While I live in a metro area, I still find it hard to find truly ethnic stores and foods without a bit of travel. New Jersey has 21 Counties, and each and every single one of them is within a major city, which make the taxes high, but I only wish that would also come with easily found ethnic stores and markets.
New Jersey has the highest density of Italians than any other state in the USA. So, you would think that Italian food markets would be abundant. Maybe they are, but by my experience they are not, or, they are simply more Americanized delis whose grandparents are very far removed from the old country in Europe.
There are some, and maybe I am not looking hard enough, but there is Vitamia in Lodi, NJ, all Sicilian born and that block is mostly Italian & Sicilian businesses. But today I was at A&A Fine Foods in Lincoln Park. I managed to find Mario Batali’s favorite olive oil from Sicily (Frantoia), and, cheaper than what it sells for on Amazon. I found a great number of dried pastas I could not find anywhere else, and they even make their own classics, like marinara, clam sauce and of course pasta e fagiole. Naturally, these are any dish a true Italian could cook without a recipe off the top of the head, but sometimes, its nice to buy it from an authentic place (not from a can) and see how close they come. Everyone has their own version, and while it might not be what you are used to, at least you tried another version of it, if for no other reason, to realize yours is the best or, you can learn to improve your own recipe over your mother’s or grandparents.
Not everything might be a winner in these authentic food stores. I found that the salt-packed anchovies are NOT better than the oil packed ones most Americans are used to. I don’t like a lot of salt and water I have to wash off to eat one. I prefer the mostly de-boned anchovies packed in oil without the tail, extra bones and quite frankly, they do taste better than what most famous chefs claim over the salt-packed variety. Either you love anchovy or you don’t. If you do, you either love them fried whole or skinned and in oil, but salt packed in a can, no thank you.
A Sicilian favorite… arancini – shaped and colored like an orange, its actually leftover rice deep fried, and sometimes with cheese, peas, veal, beef, or something else in the middle. They are delicious, and while I love them, I hope they are made with arborio rice which is fully cooked, not regular white rice partially cooked. Everyone has their way, and no one way is correct, but there is always one particular way you like it and the way your family prepared it that you like best.
In this particular store I was happy to find not only a wide variety of fresh and dried pasta, but frozen hand made sauces, gravy and ravioli. In addition, there were plenty of varieties of prepared foods, the freshest meats, sausages and seafood I could ever find in any big local supermarket (you would think the local supermarket would have the best/freshest with the biggest turn-around) but no, this place had it all, and in the space the size less than any convenience story or mini/quickie mart.
The problem is, these are rare finds. I recently found a Persian store in Hackensack, but it was tucked deep in between a strip mall and barely noticeable. I encourage these places to get websites and advertise and/or tie into other local sites so that people can easily find them and keep them in business. Authentic Indian food is fairly easily to find in NJ, but other ethnic foods like those mentioned prior, are not. I know of 2-3 great places to find authentic old world Italian foods within a 20-mile radius, but when it comes to Middle Eastern, Persian, Russian, Brazilian, it becomes more difficult. Asian foods like Chinese, Japanese and Indian are even easier to find.
Keep local businesses a live. Especially if they are ethnic foods. Even if you do not like Asian, I am sure you can find something in that store you like and can eat, even if its just rice, even if its a confection/dessert, even if its just something as simple as fresh fruits and vegetables. Better to buy them fresh than frozen in your local mega market chain which is moments away from turning these local places into oblivion.