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We Are Family: The Story of Old School Oliva's Market in the Close-Knit Community of Milford, Mass.

Family-run business at Oliva's Market in Milford, Mass.
The Oliva family at Oliva's Market in Milford: Gina Oliva Tarolli, Nicky Oliva, Mary Oliva, Anthony "Babe" Oliva and Carla Tuttle.

Article and photos, unless otherwise noted, by Eric Hurwitz. Article created on 1/26/2018.

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Editor's note: Anthony "Babe" Oliva, 90, owner of Oliva's Market, died on Sept. 8, 2019. Our prayers and support to the Oliva family, as well as the community of Milford who came to know and love Babe. In memory of Babe, we will leave the previously published story below fully intact to illustrate the huge impact he had as a family man, small business owner and beloved figure in Milford. God Bless.

There are supermarkets, and then there are "super" markets, the latter of which best describes Oliva's Market, Catering & Gourmet Gifts in Milford, Mass.

Coming across like a geographically misplaced legendary North End of Boston Italian food destination, Oliva's Market deserves repeated visits as virtually every step of the way in this modest, humbly-run family business reveals something that goes far beyond the categories of take-home foods, deli, market and catering. It's truly a local, small business gem.

Oliva's story is actually quite remarkable and one rarely seen anymore -- that is, an established, old-fashioned local market that clearly exceeds the typical "milk, eggs, bread and newspapers" stores as the accent is on wonderful homemade Italian foods (more on that shortly).

The original market dates back to the early 1900s when Italian immigrant Nicola Oliva started his own business. Many years later, Nicola, unfortunately, became ill and the market closed during World War II. Eventually another local family operated the business for 20 years. That all changed in 1961, however, when Nicola's sons, Anthony (also known as "Babe") and Joe brought back the market to the Oliva family.

Oliva's Market grand opening ad in Milford, Mass.
Oliva's Market grand opening in 1961. Photo source: Oliva's Market web site.

Oliva's has survived the emergence of oversized supermarkets, discount grocery stores, corporately-run "neighborhood" grocery stores, food departments at retail superstores and drug stores, and chain convenience and fast food stops, while weathering the storm through bad economies. Some say that despite some needed expansion, Oliva's pretty much has the same local neighborhood market feeling from 40 or 50 years ago. Oliva's is like the Cal Ripken of neighborhood markets -- that is, dependable by showing up every day for work while producing outstanding results (
Ripken is the Major League Baseball hall of famer who played in 2,632 consecutive games). Additionally, the Oliva's Bari and Calabria Italian roots not only show in the generous, hard-working, close-knit family personalities, but clearly in the magic of homemade food.

A Great Run, Fabulous Food at Oliva's Market

Oliva's Market and Gifts, Milford, Massachusetts

Oliva's Market & Gifts

Babe still owns the store, and, at 90, can be seen working and mingling with the customers. He and wife, Mary, live next door in the same house they resided when John F. Kennedy was inaugurated at the 35th U.S. president in 1961, and, locally,
the first all-star game in Major League Baseball was played 32 miles up the road at Fenway Park in Boston. Babe never bothered getting his driver's license and driving a car, as he found worldliness living in Milford, running his business, and connecting with a close-knit community -- and, of course, the advantage of walking a few steps to work. The working class stories, achieving the American Dream, and love of family resonate stronger than soul searching for something that might never have happened if he took a different direction. Babe's world evolved within the presence of his business, the infinite support of family and friends, and 14.86 square miles that comprise Milford.

Babe Oliva, owner of Oliva's Market in Milford, Mass.
Always ready for work: Babe Oliva, who has owned Oliva's Market since the early 1960s.

Mary, in her 80s, keeps up with Babe quite well, still handling many of the bookkeeping responsibilities! She has a gracious, nurturing personality and helped create, in the 1970s, one of Oliva's signature, locally-famous offerings, the antipasto.

Oliva's offers so many delicious offerings, it's hard to know where to turn first with, for starters, the baked fresh daily Italian bread, hot lunch specials, cold cuts, soups, pasta, pizza slices, calzones, chicken parm, Italian garlic bread stuffed with pepperoni and mozzarella, hand-rolled meatballs, handmade Italian sausages, cheeses, salads and sandwiches served on 12-inch round foccacia bread and baked goods. Take-out items are popular at Oliva's with up to 1,500 sold in a week. The wonderful aromas from homemade foods resemble what you'd experience from an Italian grandmother's kitchen.

Many love the "Babe Oliva Grinder," better known as the B.O.G. -- an Italian sub with salami, mortadella and hot ham. It was a 50 cent sandwich when Oliva's first opened, but still quite a deal at under $5 for a huge portion. Traditionally, the B.O.G has been placed in a basket at the front counter and they tend to go quickly. Babe said this is one of his personal favorites.

"The cold cuts, the Italian -- that's what I would go with," said Babe with certainty.

B.O.G. Italian cold cut sandwich from Oliva's Market in Milford MA.
The B.O.G. Italian cold cuts sandwich from Oliva's. Photo source: Gina Tarolli, Oliva's Market.

So many other culinary masterpieces can be found at Oliva's, The chicken, broccoli and ziti is as good as anything you'll find in the North End or Federal Hill in Providence...

Chicken, broccoli and penne from Oliva's Market in Milford, Massachusetts.
Chicken, broccoli and ziti from Oliva's.

The porketta -- pork seasoned with salt, pepper, and cloves of garlic -- is roasted for three hours and absolutely mouthwatering. The tender pork enhanced with pork fat and seasoning, as well as fennel grown in in Babe and Mary's garden, makes this a top choice when visiting Oliva's...

Preparing porketta at Oliva's Market in Milford, Mass.
Carla Tuttle prepares a porketta.

The baked goods also look and taste every bit as good as what you'd find at the best Italian city eateries and include pies, cannoli, cakes, turnovers, biscotti, cupcakes and seasonal specialties.

Chocolate cannoli cake from Oliva's Market in Milford, Massachusetts
Chocolate cannoli cake.

Whoopie pies from Oliva's Market in Milford, Mass.
Whoopie pies. Photo source: Oliva's web site.

And, of course, there's no shortage of options at the grab-and-go take out section...

Take out section at Oliva's Market in Milford, Mass.
Take-out section at Oliva's Market.

A Day in the Life at Oliva's Market
It's 3 p.m. on a weekday, and many customers arrive at Oliva's whether buying take home meals or ordering something delicious and substantial at the deli. Some linger at this retro oasis, chatting with staff that they also know as friends. Babe sits in a chair with baseball cap and apron on, pencil behind the ear and a big smile on his face. It's almost as if he was taking a moment to enjoy his business creation that has lasted the generations, as well as taking in the diner-like conversations that fill the bustling environs. But in his true high work ethic DNA, Babe leaves the seat to help run the store.

The Oliva family working at Oliva's Market in Milford, Mass.
Chatting with friends at Oliva's.

In addition to having the world's shortest commute, Babe and Mary employ some truly special people: three children, Nicky, Gina Oliva Tarolli and Carla Tuttle, who all still reside within a mile of their working place. Six grandchildren work at Oliva's while continuing their education, while myriad relatives have worked at the store at one time or another. The Olivas enjoy Sunday meals together, vacation at Cape Cod and show a genuine family bond that many thought, societally, went away along with the neighborhood supermarket.

"We are a tight family," said Gina. "If we don't talk every day, it's like 'Where are you?'"

Nicky, Gina and Carla work with their dad just like they did as children growing up next door, although now with far more expertise and responsibilities. That work ethic that Babe and Mary instilled never left the kids. Nicky possesses long-standing food experience, having attended culinary school and working for Boston Corporate Food Service. You can always go home, however, and Nick did just that by returning to work at Oliva's and managing the catering department since 1983.  The catering business provided post game meals to the Boston Red Sox for more than 20 years, their opponents and the umpires. They also crafted meals for the 1999 MLB all-star game held at Fenway Park.

For the Olivas, however, the every day real all-stars are family, work and community.

"It's nice to go to work and spend time with your parents at the same time," said Nicky. "My mom and dad instilled work ethic into us when we were young.  You come to work every day and do an honest day's work... I love coming to work every day."

Gina -- who has an art background -- works hard at the market and deli, but also operates the adjoining Gift Shop, which opened in 1999. The Gift Shop has evolved into a fabulous mix of home decor, seasonal merchandise, and custom-made gift baskets.

The gift shop at Oliva's Market in Milford, Mass.
Gift shop at Oliva's Market.

A cancer survivor, Gina leads the Oliva Fund for Cancer Care supporting expenses "related to the comfort and care to cancer patients" being treated at Milford Regional Medical Center or the Cancer Center at Milford Regional. An annual WMRC AM/My FM 101.3 Milford Radiothon has helped the Oliva Fund for Cancer  Care raise around 600K the past several years.

"I've been good for 11 years now, knock on wood," said Gina. "We have raised a lot of money for those in need and I am glad it has helped in the community."

Carla, the youngest daughter who works full-time as the Director of Food Services for the Milford Public Schools, takes on responsibilities at Oliva's with gourmet catering and working all aspects on the front and back of the store on weekends and, whenever possible, later into the days on weekdays.

"We do things the right way," said Carla, wearing a Milford High School Food Services jacket. "The recipes have been handed down through the generations. We hand roll our own meatballs. We cut our own meats and have our own vegetables. We take no shortcuts."

The future looks bright for Oliva's as the robust business continues while a relevant expansion will bring a better layout and enhanced food services space to create more rotisserie chicken and porketta. It's yet another small business success chapter in Oliva's local landmark history, and the Olivas wouldn't have it any other way.

"We love our community," said Gina. "Generation after generation, people have come shopping here and we are still going strong."

Oliva's Market, Catering & Gourmet Gifts is located at 83-85 East Main Street in Milford, MA. Tel. 508-473-7920. Web site: Facebook fan page:

Stay at a classic New England inn just 30 minutes from Oliva's Market in Milford: Concord's Colonial Inn in Concord, Massachusetts
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Oliva's in Milford, Mass., is a local treasure serving homemade Italian foods and desserts in a delightful old school setting.

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