‘Don’t forget the Nutella,’ Sonia remarks when she sees me jotting our grocery list into my trusty Field Notes. She doesn’t mean just any Nutella though, but the good stuff — the one made in Italy, much thicker and nuttier compared to the American-made version. There aren’t many places around these parts that carry it. Vincenzo’s in Waterloo is one of them, and I’m happy for any excuse to pick up another jar – and to visit this most amazing Uptown grocer.

Tomorrow my spouse Sonia and I are having family over for brunch and Vincenzo’s is one of our favourite places to begin our prep. We’ll be making a savoury tart. The ‘choose your-own-adventure’ of tarts. It’s perfect for any occasion, and Vincenzo’s ample variety of everything we need offers an endless range of flavour combinations. Shopping at Vincenzo’s is a grocery experience like no other. It’s intimate. And stimulating. The carts are small and the aisles are narrow, and they’re packed with an enticing variety of products – many of which are locally-sourced and many that are imported from Europe and elsewhere across the globe. Shopping at Vincenzo’s is a truly worldly experience: one where regulars who embrace the place as their local grocer mix with a stream of adventurers who’ve been told this amazingly well-stocked and thoughtfully-curated delicatessen is a place they must visit if they find themselves anywhere nearby. After all, there’s nothing simple or ordinary about the breads, condiments, meats, fish, cheeses, fruits and greens, sweets, fresh pasta, and all sorts of other well-curated treats Vincenzo’s has to offer.

When we arrive, Sonia and I start making our way through aisles of preserves, seltzers, hot sauces, oils, when suddenly, located smack in the middle of the busy aisles, we come across a Korean pop-up by Taste of Seoul serving authentic Asian-fusion dishes – including spicy chicken and cabbage pancakes. We catch ourselves reading the menu and ogling the dishes being served and agree to circle back later, once we’ve made it through our list. We proceed to browse, marveling at the colourful fresh pasta as we make our way to the fantastic olive bar. There’s bins of them. Every type, size, and colour, it seems. Enough variety to satisfy the diverse tastes of my family, for whom olives have always been a special treat. In fact, when we first moved to the area from Toronto, we all missed our beloved Cheese Boutique on Bloor Street so I would often go on driving adventures with my mom to search them out (perhaps that’s where I got my love of daytripping around the region), and Vincenzo’s was one of our favourite stops.

It was on Belmont Ave back then (next to where Arabella Park is at present), and only a third the size it is now. But it was well worth the drive for olives and other culinary treasures that seemed not to be available anywhere else. (My TOQUE Partner Chris’ mom remembers shopping for lasagna noodles and ricotta and other exotic cheeses in the earliest iteration of this Italian grocer, which, well into the ‘80s, occupied the lower level of the founder’s family home on Bridgeport. The brothers who own the place now, Tony and Carmine, were teenagers then – helping out in the small family business then managed by their father, Vincenzo.)

Back to our list. We grab some pesto for the tart base. (A tomato sauce could work as well, depending on what other flavours we decide for the tart.) Next, cheese – a pretty key part of this dish. Vincenzo’s massive array of cheeses does not make this an easy decision. The smoked cheddar could be a great pairing with apple, but today we’re wanting something a bit richer. For this tart, we’re thinking a semi-hard Swiss cheese such as Emmental is a great option, but we put it back and opt for Gruyère. A touch bolder and punchier. (Incidentally, if you love Gruyère, Vincenzo’s sells huge quarter wheels of it – but we only need about two cups plus a little more for snacking next week, so an averagesized package will do.)\

We push on towards the bakery at the back of the store and, resisting the fresh croissants, grab some frozen pastry dough out of the freezer.

We always anticipate our visits to the deli bars, which is where we really feel the hustle and bustle of a market. To the left is a hot counter, to the right the sandwich bar, and across from them the salad bar. This is the place to be if you’re looking for lunch or a quick meal. Sushi. Dolmas. Caprese salad. Amazing sandwiches made to order. It’s all here. We grab a number from the dispenser and rub elbows with the regulars. It feels like an exciting game of bingo, with people’s hands shooting in the air as their number is hollered and they excuse themselves from their casual conversations. With five deli slicers going at once and staff whizzing about, our number is called surprisingly fast. Sonia orders some thinly-sliced Canadian prosciutto. (Black forest ham or chorizo would also be great options for the tart.)

 We pass the Bauer Butcher and Caudle’s Catch seafood counters and head to the dairy case, picking up some freshly-squeezed orange juice and locally-sourced cream as well as heritage eggs from Murray’s Farm — a Cambridge-based farm whose pasture-running hens are known for their colourful eggs. Our carton contains a vibrant variety of browns and whites, along with a vivid soft blue that’s similar to the hue of a robin’s egg.

It’s time to pick up some snacks for the road. Kombucha for Sonia. Refresh Juice’s Savoury Greens for me. Back at the Asian fusion pop-up, Sonia settles on the cabbage pancake set that includes noodles and salad. (She’ll later wish that I had ordered my own, as I can’t resist pecking on hers.) We make a final stop in the produce section for some basil, onion, garlic and spinach, and some berries and fresh figs that will pair well with the prosciutto.

The next morning early, we get to work on the tart. We blanch the spinach, caramelize the onions, and whisk together eggs, cream, and shredded cheese. Then it’s as easy as making a pizza and layering onto the stretched out pastry dough. We pop it into the oven and do some last-minute tidying. The cheese begins to bubble and aromas fill the air as our guests arrive for brunch. Served with fresh coffee, orange juice, olives and pepperettes, our ‘choose-your-own adventure’ tart allows us all to cozy up and savour this family tradition.

A tradition that begins, each time, at Vincenzo’s.