KREBS — Sam Lovera likes to say the world is shrinking.
This comes from a man who grew up in Krebs, went to college in California and spent summers in Italy only to find all he ever needed had been downstairs since the day he was born. Downstairs from the home Sam grew up in was Lovera's Italian Market, which his father opened in 1946.
The family market specializing in traditional Italian goods continues today in the same sturdy rock building constructed in 1910. The red, white and green awning above the entrance signifies Italian culture, which is at the heart of Lovera's and Krebs, which is near McAlester in eastern Oklahoma.
Long before the era of the foodie, this little coal-mining town set the standard for celebrating food. Its reputation as Oklahoma's Li'l Italy was cast decades ago, and the foundation of that title is built on pasta, cheese and sausage.
Sam, 56, and his son-in-law and chief cheesemaker, Shawn Duffy, 32, are well aware of how the Internet has shrunk the world and aim to welcome it in for something to eat.
Shawn trekked to Raleigh, N.C., for the American Cheese Society's annual national conference in August and brought back silver in the category of Italian-style cheeses. Finishing first and third was national cheese giant BelGioioso's.
But nobody here could've been surprised. Lovera's and the culinary exploits of Krebs have their own chapter in Oklahoma mythos.
Duffy was born in Pennsylvania, but moved to Oklahoma at age 8. Working in restaurants since he was old enough to work and while he worked toward a degree in ecology, Shawn's scientific background is a perfect fit for cheese-making.
“There's so much you can do with cheese,” Shawn said. “Once you learn the process, you start to see the possibilities.”
The award-winning Caciocavera they make is a Caciocavallo-style cheese.
“We can't call it Caciocavallo; it's a ‘D.O.P.' thing,” Sam said.
The D.O.P. — Denominazione d'Origine Protetta — is Protection of Designation of Origin. Just like sparkling wine not grown in the Champagne region of France can't be called champagne, provolone-mozzarella stretched, brined, dried, hung and aged outside of Italy can't be called Caciocavallo.
“We just combined Caciocavalla and Lovera to get Caciocavera.”
And that's the name that was on the cheese that finished second at the ACS conference in the category of Italian-style cheeses.
“It was our first year to compete, so it is the only cheese we brought,” he said. “Next time, we will bring more.”
Duffy is in his fifth year as cheesemonger at Lovera's, and his father-in-law couldn't be happier.
“It's the first time we ever entered anything like that,” Sam said. “The notes we got from the judge were really incredible. One judge wrote it was the most exciting new cheese he'd tasted at the competition.”
Neither Sam nor Shawn started making cheese at Lovera's, that tradition dated back to the beginning. And the beginning of Lovera's came during the post-World War II boom caused by the installation of a federal munitions plant.
A call for coal miners
Italians descended on Pittsburg County and the Choctaw Nation in the mid-1870s and didn't stop until the oil boom caused a mini-depression in coal-rich Krebs more than five decades later.
Battista and Martha Lovera came to Oklahoma in 1907 from the Alpine region of northern Italy, bringing a love for the foods family life centered around.
“A lot of the immigrants came from southern Italy,” Sam Lovera said. “But my family came from the north.”
Battista was killed in a mining explosion in 1930, leaving Martha alone to raise her children who they called Mike and Mary.
As the wife of a miner, she knew joy had to be wedged between sleep and work. And the only time between sleep and work was mealtime. In those days, mealtime might've been the only time a miner laid eyes on his family, so it had to be celebrated with comfort food.
So Martha got into the grocery business.
When Mike Lovera returned from World War II, he learned the grocery business from his mother and then took it over, opening Mike's Meat Market and Grocery in 1946 in a 36-year-old, two-story rock building where he and his wife, Madeline, could work and raise a family together under one roof.
Mike and Madeline built a serious reputation for quality products that, with the fame Krebs built thanks to its strong Italian heritage, continued for four decades.
But when Mike died unexpectedly in 1987, his sons came to the rescue of their mother and the family business which had since become known as Lovera's.
“My brother Mike and I came home to try to keep the thing going,” Sam said. “I had a degree in economics from the University of California, so everything I did was from a business perspective.”
Lovera's today and tomorrow
When Walmart began expanding into Pittsburg County, Sam decided to take the traditions of the market and build them into a brand.
“We'd always made cheese and sausage at the store,” Sam said. “But it was always just enough for the store. It was always really good, so I decided to start a mail-order business.”
Before Sam built additions next to the store to expand sausage and cheese operations, he made the most important decision of all: He kept the family recipes.
“We use fresh garlic in our sausage,” Sam said. “People compromise on ingredients all the time, but then you end up with a product that tastes just like everybody else's.”
With the family recipes in play, Sam built the small sausage and cheese factories in 1994 and soon every independent grocer worth its salt started carrying Lovera's sausage and cheeses.
Sam also added to his inventory.
“A lot of places scrimp on inventory,” Sam said. “But I think you've gotta give people lots to choose from. I save money in different places so I can make sure to offer the best.”
To do that, Sam goes on buying tours of Italy and Sicily pretty much every year. So, when food became the next cool new thing in era of eCommerce, Lovera's was well-positioned to prosper.
But there is no substitute for a trip to Krebs. Swing the front door open, and you'll swear what you see should be in black-and-white — a small Italian grocery store impervious to time. In this town of about 2,000 you can enjoy an espresso as you browse some of the world's finest imported Italian oils, vinegars, pestos, giardinieras, olives, pastas, sweets and coffee. You can sample the cheese and sausage as well as Lovera's private-label dressings, sauces and condiments.
You can take home a jar of Lovera's marinara, which bears Madeline's picture since she's the one who created the recipe.
“I'm in this business 'cause when I grew up, we lived upstairs over the store, and it was just what we did,” Sam said “In a business like this, you've got to have kids willing to carry on the tradition. Shawn, here, will probably be the one.”
Fresh Caciocavera hangs over the back counter where fresh meat and deli reside. You can order a muffuletta or custom sandwich to go. Along with steaks, chops and chicken, Lovera's carries all the Italian standards: pancetta, prosciutto, capicola, salami, bologna and mortadella.
You'll also find a wider selection of Lovera's line of sausages. They have a smoked, ready-to-eat version of the Italian sausage, a brilliant Sicilian sausage and a raw kielbasa I'm waiting to smoke for the holidays. They also have a chorizo I'm anxious to try. Did I mention the house-made goat cheeses? And then there's the selection of meats and cheeses from around the world not made in house.
If heaven is a place drawn from your heart, then meat-and-cheese lovers who say their prayers and do unto others as they'd have done unto them, will doubtlessly find habitation in the hereafter where all the gold-paved roads lead to Lovera's.