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Italian grocer's a local celeb, and at Fenway, too

MILFORD -- It's tough to interview Nick Oliva. Dressed in checkered chef's pants, a white shirt and an apron from chin to knees, he's in constant motion.

Bustling from the kitchen to the deli, he oversees his busy employees during the lunch rush and never stops working the crowd at Oliva's Market on East Main Street in Milford.

If you sit on the wall out in front of the store with him, the conversation is interrupted just as frequently by people passing by, honking their car horns and yelling greetings.

He's a celebrity in Milford's long-established Italian neighborhood, the Plain.

His father opened the grocery store and deli 45 years ago, when Nick was about a year old. Many long time customers have known the family all their lives.

Those are the folks who take a visitor aside to whisper confidentially that the food is not only good, but this little place feeds the Boston Red Sox clubhouse at Fenway Park.

The contract with the Red Sox is not something Oliva wants to linger on in conversation. It's not something the family makes a big deal about.

He'll grudgingly tell you that, yeah, they've had the contract to feed the Sox and visiting teams since 1988 and, yeah, it's a lot of work, preparing take out for the regular customers, filling catering orders, and sending two truckloads of food, including lasagna, chicken , and seafood entrees, into Boston on game days at Fenway Park.

What do the Red Sox eat? Do they like the food?

Oliva's reticent. ``Sometimes they kid me and say, `Meat loaf again?' " he said. And he doesn't take it personally if they don't feel like eating everything he's sent.

``If the home team loses, the last thing they want to do is hang around and get beat up by the press," he said.

That's where the conversation ended, because long time customer and neighbor, Reno DeLuzio, 66, pulled up to the curb. He sat in the car with his grandson while his daughter, Crista, picked up an antipasto platter.

``This is an institution, this place. It's a rare breed these days," said DeLuzio, noting that Crista worked for Oliva's in high school. Now a college professor in Texas, she insisted on having an Oliva's antipasto for her birthday dinner that night, he said.

Residents such as DeLuzio have watched the old neighborhood change: W here other family markets once dotted the area , there are now auto maintenance businesses, a tattoo parlor, and a tile store. The demise of old Milford has only heightened the market's importance, and many people return to it as a touchstone.

Oliva's father, Babe, 77, looked into the distance as he talked about the eight or so other family markets that closed their doors when big supermarkets started to build nearby.

Babe's father, Anthony, opened a market in the building with Babe's uncle in 1939. But the uncle left to fight in World War II, and his father took ill. The market eventually closed. Babe revived it in 1961 and has lived next door ever since. Nick lives just down the street.

The Olivas expanded the market in the 1980s, allowing them to take advantage of a growing number of busy families looking for ready-to-eat meals.

``Nobody wants to even make salad anymore," Babe said. ``They want it catered."

``We must have done something right," he said.

His take on the Red Sox contract? He nods, but says as little as his son.

``Maybe we feed them too good," he joked when asked about the team's poor record in recent weeks.

Next to the deli and dry goods convenience store, where you can still get old-fashioned Italian specialties such as tripe, porketta, and escarole and meatball soup, Nick has a caterer's kitchen staffed by a team of cooks and a baker, who work up to 18 hours a day.

Most of the time, he's there alongside them, peeling potatoes or checking trays in the oven. He attended culinary school and worked for a Boston corporate food service for a while, but gravitated back here.

``I decided, if I'm going to work this hard I should do it for myself," he said. Family recipes from the Olivas and his mother's side of the family, the Dalfonsos , are used regularly, including for chicken pastina soup and blending pork with beef for meatballs that are made every day.

Even without the Fenway contract, the store sells nearly 400 pounds of homemade sausage during busy weeks, and prepares more than 1,000 trays of food on Christmas Eve, the busiest time of year. Saturdays regularly see 150 grinders go out the door.

Mary Oliva, Babe's wife and Nick's mother, works on weekends with her daughters Gina and Carla, and local teens. She takes credit for making the first antipasto 30 years ago.

During a recent visit, a handwritten list of 16 ingredients was taped to the wall.

While she layered slices of ham, salami, and other deli meats on lettuce, Mary talked about customers in Tennessee and other far - off places who insist on grinders sent via overnight mail when homesickness hits or for a special occasion.

When business here really took off, a friend told Mary Oliva she'd be able to buy a new house, she said.

``I don't want a brand-new house. If my husband needs me in a hurry, I can come right over. Here, my kids would come down to see their dad, and they'd go out and play football," she said.

And here, her grandchildren can tumble in the back door to visit their parents and grandparents at work.

Hungry customers streamed into the market for the lunch rush. Many were laborers in jeans and baseball caps, who make a pile of 1-pound B.O.G. s (Babe Oliva Grinders), wrapped in white butcher paper, quickly disappear.

Dorothy Wolferseder said she drives up from Cape Cod once a week to stock up on bread and more than 5 pounds of sausage . ``I'm Italian, so I know good Italian food," said the Leominster native. ``I'm very selective. I'm spoiled."

When the Tessicinis of Framingham stopped in, Nick Oliva had to ask about other members of the family: where they work now, how they are doing.

``My father used to bring me here; we'd come out from Framingham," said Peter Tessicini. ``It was a once-a-week stop, you had to come here."

Tessicini's wife, Roberta, grew up in Milford and remembers buying a big sandwich here with friends on Saturdays before biking the several miles to Hopkinton State Park. ``It would feed us all day," she said.

The job agrees with Nick Oliva, who said he enjoys working with his father at a local landmark.

``How many people can say they work with their father every day? We enjoy what we do," he said.

Alison O'Leary Murray may be reached at amurray@globe.com.

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