the Nelson region and one of our favourite food producers who has been a regular at most of them is the Italian Kitchen owned by Vinny and Janine Di Luca.
Tomorrow will be their last day at the Nelson Farmers Market in Morrison Square, they are retiring after creating and serving wonderfully fresh Italian treats for eight years so I thought it would be worth talking with them about their market stall business.
For me the success of a market stall is all about authenticity whether it is fresh fruit and vegetables or delicious ready-to-eat food, it has to be what it claims to be; you can buy authentic Italian pasta from many places but at a market you get to talk to the people who have created the food and for me that is a big part of my love of markets.
The thing that excites me about this couple is that they are so excited about what they do, when you spend any time at all talking with Vinny his love for the produce they make shines brightly and when Janine gets a chance to say something you just know she is proud to serve the food they make fresh for each market.
Vinny is pure Italian, born just outside Naples, but sprinkled with international flavourings. When he left school he started working as a waiter on a ship that traveled between Italy and Australia, he met Janine on the boat during one trip.
“She was the tourist and I was the worker, about a week after the trip started the boat went to Fiji and out of the blue a big, warm, rain and thunder storm caught everyone by surprise, we both took shelter in a café and that is where we met.
“Six weeks later a relationship had blossomed and carried on in real life rather than just holiday life.”
Janine’s parents were originally from Manchester however she was born in NZ after her parents migrated here and then when she was a teenager the family moved to South Africa.
“As a 15 year old going to apartheid South Africa it was really difficult, I only stayed with my family for about four years and decided to travel, I came back to New Zealand first then started travelling the world, went to Italy and met Vinny on the boat and that changed all my plans.”
It was 1975 and Janine’s parents were still living in Cape Town, “so I sent her back to her parents and followed five months later to live in South Africa with her but South Africa didn’t work out, I couldn’t get immigration status because I was only a waiter, I phoned Janine and said she could choose friends and family or to be with me in Naples, she chose Italy and me” he says with a huge smile.
About six months later they married in Italy, went to the New Zealand consulate in Rome and asked if he could migrate to NZ, “two days later I had permanent residency to live in New Zealand, it was amazing and I was just so happy to be able to start a new life with Janine”.
The trip to New Zealand was on the same boat he used to work on and they arrived here with 10 cents Italian money and lived with Janine’s aunty in Auckland, before they arrived she had found him a job in a top Auckland restaurant of the day, Bonaparte’s.
Then Janine found a job in a little restaurant in Mt Eden and after a few months of hard work and saving as much as they could the young couple had a few thousand dollars in the bank, “we thought we were rich!” says Vinnie, “we had to decide if we were going to have a family or buy a house, for Italians family is like church so we started a family and have three adult daughters and six grandsons.”
In their mid-forties, with a young family and living in their own home, they decided to buy their first restaurant, “we thought why are we working for a boss so we mortgaged our house to buy a restaurant in Birkenhead in Auckland that served Greek food, we turned it into an Italian restaurant called Bellissimo and it wasn’t long before you had to book if you wanted a seat on Thursday, Friday or Saturday.”
After six years running a very successful restaurant in Auckland, they found the work was too much and Auckland was getting too busy for them so they moved to Thames, “it was close enough to two of our daughters who were still living in Auckland and we ended up with another restaurant.”
This time it was an old fish & chip place they turned into an Italian restaurant called Di Luca’s and made it one of the top two restaurants in Thames.”
Six years after moving to Thames their eldest daughter had moved from Arrowtown to Nelson with their first grandchild and, so they could be with their grandchildren as they grew up, they moved to Nelson too in 2009.
“When we arrived we were in our mid-fifties and were looking for something to do, we didn’t want to open a restaurant but with our experience, love for food and because we love meeting people we decided to set up a market business meaning we could have time with our grandchildren and an income too” says Janine.
They set up the Italian Kitchen selling fresh pasta, pasta meals, cakes and doughnuts at the Saturday Market then joined the Farmers Market just as it was relocating from Founders Park to Morrison Square.
For this outgoing couple who have “been married for nearly 42 years, have worked together for 20 years and still love one another like it was day one most of the time” says Janine with a laugh, the market business has been great because of the social nature of the markets.
In fact they have so much fun Janine says Vinny is better working in the back or he spends too much time talking and nothing gets cooked.
They make all the food fresh the day before the market or cook it at the markets, Janine does the baking and makes brioche while Vinny makes the pasta and doughnut mix at home then cooks them fresh at the market, “doughnuts are one of our biggest sellers, we sell dozens of them at every market.”
So as retirement day looms large what will they miss?
Without any hesitation Janine says “the people, but not waking up at 5.30 every Saturday and we won’t miss the bad weather but we know lots of people by their first names and we know what they buy each week so it is our regular customers we will really miss and I think they will miss some of the things we make, especially the gluten free pasta and the pizza dough”.
While they are still healthy and active, spending time with the grand kids is really important to Janine while Vinny wants to spend time in his beloved vegetable garden.
Tomorrow will be the last Nelson Farmers Market for the Italian Kitchen and their last market ever will be the Isel Twilight Market on Thursday.
Janine and Vinny say “Thanks to all of our lovely customers, we will miss you” and I know I am going to miss the Italian Kitchen pizza dough.