On the corner of 13th Avenue and 79th street, a pair of automatic sliding doors will transport you to Italy.
When the glass doors of La Bella Market open, Dyker Heights residents and visitors are greeted by dozens of cheeses, fresh pasta, deli meats and waves from employees.
The enormous market with a spotlight on Italian cuisine isn’t just an italian-focused market, but a hub in the community that Fran Vella-Marrone, president of the Dyker Heights Civic Association, calls its “town square.”
“I call it the town square because you’ll meet everybody in the neighborhood shopping in there, and you’ll chit-chat about the community, what’s going on in their lives, how their children are doing,” said Vella-Marrone.
The Italian supermarket has been family-owned for over 40 years and been operating on the corner since the ‘90s. According to store manager Nick Pesce, over 10,000 customers visit the store a week, mostly from the 11228 zip code.
Gerri Kraemer, a resident of Dyker Heights, says she has been coming to La Bella Marketplace every other week for more than 30 years.
“They have everything. If you find some obscure item on a recipe, and you say ‘what in God’s name is this?’ it’s here,” said Kraemer, adding that, aside from the stock, she comes for the employees and the friendliness.
According to Pesce, a connection to customers has always been a focus for the store’s owners and employees. It’s friendliness, he says, that brings people back.
“We know many customers by name,” said Pesce. “You know, ‘good morning, good afternoon, how are you, how’s it going?’ [Inquiring about] certain problems they may have, certain things that are going on — that personal connection, it makes them feel very comfortable.”
The family focus isn’t individual to the supermarket, but is a theme throughout the shopping hub on 13th Avenue in Dyker Heights. Small florists, traditional pork stores, local pharmacies and other mom-and-pop shops dominate the street, and many say that is because of the residents.
“That’s something that you get because people are connected,” said Vella-Marrone, stressing that it’s not just the convenience that draws her to 13th Avenue. “When I go into all of these stores, I know the owners. I know the people that are working there because I see them all the time, and they greet you like your old friends.
“It’s a community filled with people that are community sensitive,” Vella-Marrone went on, adding that Dyker Heights residents can get everything they need on 13th Avenue, from groceries to dry cleaning to prescriptions at the local pharmacy, all within steps of each other and while engaging with neighbors. “Everyone feels like we are in a small community, a small neighborhood, you know, a little town so to speak, and you get that kind of feeling … I can walk down 13th Avenue and I’ll see a number of people that I know, and I’ll say ‘hello.’”
Pesce says it’s this sense of community that keeps the 13th Avenue local businesses alive.
“The residents have a strong feeling, a strong attachment to this avenue and they want to make sure the stores don’t go. So they prefer to come here even though the convenience isn’t as easy as the big box stores or the big corporations,” said Pesce. “Everybody knows each other. Everybody cares for each other. It’s a very tight knit community… It’s one of the few last remaining neighborhoods where I can walk up and down random blocks and people still say ‘hello.’”