Places that Matter

Porto Rico Importing Company

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Jessica Radow
Jessica Radow
Jessica Radow
Village institution offering coffee, spices and specialty foods
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Since 1907 the Porto Rico Importing Company has been a fixture in Greenwich Village, particularly known for its freshly roasted coffee beans. A link to a time when the streets of the Village were lined with mom-and-pop food purveyors, the original Porto Rico continues to be a vital commercial establishment little changed from its early days.

The oldest Porto Rico store (there are now four branches, all within walking distance) has its original stamped-tin ceilings, large bags of coffee beans, and shelves of tea tins behind the counter. It looks enchanting and smells heavenly, but the store's ethic is utilitarian. Little has changed--except the addition of new kinds of tea and coffee--because customers don't need it to. "I get letters from all over saying my store is so authentic--well, it is authentic," says current owner Peter Longo. "This is not a trendy shop, but a nuts and bolts type of place."

Though the coffee imparts the strongest smell at Porto Rico, the store has carried other Italian comfort foods since 1907--loose teas, spices, dried mushrooms, orzata and amerina syrups, olive oil, and digestive aids and medicinal elixirs like Fernet Branca and Ferra Chino. From the start, they also sold pins for rolling homemade pasta and stovetop espresso makers to brew the beans. Copper pots hang from the tin ceiling.

During the early 20th century, Porto Rico was just one of a number of similar stores in Greenwich Village. Its customers generally came from no more than five or six blocks away. If you lived outside of that radius, you would have gone to another dry goods shop for your coffee. The stores weren't particularly competitive with each other: "this area was teeming with people. There were enough to go around," says Peter Longo.

Patsy Albanese founded Porto Rico in 1907 at 195 Bleecker Street, across the street from its oldest location today. He ran the store until 1958, when he turned it over to Peter Longo's father, a baker. The Longos had been baking for generations--Peter's grandparents came to New York from Italy around 1900 and opened the bakery at 201 Bleecker Street, across the street from Porto Rico. Exhausted from the baking life, Mr. Longo agreed to take over Mr. Albanese's store. Later, in 1965, he moved the store into the site of his old bakery, where Peter still operates the business.

Throughout its history, Porto Rico has had a strong link with the cafe culture of the Village. It supplied the fresh beans for the many Italian cafes that served both immigrants homesick for authentic coffee drinks and various generations of bohemians, beats, and hippies who made the Village and its cafes their home. Changing Village residents also helped expand the repertoire of coffees carried by Porto Rico, suggesting beans they'd tried in their travels.

As Porto Rico's business has grown, its customer base has spread well beyond the old five-block radius. Today its beans are roasted in a Williamsburg warehouse instead of the back of the store, but Peter Longo still strives to "remain true to the sensibility of a neighborhood shop, in which the workers and customers are all part of the same extended family."

Sources:

Reilly, Kate. "A Short History of Porto Rico Importing, As Told By Peter E. Longo, Owner." January, 2001.