The whole idea is ambitious and indicative of heart, but when Al Fini opened his It’s Italian market & cafe last year in east Austin his desire was for his customers to taste all of Italy when they stepped into his shop. Hallmarks of Italy you’ll find are Florentine style sandwiches like those from street markets in Tuscany, imported Italian coffees, specialty foods and cheeses, craft beers, and even hand-selected wine served and even bottled on the premises.
An entire wall of the market is covered in a large, curated collection of over 250 labels of hand-picked sparking, white and red wines from across Italy and Sicily. Everyone who walks in is greeted with café offerings such as draft beer on tap from Rome, a popular Italian espresso from Venice that makes up authentic coffee drinks, but it’s the sandwiches that really put the market experience over the top—authentic, intentionally-crafted Tuscan style panino Italiano.
“The whole idea of the menu is unique in that it’s something no one has done [in Austin]. Our panino is made in Italy by Italians, and we simply put it together,” Al explained, of his Antica style sandwiches that cities like Florence are known for. “You slice the tomatoes fresh, you slice your cheese fresh and don’t sacrifice the quality by pre-slicing. The handcrafting of the sandwich elements is very sensual, true to the Tuscan style of making panino.”
Like the panino makers of Florence which inspired Al when he opened his shop, a lot of time is taken to prepare each sandwich with precision—Florentine style panino is always sliced fresh, its ingredients layered methodically and hand-delivered with a sense of pride by its creator. At the cafe customers get cheese, vegetables and a spread of choice inside of fresh ciabatta in any of 7 sandwiches offered, using traditional Italian recipes and ingredients you won’t find at a regular shop, Al shared.
Panino sandwiches at It’s Italian include Prosciutto, Formaggi (3 Cheese), Salami, Caponata (Sicilian eggplant stew), choice Coppa, Tutti Carni (made with Prosciutto, Coppa, and Salami), and Bresaola, an Italian specialty air dried beef. Each sandwich is topped with real Italian extra virgin olive oil, red wine vinegar, Sicilian herbs, and freshly ground sea salt.
Everything used in the market’s panino sandwiches can be found sold at the market. “We source the vegetables locally, but the prosciutto, for example, is sliced and packed in Parma, Italy where all prosciutto in Italy comes from, and we use a spicy calabresa [hot cherry pepper and oil] spread which is also imported and on the shelf. It’s quite amazing that people walk in and say ‘Oh wow, I haven’t seen this product anywhere.’”
On the menu at the market, customers can also find all kinds of appetizers and traditional Italian market salads served with fresh Italian bread, as well as aperitif and cocktails, wine by the glass, and authentic Italian coffee drinks like cappuccino and espresso. “It’s heaven to me. On the shelves, customers turn around and they find products from Sicily, and from every region of Italy. It’s very inviting and warm, not a huge place.”
In addition to a large selection of popular Italian coffees like Illy and Lavazza, on the shelves of the shop you’ll find a great selection of hand-picked Italian imports like olives, mushrooms, various cheeses and meats, pastas, soups, spices, as well as tomato, sauces and condiments, all essential ingredients to incorporating Italian cuisine at home as they are part of everyday life across Italy and Sicily.
Italian hospitality, whether it’s in Italy or Austin he says is about una passione grande—a great passion for food, wine, cooking, and coffee even at home. To Al, raised in Piedmont, a region in northwestern Italy bordering the Alps and known for its wine, food isn’t just a necessity but an art that wine beautifully complements, like it was for his family.
After growing up on a family farm and winery in Italy Al came to Austin in 1979, put himself through school and developed an acumen for the American way of business. After working in restaurants and opening his own (among them Austin’s former Café Roma and Uno 360 Trattoria before selling it in 2015), his Italian market and café is another labor of love.
“You’ll find just a few tables so you always feel welcome, like in Italy not just another store,” Al tells us of his hope for customers. “Everyone is valued, we take customer service to heart more than anything else. The staff, they call people by their first names, they know them and they’re always going to be a part of the family.”
It’s Italian hosts a free wine tasting every Friday at 6 pm. To learn more about the market visit its website.