by Roger Steiner

Big John's PFI
1001 Sixth Ave S, Level B, 682-2022

Tues-Wed and Fri 9 am-5:30 pm, Thurs 9 am-6:30 pm, Sat 10 am-4 pm.

Food whores, I have found our Überpimp. His name is John Croce, he's about to turn 80, he makes his own Zinfandel, and if you've never been to his imported-foods store, you're in for the shopping-cart ride of your life.

In 1971, Big John took a $2,000 gamble, importing 100 cases of Spanish olive oil for local grocers to stock. The oil sold out immediately, and that's how Big John's PFI (for Pacific Food Importers) began. He now supplies stores throughout the Northwest and Alaska with foods from the world over, with a focus on European and Mediterranean delights. According to Big John, the retail store is something of an afterthought, a way for people to "shop the warehouse" (the real warehouse is a mile from the store and 10 times its size) without suffering the usual hefty markup of imported specialty foods. PFI boasts a selection of products far too wide to list here, but imagine Belgian raspberry preserves, Israeli tahini, bulk cardamom pods, phyllo dough, candied citron peel, and an entire aisle of Italian pastas and you begin to get the idea.

With the holidays fast approaching, I decided to have a rehearsal holiday party for you (the sacrifices I make). I decided you wanted to have an open house with unpretentious but elegant food, you didn't want to spend your whole paycheck, and you wanted to put forth as little effort as possible (maximum preparation time 45 minutes). With some prudent shopping at PFI, I dare say you made out like a bandit. For $75.88, 12 of us enjoyed a meal composed entirely of hors d'oeuvres from boxes, cans, and bags, and though you did little more than crank the can opener, somehow you came out looking like somebody with a fair amount of culinary savvy.

Spending some time perusing the aisles is a form of entertainment in itself, and I recommend picking out a few things you've never heard of or tried, because you may accidentally stumble upon your new favorite thing. We discovered a few gems: The cheese case is huge, but don't miss the Dutch BeemsterKaas ($7.65) or the Dutch goat cheese with potato ($7.35). The BeemsterKaas has cheddarlike qualities with much more complexity, hints of toasted almond and melted butter, and tiny crystals that melt away as you eat it. The potato goat cheese is firm yet creamy, and the goat's milk is pleasantly subtle. There is a one-pound minimum on cheese, so don't buy one because it looks pretty. The friendly, knowledgeable staff is happy to give you a taste of anything.

Other favorites included soppressata (Italian salami, $7.35/lb.), and for dessert, the Belgian chocolate-covered butter biscuits by Jules Destrooper ($2.30/box) were a big hit. We tried Latvian smoked sprats (sardinelike but less fishy, 85 cents), stuffed grape leaves from Turkey ($2.45/can), mixed olives ($5.25/lb.), breadsticks ($1.60/box), Icelandic lumpfish black caviar ($5.60/jar), and the list goes on. At the end of the evening came my Martha Moment, when I gave each departing couple a bar of rustic-looking Greek olive oil soap, which I spent five minutes tying ribbons around before they arrived. I wouldn't normally do this. I did it for you (soap: 80 cents a chunk).

Big John takes a lot of pleasure in being able to bring such delicacies from across the globe. His store exudes this pleasure, from its physical appearance to its unpretentious staff, and his approach to food is beautifully Old World, which explains his enduring success. Many people stereotype certain foods because they cost a lot of money, they're "exotic," they're difficult to find, or merely because they aren't part of our everyday diet. A lot of food vendors have played this to their advantage, and trained the public to think that spending your whole paycheck on some good cheese and olives is just the way it has to be. Hence, good food has become synonymous with Hummer-driving bobos, which I do believe is among the ugliest of American phenomena. Keep your dollar local and independent, and have a fabulous, chip-free holiday party.

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