Several years ago, when my wife and I had dinner with some of our friends, we discussed one of the hypothetical situations: would you want to know that you are about to eat the best meal in your life, with the catch that no other meal would ever rise to that level. That question came to mind for me recently as I realized that the last days of Russo’s market were approaching.
Tucked away on one end of town, I used to think of the store as one of those hidden gems that make Watertown so special. I figured people in town knew about the great things you could find at Russo’s, as well as people living close by, but seeing how much attention Russo’s closing got from the Boston media shows that word had spread about the wonderful place on Pleasant Street.
I can still remember the first time I went into Russo’s. I don’t even remember how I learned about it. It might have just been seeing all the cars turning into the parking lot. My initial venture was a bit confusing and intimidating, with shoppers buzzing around the narrow aisles, and shelves of tantalizing produce stretching from one end of the store to the other. I grabbed a few things and waited in line to pay, but I certainly didn’t get the full Russo’s experience.
It took me a while before I returned to the store, but after that I quickly became a regular. I learned which aisle to go down to find various fruits and veggies, explored the deli and baked goods, and slowly figured out that I should also make sure to cast a glance downward to the knee-level shelves stocked with goodies from around the world. For me that was what put Russo’s over the top as a food market.
As someone who likes to cook and eat cuisines from around the world, there were few times when I couldn’t get what I needed from Russo’s. Anchovies for an Italian seafood pasta, a sauce for a Chinese dish, hot sauce to go with tacos — they could all be found on those shelves.
A trip to Russo’s could be an adventure, especially in the evening, or right before a big holiday. When I started to work from home I had the luxury of being able to go during the daytime when fewer carriages clogged the aisles. With time to dawdle and take a close look at all the shelved items, and the amazing array of dried fruits and nuts above the apples I discovered many tasty treats.
Each week I seemed to find something new. I was never sure if it was something I had missed before, or if Russo’s had found something new for its devoted customers.
Russo’s, of course, was much more than a food market. We planted shrubs and small trees in our yard that we found at Russo’s. The front steps have flowers sitting on them that we purchased there, and it was always the place to get pumpkins and Christmas trees and wreaths.
Last Wednesday, I made my last trip to Russo’s. The produce bins remained well stocked, but stocks on the shelves below had dwindled. That sight brought a pang of sadness that the store was truly closing. Over the 10 years I have covered Watertown I had heard rumors periodically that Russo’s was closing, including once in 2016 that had made the rounds on social media that prompted me to talk to owner Tony Russo, who said at that point he had no plans to close. But after 100 years in the Russo family, in 2021, Tony decided it was time to retire and sell the property.
When talk again surfaced that store was going to close, I hoped it would just be another rumor.
I have started having minor panics trying to figure out how to find some of my favorite Russo’s items. Where will I get the fancy North Country bacon we can’t live without, who else carries Iggy’s bread, and does any other store sell the Tommy Maloney’s Irish sausages that got the seal of approval from some of our British friends when we served it to them?
Some items will be available at other stores nearby, and I’m sure I can find replacement items of equal or close quality. However, it will require more stops during my food shopping trips, and likely will cost more. And I don’t think it will be possible to find the quality produce at good prices, certainly not with so much variety.
At one time I considered trying to do a project where I spent a month only shopping in Watertown. I thought it would be possible with the stores in Watertown Square, East Watertown, the Malls. The food shopping, I figured, was the easy part. Now, without Russo’s it would be much harder.
When Russo’s closed for good on Sept. 18, it was the end of an era. Like so many who frequented the store, I am left with a hole that will not likely ever be filled completely. People have talked about trying to recreate Russo’s, an admirable effort which I would welcome. However, even if it had the same offerings it would never be quite the same.
Considering the hypothetical about Russo’s: would I want to know that I have experienced the best market even if it went away and I could never shop there again? That’s an easy question to answer — Yes, definitely.