BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — It was Theresa Valentino’s 21st birthday when her mother and father opened West Side Package in Bridgeport, and she’ll be 68 when she puts the key in the lock for the final time Saturday.
The Valentino family, which has operated both the package store and neighboring Ernie’s Delicatessen for decades, is finally handing the landmark businesses in the shadow of Interstate 95 over to new owners.
“I’ll be 69 in October. I’m done. I’m tired!” said Valentino, a retired Notre Dame High School teacher who has operated the liquor store since 1997. “It’s been a 20-year course in sociology for me. I got my Ph.D.”
Valentino’s parents, Michael and Florence, took over the shop in 1968, when Metropolitan Body, where Michael worked as a welder, announced a move from Bridgeport to Ohio. He heard about a Fairfield Avenue package store that might be for sale and jumped at the chance to build a family business.
Soon Florence’s younger brother, Ernest, took over the deli, originally called Ernie’s Variety Store. Throughout the years, many members of the extended Valentino family have worked in either spot.
Florence, a sister of former Bridgeport Mayor John Mandanici, was known for her delectable meatballs and sausage and peppers — and for her willingness to help down-on-their-luck customers with everything from a free sandwich to legal advice.
“We had a colorful clientele, but there was always a lot of respect,” said Theresa’s brother, Michael, who closed Ernie’s in January. “She was a mother to many.”
Theresa and Michael, who still live in their family’s North End home, said they have enjoyed working on the corner, in large part because of the friendships forged with neighbors.
Theresa knows her regulars by name and often lapses into Spanish, if she feels it makes the customers feel more welcome. She said she’s never felt afraid, though the neighborhood has had its ups and downs.
“They have my back,” she said of the surrounding neighbors. “I’m perfectly safe.”
“I’ve been coming here since 1972,” said customer Jesus Correa. “They used to cash checks here and there’d be a line out the door. She’s a great lady, but if she don’t like you, she’ll throw you right out. You have to be that way.”
Michael, who has moved on to another job, said the deli will soon morph into Kennedy Fried Chicken, which he thinks the neighborhood will embrace. The package store will get a little facelift and will begin selling soda and lottery tickets, as well as taking credit cards, something the Valentinos never did.
Customer James Dadio said the package store’s closing is the end of an era.
“We’re going to miss Theresa,” he said. “She’s the heart and soul of this place.”
Click here to sign up for Daily Voice's free daily emails and news alerts.