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SPRINGFIELD – When Frigo’s Gourmet Foods opened 75 years ago, it was joined by at least 10 Italian markets in the South End.

There were plenty of customers because Frigo’s served families from northern Italy. Different parts of the country have different culinary traditions. Each market specializes in a different region, said Joe Frigo, the third-generation owner.

The popular market and deli are the last of six stops on the Springfield Preservation Trust’s walking tour this Saturday, which explores the history of the restaurants – and how this business is connected to significant buildings and downtown culture.

The idea for the tour came from Sean Johnson, the trust’s deputy executive director. He spent years traveling the world as a sailor in the US Navy. Whenever a ship entered a port, the crew would go in search of local cuisine.

He was later hired at Westover Air Force Base in Chicopee and bought a home in Springfield’s McKnight neighborhood. There he learned about the area’s tremendous variety of food options. “I started exploring the area. I went to bodegas and thought, ‘Wow, you can get a full meal here,'” Johnson said.

People could walk down Main Street and find a German restaurant, Indian food, several Puerto Rican restaurants, Italian restaurants and more in less than a mile, he said.

“Food is primarily survival, but before films and television, food was historically a social affair and eating in a restaurant was more of a luxury,” he said.

History on the menu

The tour is more casual. People meet at Stearns Square at 10:30 a.m. and stroll for less than a mile, stopping to talk about buildings, restaurants and culture.

The event is part of a series of Second Saturday walking tours the trust hosts in partnership with the Springfield Museums and sponsored by the Daboul Family Charitable Trust. Non-member participants pay $10 either in advance through Eventbrite or by check or cash the day of the tour, Johnson said.

The first stop on the tour is the Fort Restaurant, which has long been a landmark of the city.

In some cases, the tour will only stop at one location, as Johnson said he understands that restaurant owners don’t always have the time or staff to stop working or extend their hours to accommodate a group that last year included more than 70 people.

Frigo would like to invite the group and give them a tour of the store. He will show them the kitchen, the delicatessen department and the area where the popular gift baskets are made. At the last stop of the tour, he would like to offer samples of his traditional dishes to try.

He will also talk about the history of the company founded by his grandfather, who originally moved from Italy to Wisconsin with four of his brothers to make cheese.

At home in Italy, the family had a tradition of making different types of cheese, such as Parmesan, Asiago and Romano, as well as other varieties native to his homeland.

“They moved to Wisconsin because that’s where the cows were,” he said. It took a while to make the right connections, but eventually the business became successful.

Eventually his grandfather decided to try his luck again and bought what is now Frigo’s, opposite the Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel on William Street.

“The reason he moved here was the church,” he said. “He was right. The neighborhood has changed a lot, but we’re here and we’re still doing well.”

Frigo’s has also changed, with a focus now on takeaway, prepared meals and catering. People generally work long hours and have less time to prepare dinner, so they rely on his business.

His son Nicholas, who turned 24 this week, has joined the business and says it has always been his passion since he started working with his father when he was 15 or 16.

“We had to constantly remodel, expand the kitchen, the shop and the parking lot,” said Joe Frigo.

Adaptation with the times

Chef Nadim Kashouh with his “hummachos” served during the Springfield Food History Second Saturday Walking Tour on July 13 in downtown Springfield. (Don Treeger / The Republican) 7/9/2024

Although he runs a much newer restaurant, Nadim Kashouh also had to make adjustments at his eponymous restaurant, which he opened in 2000.

“We change and pivot as needed,” he said. “There are always trends and the next generation wants something different, so you have to keep up and change.”

One of the recent changes Nadim Kashouh has made at Nadim’s Downtown Mediterranean Grill is moving the bar to make more room for takeout sales, which have increased significantly since the pandemic and show little sign of slowing, he said.

As one stop on the tour, Kashouh wants to show people around the restaurant and kitchen and talk a bit about past and recent expansions, which include the addition of outdoor dining on the brick patio next to the restaurant.

Kashouh started out as a salesman and jeweler, living with his wife in the Boston area when the former Café Lebanon went bankrupt. That’s when Kashouh, who grew up in Liberia and Lebanon before immigrating to the United States in 1990, decided to open his own restaurant specializing in Mediterranean cuisine.

His wife, a nurse, was hired at Baystate Health and the family moved to Springfield.

His original restaurant was on State Street, but Kashouh decided to move downtown when space became available at 1390 Main Street.

“I love to cook. I love to eat and I love to put a smile on people’s faces,” he said.