Keeping Good Food in the Family

Long before trendy pasta restaurants began sprouting up on the Westside, Sorrento's Market was quietly selling authentic Italian food. Since 1963, in fact, the store has offered variety after variety of olives, cheeses, meats and other products, many of which are imported from Italy or made fresh locally.

The quality is high--but not the prices.

"I have kept my prices very low so people can shop here every day," said owner Albert Vera, a longtime Culver City resident and currently the city's vice mayor. "Our prices are cheaper than any chains in Los Angeles."

For years, customers from throughout the Los Angeles area have cruised the store's narrow aisles, looking for such staples as pasta, breads and olive oils and for gourmet items including Italian truffles, caper nuts and specialty wines.

Sorrento's also caters events and has a full-service deli. At lunchtime, the store fills with shoppers ranging from students to professionals.

"I like the fact that it's authentic Italian food," said Gonzo Sandoval, an office worker who stopped by on a recent Friday to order a pastrami sandwich. "The food is awesome."

Vera, who was born in a small village near Pompeii, Italy, came to Southern California at the age of 15. After graduating from high school and serving in the Army, he returned to Los Angeles and began selling imported Italian goods. Driving an old truck, he operated a "grocery store on wheels" and traveled between San Diego and Fresno distributing specialty items.

Eventually, Vera decided it was time to open a place of his own. He settled on a small shop near the intersection of Jefferson and Sepulveda boulevards in Culver City. Paying homage to his native homeland, he named the store in honor of the Italian folk song "Come Back to Sorrento."

The huge success of this mom-and-pop store allowed Vera to purchase a large tract of farmland in the San Joaquin Valley for olive production. Using old family recipes, he markets his own line of olive oils, salad dressings and pasta sauces.

Today, the store is still family owned and operated by Vera, his wife, Ursula, and his two sons. Not much has changed since it opened--the family still rings up customers' bills on a punch-key cash register.

"I believe in (keeping) the family atmosphere in the store," said Vera. "I want to keep that personal feeling."

Sorrento's Market, 5518 Sepulveda Blvd., Culver City; (310) 391-7654. Hours are 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday.

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