So long, Rocco

Nicholas Clee pays tribute to the legendary deli owner's salamis, hams and cheeses

Rocco Donvito died last week. Customers at the Da Rocco deli in Islington had known that he was very unwell, and would find him thinner and weaker each time they visited. He spent increasing lengths of time in the back of the shop, emerging only to slice hams, salamis or cheeses - jobs that he never quite believed his wife, Cathy, would perform properly.

The stomach cancer left him incapable of digestion, a cruel fate for a man who loved food, and whose shop was a reflection of his love. His best produce was the best of its kind I have tasted from anywhere. As far as I could see, all he did with his hams, salamis and cheeses was wrap them in cling film and refrigerate them. It is not an ideal method of storage, and at many other shops it leeches moisture and taste. But Rocco's foods were always succulent and flavoursome. If you were not sure of the difference between Parma and San Daniele ham, you would be after you'd tasted his, because under his care they retained their distinctive qualities.

He sold his own stuff, too. There was fresh pasta, including lasagne and tortellini with a variety of stuffings. His home-made sausages were spiked with fennel and chilli. "Is beautiful," he would tell you. It wasn't boasting. Rather, it was like Roger Federer saying, "I was unbeatable": a straight-forward assessment.

The Blairs, in the days when they lived round here, were customers, and on the wall of the shop was a picture of Rocco with Tony Blair on the day after the 1997 election victory. Whether the Prime Minister would have got as warm a welcome recently, it is not clear. Certainly, Rocco was very cross about contemporary politics. You did not want to get him started on Islington's councillors - Lib Dem or new Labour.

His problems with the council featured in these pages some years ago when Nick Hornby wrote in the NS Diary about how Rocco - the man who sold focaccia to new Labour types - could not get anyone to sort out a supply of hot water to his home. Hornby mentioned that Rocco was not an Arsenal fan; he recalls using the phrase "sensibly Arsenal-hating". The next time he visited the shop, he was confronted by a livid Rocco shouting that the piece had finished him as a shop owner in the area. Get me a front-page apology, he demanded. When Hornby suggested that local hooligans might have missed that week's NS, and that the paper probably would not make space to clarify Rocco's feelings about Arsenal FC, Rocco barred him. It was years before Hornby returned; by then, Rocco appeared to have drawn a line under the incident.

So Rocco was not a model of retail best practice. He was passionate. That was why those of us who did not get on the wrong side of him held him in such affection. It is why this area will be a good deal poorer without him.

Nicholas Clee, the NS food columnist, is the author of Don’t Sweat the Aubergine: What Works in the Kitchen and Why (Short Books). He is a former editor of The Bookseller, and writes about books for papers including the Times, Guardian, and Times Literary Supplement.

This article first appeared in the 12 February 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni v Shia