Mama’s Boy

Regina's Grocery
Photography by Sasha Frumin. Image courtesy of Regina’s Grocery.

Roman Grandinetti opened the first Regina’s Grocery off of what’s now known as Dimes Square in New York City’s Lower East Side in 2017. The Brooklyn native had previously ran a branding agency, but unlike those client-driven endeavors, his old-school, Italian deli-style eatery has become a true personal project, expanding to three across the city with familiar care. Amongst the plethora of childhood memorabilia that dot each sandwich counters’ walls, the mission celebrates the owner’s lifelong heroes, including Michael Jordan and his own mom, whom Regina’s Grocery is named after.

Rachel Summer Small: Tell me about the origins of Regina’s Grocery.

Roman Grandinetti: I started it five-and-a-half years ago. I’m from Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. I grew up going to delis, where I got sandwiches and meat from my butcher. He looked like Jack Nicholson, and was always smoking cigarettes. Thinking about it now, it probably wasn’t the best thing in the world. He’d make me a sandwich without ever taking the cigarette out of his mouth. I would get chopped meat or chicken cutlets for my mom, and then dart home. Going to high school in the city opened up my eyes to all these little Italian specialty shops that offered things like meat and cheese. There was a mozzarella shop, Joe’s Dairy on Sullivan Street, that I really fell in love with in particular. It was in the movie The Pope of Greenwich Village. As I got older, I started a fashion and music marketing agency. Eventually I realized, Hey, if I do this stuff for brands, maybe I could do it for myself. I found our first location at 27 Orchard Street. I designed, built, and laid every piece of tile. Then I put up every piece of wood. It was my whole childhood wrapped in one. 

Regina's Grocery
Image courtesy of Regina’s Grocery.

RSS: The whole business is named after your mom, Regina?

RG: My mother is definitely the heart and soul of Regina’s—she is Regina. She’s the mom of a neighborhood. Growing up, she protected me and all of my friends from the worst things in the world, and pushed us toward the best things. People ask me, “How does it feel to work with your mother?” I tell them she’s one of my friends. I actually call my mom Regina, which she always thought was hilarious. She was obviously my mom, but she’s always been my friend, too. I’ve always been able to go to her and be like, “Hey, I did something really, really stupid, and I’m probably gonna get in a lot of trouble.” She’d be like, “Okay, sit down and shut up. We’re gonna figure it out.” When my friends caught wind, they started to do the same. She’s been all of our moms. 

RSS: As you expanded from the Lower East Side to Little Italy and now the Upper East Side what do you keep across all the locations? 

RG: Every store has an original box of Wheaties cereal with Michael Jordan on the front of it. I’m a huge Jordan fan, so they all have vintage Jordans. The original Jordans are actually in the first location. I grew up boxing, so each place has boxing gloves, too. I have a dying love for Rocky. Each location also has its own little nuances. Back in the day, my grandfather ran different social clubs that all had 360-degree wood paneling. Those inspired the interior wood-paneling in every Regina’s. Our ceilings come from Joe’s Dairy—flat white and with high-gloss black molding. Design-wise, [the combination] truly doesn’t make sense, but it’s something that I’ve held on to since. I’ve rebuilt every ceiling we find, so that every Regina’s has it. Our tile floor being black and white also ties into how my mother and father only wear black. He’s an artist and when she was younger she was a makeup artist. They were huge disco heads, and spent a lot of time at Studio 54. A lot of these other Italian delis are bright red and green, but we are black and gold because that’s who we are. There’s no rulebook, it’s just us.

RSS:  And your sandwiches are named after members of your family?

RG: They are named all real people, and they’re built after all of their characteristics. My uncle John was larger than life. He had everything in the world, and was very polished, like a real-life modern Martin Scorsese character. Then there’s my uncle Jimmy, who was equally as big and powerful. He had insane tattoos, and was known to be a firecracker. Both of their sandwiches are classic Italians, but because Uncle Jimmy was spicy, we added Calabrian chili to his. Then there is my grandma Lucy who hated cooking. She’d make tuna fish, but would break the rules by putting cheese on it. There was never any mayo in her house—it had too many calories—but she liked tuna, so it was an easy fix. She bleached her hair, and was almost six feet tall. She looked like a movie star, so we gave her one of the best of the Italian breads, stirato. It’s comparable to a French baguette with a little bit of a sourdough flare. My uncle Phil was a super, classic, basic, Italian dude. So his is prosciutto and mozzarella. His son is a simple ham and cheese sandwich, because growing up he literally didn’t eat anything besides pizza, bagels, plain pasta, and ham and cheese. My father was vegetarian for like three months, so we made fun of him by giving him a vegetarian sandwich [the Ricky]. My mom doesn’t have a sandwich, we gave her the store. 

RSS: And what about the Roman, which is made with smoked chicken and mozzarella? 

RG: I loved chicken cutlets when I was a kid, and I still do. I found this crazy cold cut from a really cool organic farm in Connecticut that I fell in love with immediately. So I took a really simple thing, and added everything that I could to it that felt right.

Rachel Summer Small is Family Style’s Culture Editor and a writer and critic based in New York.