Groceria Merante brings late-night meatball stand to South Oakland


Thomas J.Yang

Groceria Merante and several other Oakland businesses have altered their hours and store practices due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Thomas Yang)

By Frances Tirado, For The Pitt News

“Local Apple Cider,” “Butternut Squash,” “Squash Ravioli,” “Local Pumpkins,” read the orange- and green-colored signs that cover the storefront of Groceria Merante, a popular Italian deli located in South Oakland. Pumpkins and squash clutter the sidewalk during the day and the smell of meatballs and hot sausage waft from the boulevard to Mad Mex on weekend nights, signaling the start of fall at the local grocery.

While the colorful signs may be visible year-round, the pumpkins and gourds are seasonal — just like Merante’s weekend meatball stand. The stand offers a homemade option for late-night cuisine in Oakland and is a way for the store to connect with one of its biggest consumers — students in Oakland.

On Saturday nights through November, a tent and pop-up table filled with hot and ready-to-eat goodies replace the outdoor produce and floral section of the store. The telltale signs advertise hot apple cider, meatball sandwiches and homemade sausages.

The student population in Oakland has been growing rapidly in the past few years, partially due to Pitt’s recent expansions into the area. A few years ago, some of the employees began to brainstorm new ways to appeal to the multitude of students living in South Oakland — thus, the meatball stand was created. After the meatball stand was put on a hiatus last year for the reopening of Merante Bros. Italian-American Market in Uptown, it’s back to warm up hungry Pitt students traveling to and from parties.

Nick Merante, an employee, said the idea to sell late-night meatballs began two years ago with his older brother Lenny Merante and his cousin Santino Merante.

“They sold out a majority of the time unless it was raining or too cold. I don’t think they did apple cider, though,” Nick Merante said.

Nick Merante explained exactly how the meatball stand caters to the student demographic, such as staying open for longer hours during the Penn State game.

“The first Saturday we started was the Pitt-Penn State game. That was the only time we did it throughout the day and the night. We sold that day probably 400 hot sandwiches. It was pretty crazy,” Nick Merante said.

Lenny Merante echoed the ways that the grocery store — and its fall late-night meatballs, apple cider and other treats — interacts with the student demographic.

“I pretty much recommend anyone of age that they should get our apple cider and mix it with whiskey,” he said. “You can add cinnamon, too.”

Nick Merante added to this by talking about the in-store experience at Groceria Merante — a store of only 900 square feet but more produce per square inch than Walmart, according to his mother.

The grocery offers the basics — milk, eggs, bread, fruit, veggies — as well as fresh-baked Italian bread, homemade deli sandwiches and pasta. Merante also has what Nick Merante calls a “lazy freezer” — a freezer stocked with ready-made food for students and other customers that prefer on-the-go convenience.

However, some students do go there for authentic produce to cook their own meals. Lenny Merante was surprised at the recent shift in student chefs. He also offers his Alfredo recipe, which he says is “better than his mom’s.” He declined to let it into print, however.

“Students cook now, definitely more than before, and I’ve been here since I was 13. I’d say it’s gone from one-third of students to two-thirds of students,” Lenny Merante said.

Nick Merante chimed in and added that the amount of recipes his mother and aunt — the two women that run the store — give out could be responsible for that increase.

Junior Clara Grantier, who studies environmental studies and sociology, reflected on the hospitality of the store and why she has become a regular customer.

“I go there often enough that they feel like neighbors, or like extended Italian family. They are always ready to chat and help you find what you want,” Grantier said.

That atmosphere pervades the late-night meatball stand as well. Last weekend, Italian music played from the stand and students walked by exclaiming their love for Merante between surprisingly well-crafted jokes about sausages. Grantier is also a fan of the relatively new late-night addition.

“I think it’s great that they’re out there — they are friendly faces to say hi to on the way home. Also, I know their food is significantly higher quality than what else you could get in the area late-night,” Grantier said.

While some, preferring the satisfaction of greasy fries over homemade hot sausages, may beg to differ, the meatball stand is more than just a gourmet option for drunk cravings. The deli has been an Oakland staple since the early ‘90s and is part of the sometimes overlooked Pittsburgh tradition of high-quality cuisine.

One of Oakland’s best qualities is its convergence of different communities. From the “then” of authentic Italian residents to the “now” of students, UPMC employees and the like, Groceria Merante has always been welcoming and adapting to all.

Adapting during the school year can mean several things, from anticipating students’ cravings for hot cider or cookies — which have been periodically included on the late-night menu — to anticipating their less virtuous inclinations. Nick Merante explained this on Saturday as a group of about 20 students walked past the stand for the fourth time that night.

Nick Merante is pleased with the fusion of the traditional Italian food the restaurant is known for and the quick, late-night style the busy college kids love.

“It’s actually like the crossover is something we’ve been attempting to figure out — trying to keep the authenticity of Italian food alive, but also having [it] on-the-go because that’s what students want,” he said.

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